The doggedly independent Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy is facing an existential crisis this week, with its editorial leadership and its operations due to be scrutinized in a snap shareholders meeting on November 21 called by state-owned Gazprom-Media, which holds a controlling stake in the station.
The meeting comes amid controversy over a recent tweet by a veteran Ekho Moskvy host about the death of the son of Kremlin's chief of staff Sergei Ivanov and the station’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis, which earned it a warning from the Russian government's press watchdog.
It is not the first time that Ekho Moskvy has faced pressure from the authorities. In fact, the station has repeatedly run afoul of officials dating back to the twilight of the Soviet Union, though it has consistently survived and continued to deliver reporting and commentary critical of the Kremlin.
Here’s a look at four examples of the radio station’s run-ins with powerful officials in Moscow.
The Vilnius Crisis
In January 1991, protesters defending the Lithuanian government’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union clashed with troops sent by Moscow to quell the demonstration in the Baltic nation’s capital, Vilnius, leaving 14 unarmed activists dead.
Soviet authorities moved quickly to clamp down on independent and critical journalists finding their voice under liberalized press laws introduced the previous years. But Ekho Moskvy, launched the previous August by radio veterans sick of Soviet propaganda, located two freelance journalists to phone in live reports from the street and from inside the Lithuanian parliament.
The radio station also called for a demonstration to support Lithuania and demanded resignations from top officials, describing the Vilnius violence as a “party-military coup,” according to an account that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s foreign policy adviser, Anatoly Chernyayev, wrote in his diary.
Gorbachev responded angrily to the heated press criticism, proposing to suspend the new media law and placing control of “all radio and television channels and all newspapers” under the Supreme Soviet’s control.
He shelved the proposal amid pressure from lawmakers, allowing Ekho Moskvy and other faces of Russia’s nascent independent media to continue free of state control. In its official history, Ekho Moskvy calls its coverage of the Vilnius events the radio station’s “informational baptism.”
The Hard-Line Putsch
When a group of senior Soviet hard-liners attempted to seize power from Gorbachev and roll back his reforms on August 19, 1991, they placed the Soviet leader under house arrest at his vacation home in Crimea and dispatched tanks into the streets of Moscow.
That same day, they also sought to strangle Ekho Moskvy. Security agents stormed its studio and demanded that broadcasting be halted. When the journalists refused, the agents disabled the station’s transmitter.
A cat-and-mouse game ensued over the course of the three-day coup attempt, with agents cutting off Ekho Moskvy’s broadcasts several times and the journalists responding by finding ways to get back on the air.
Aleksei Venediktov, the editor in chief of Ekho Moskvy, who faces potential dismissal at this week’s shareholders meeting, recalled in a 2011 interview that the station’s resourceful engineers were crucial to keeping their broadcasts going during the putsch.
“Three cables here, two cables in the teeth, and they connected us to the telephone,” Venediktov told the lifestyle magazine “Afisha” in the interview. “So we were going on the air by telephone.”
In an order calling for all television and radio broadcasts in Russia to be halted, the conspirators specifically cited Ekho Moskvy and accused it of fostering instability in the country.
Led by Boris Yeltsin, thousands of Muscovites took to the street to oppose the coup, which collapsed in the face of popular mass resistance. Gorbachev returned to Moscow. Ekho Moskvy continued to broadcast. A little more than four months later, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Gusinsky And Gazprom
Amid financial turbulence in the years following the Soviet collapse, Ekho Moskvy moved under the umbrella of tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky’s MOST Group and his subsequent holding company, Media-MOST.
But after a falling out between Gusinsky and the Kremlin, the businessman’s media assets were subjected to a relentless legal assault by authorities in what was widely seen as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s drive to rein in critical media.
Venediktov said in 2000 that an attack on Media-MOST, which controlled the popular and critical television network NTV, was launched because Putin was “dissatisfied with the company’s “general political line,” according to the "Los Angeles Times."
Putin consistently characterized the affair as strictly a business conflict.
Gazprom-Media, a subsidiary of state-owned gas giant Gazprom, took over much of Gusinsky’s empire in 2001 and purchased his remaining media assets the following year.
Ekho Moskvy’s journalists unsuccessfully attempted to secure a controlling stake in the radio station, and Venediktov said that Russian Federal Security Service agents visited the broadcaster as it was trying to purchase Gusinsky’s remaining shares in the station in 2001, the Associated Press reported at the time.
Gazprom-Media currently holds a 66 percent stake in Ekho Moskvy, while the remaining 34 percent is owned by the station’s journalists and other shareholders, including Gusinsky, through the U.S.-registered company EM-Holding.
Gazprom-Media’s control of the company has been a source of friction in recent years, even prior to the dustup that precipitated this week’s shareholders meeting.
Ahead of the 2012 presidential election that ushered Putin back into the Kremlin, Gazprom-Media reshuffled Ekho Moskvy’s board, removing two independent directors.
Venediktov linked the move to officials’ attempts to minimize critical press coverage of the election, which followed several large antigovernment demonstrations.
Pouring ‘Diarrhea’ On Putin
Putin himself has found harsh words for Venediktov and Ekho Moskvy on several occasions over the years. The station’s coverage of the brief 2008 war between Georgia and Russia prompted the then-prime minister to berate the editor for alleged errors in the broadcaster’s reporting on the conflict
"You have to answer for this, Aleksei Alekseyevich!" Putin told Venediktov after the leader’s August 2008 meeting with editors in Sochi, according to an article in "The New Yorker" magazine the following month.
The shake-up in Ekho Moskvy’s board, meanwhile, came just weeks after Putin pilloried Venediktov at a January 2012 meeting of editors of major news outlets, saying the station “pours diarrhea on me day and night.”
Putin went on to suggest that an Ekho Moskvy broadcast discussing U.S. plans for a missile-defense system -- which the Kremlin fiercely opposes – “serves the foreign policy interests of one government” at Russia’s expense.
Then Putin pulled the trump card: state-owned Gazprom-Media’s controlling stake.
“And they’re doing this with the Russian taxpayers' money,” he said.