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Russia's Ekho Moskvy Under Mounting Pressure

"Death to Spies" -- Nationalist protesters demanding Ekho Moskvy's closure on September 16

Compared to the many press and media outlets created in the wake of the Soviet collapse, Ekho Moskvy has enjoyed a relatively long life. The radio station, which broadcasts a mixture of news, commentary, and public call-in shows, first went on the air in 1990.

Since then, it has made and maintained a reputation as one of the most respected news outlets in a country where impartial information has become an increasingly rare commodity. (Russia's ranking in global press-freedom surveys has steadily declined in recent years; Freedom House's 2008 report ranks it on par with Kazakhstan, Sudan, and Yemen.)

But Ekho Moskvy's coverage of the recent war in Georgia has brought it unwelcome attention from both the Kremlin and the public. In August, the station -- which employs a wide spectrum of political commentators and relied on reporters in the field, rather than state media reports, for much of its Georgia coverage -- was criticized directly by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

During an August gathering in Sochi of some 30 the country's top media professionals, Putin singled out Ekho Moskvy's chief editor, Aleksei Venediktov, berating him for a series of alleged errors in the station's reporting on the war. "You have to answer for this, Aleksei Alekseyevich!" Putin is quoted as saying in a lengthy profile of Venediktov and Ekho Moskvy in the September 22 profile of "The New Yorker" magazine.

"This conversation" -- between Putin and the media employees -- "proves that it's enough for Vladimir Putin to move his little finger to have a radio station shut down," says Matvei Ganapolsky, the host of a Ekho Moskvy program, who tells RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that the war had acted as a "kind of catalyst" in the Kremlin's relationship with unruly members of the press.

'Serious Warning'

Ekho Moskvy's troubles haven't stopped there. On September 16, members of two nationalist groups, the Eurasian Youth Union and the Union of Orthodox Standard-Bearers, staged a demonstration in Moscow accusing Ekho Moskvy of threatening national interests by hosting Georgian officials on the air.

The motley gathering of young nationalists and bearded Orthodox faithful began the protest with a prayer before accusing the station of inciting racial hatred and insulting the honor of Russian federal troops. They called for Ekho Moskvy to be closed and for Venediktov to be jailed.

Such protests -- which typically feature no more than 50 people and appear to stir little public sentiment -- are nonetheless becoming a frequent feature of grassroots political life in Russia.

The Eurasian Youth Union, whose followers support calls for the creation of a new empire centered around Russia, recently staged protests outside the Georgian Embassy in Moscow. The group, which is seen as having the tacit support of the Kremlin, has also been banned in Ukraine following a series of cyberattacks on government websites and incidents of vandalism targeting Ukrainian national monuments.

Ekho Moskvy did not cover the September 16 protest, and neither Venediktov nor his deputy, Sergei Buntman, could be reached for an interview. But Venediktov has made no secret of his difficulties at the hands of the regime. And Oleg Panfilov, who directs the Center for Journalists in Extreme Situations, says Putin’s scolding in August has already had a chilling effect on the station's coverage.

"I think it's a very serious warning, and I see that the station has already sharply altered its news policy. At least, I feel this as far as I'm concerned," says Panfilov. "I was in Georgia in August, and they would call me several times a day in Tbilisi for commentary; I would talk about what was going on in Georgia." But after the meeting with Putin, the phone calls abruptly stopped; Panfilov says he hasn't received a single call from the station since.

For The Sake Of Appearance

Venediktov, who has admitted in press reports that Ekho Moskvy's situation is "complicated" by Kremlin pressure, has reportedly barred at least one commentator from the air since his meeting with Putin. Such changes notwithstanding, Ekho Moskvy continues to operate much as before. Despite being partially owned by the state gas giant Gazprom, the station -- like the "Novaya gazeta" newspaper, as well as the vast, as-yet uncontrolled Internet arena -- forms the last bastion of independent information in Russia.

Such outlets, as a whole, are estimated to reach just 5-6 percent of the population in Russia, with the vast majority of people receiving information via state-controlled newspapers, radio, or television -- the Kremlin's sleek and almost entirely pliant medium of choice.

"Here in Moscow, there are so-called federal radio stations that are part of the state propaganda apparatus," says Ekho Moskvy program host Ganapolsky. "They are just like us, the only difference is that they lie. In the case of the Georgian events, the listener hears only the point of view of Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov or, for example, President [Dmitry] Medvedev, and nobody knows what the Georgian side, NATO leadership, or European Union leaders think in this regard."

Relatively few Russians turn to Ekho Moskvy for its plurality of views -- and that, in the end, may prove to be its saving grace. Panfilov says news outlets like Ekho Moskvy may be permitted to continue functioning as long as their influence remains small and their clean reputations are useful for the Kremlin.

"These alternative sources of information can't influence the population and public opinion," he says. "Then there's also the fact that Putin -- and now Medvedev -- is always able to say that Russia has freedom of speech because there are things like Ekho Moskvy, and even a couple of newspapers. After all, the people from the Kremlin are buying villas and apartments in Europe, and they want to be able to use them, so they have to preserve their ties with the West."

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