The chief editor of Russia's leading liberal radio station, Ekho Moskvy, says a surprise management reshuffle is aimed at dictating the station's coverage ahead of presidential elections on March 4.
Aleksei Venediktov said on February 14 the move by controlling shareholder Gazprom-Media to dissolve the board of directors was meant to "take control" of coverage of the election, which is taking place in an atmosphere of rising antigovernment sentiment.
In comments on Twitter, Venediktov ironically described the reshuffle as a "valentine" from Gazprom-Media, the powerful media arm of state-controlled energy giant Gazprom.
The move comes a month after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is seeking to retake the presidency next month, used strong language to accuse Ekho Moskvy and Venediktov of excessive criticism.
"I don't get offended when you pour diarrhea over me day and night," Putin said, "but you take offense at me -- I just say two words and you're already offended."
WATCH: Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev spoke to RFE/RL's Russian Service about the changes at Ekho Moskvy
The reshuffle prompted speculation that the changes were in response to Putin's critique, which came during a meeting with members of the media.
Matvei Ganapolsky, a commentator with Ekho Moskvy, told Dozhd TV that he believed the move was meant as a gesture of loyalty by Gazprom-Media.
"Of course, I doubt that Vladimir Putin gave an order to do something about Ekho Moskvy," Ganapolsky said.
"But don't forget that Gazprom-Media is a state organization, so they feel they need to make some 'body movements' -- I'm quoting Venediktov here -- to show that, because [Putin] has criticized Ekho Moskvy, now they're helping him criticize it."
Will Station Come Under Pressure?
The dissolution of the Ekho Moskvy board removes two independent directors, in addition to four representatives from Gazprom-Media and three from Ekho Moskvy.
One of the independent members, economist Yevgeny Yasin, told RFE/RL's Russian Service the move showed the Kremlin "is afraid of independent mass media and is now taking measures to remove any problems it may face."
A new board is set to be voted on in late March. Officials from the station have said that the board will continue to include two independent directors, but that no journalists would remain on the board.
Venediktov, who has resigned from the board, said the move would not affect the station's editorial policy or his standing as editor in chief.
Yury Fedutinov, the director-general of Ekho Moskvy, said the station's journalists had never been subject to pressure from the board or Gazprom-Media to change their coverage.
"And when I say no influence, I really mean none," Fedutinov added.
Gazprom-Media, the largest media holding group in Russia, holds a 66 percent stake in Ekho Moskvy. The station's journalists hold 34 percent.
Russian billionaire and opposition presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov said on February 14 he was prepared to buy out Gazprom-Media's stake in order to preserve the station's editorial independence.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said he was "ashamed" and "shocked" by the developments at Ekho Moskvy, one of the few outlets of outspoken political coverage in Russia.
"To act that way with an independent, democratic radio station -- a station that is loved and appreciated, that people listen to and whose material they read on the Internet -- such arrogance!" Gorbachev said. "It's a slap in the face of public opinion."
With agency reports