Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he will not take criticism from his country’s remaining independent media outlets lightly. Russia’s Prime Minister lectured Alexei Venediktov, editor of the Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio station, at a Wednesday dinner with journalists.
Putin said Ekho Moskvy “poured diarrhoea” over him in its broadcasts. He also said that he had come to the conclusion that the station is biased, after listening to a discussion on US plans for a missile defence system in Europe.
“I was lying in bed before going to sleep or after waking up, I already don’t remember, and was thinking: ‘This is not information, what they are giving. I have never heard such ravings… This isn’t news, this is serving the foreign policy interests of one state with regard to another, with regard to Russia,” he said.
Ekho Moskvy is owned by the state energy giant Gazprom, but is generally seen as keeping an independent editorial line, and is widely respected in Russia. Unlike state-controlled television, it gives airtime to members of the liberal and radical opposition to the Kremlin. The station suffered a hacker attack in the run-up to last month’s parliamentary elections that took it offline for nearly a day.
“The authorities are seriously frightened by critical media and may try to sideline the Echo,” political analyst and opposition activist Dmitry Oreshkin told AFP. “Venediktov will be faced with a question whether to change his editorial policies or to keep them but take a risk on himself and the station.”
Alexei Venediktov does not believe Prime Minister Putin will attempt to shut his station down:
“I know that during his presidency he three times prevented Echo’s closure. All the papers would be ready, all the officials below him would sign off on them, they would go to him, and he would say: ‘No!’” ‘They buzz about of course but let them work,’ he would say,”
“If they want to shut it down, they will. But I did not feel threatened. I sensed the usual displeasure of a head of government over the actions of a free media outlet,” Venediktov said.
“As we learned yesterday, he listens to Echo of Moscow. Why would he shut down a boutique which he uses?”
Venediktov also disclosed that Putin had privately chastised Ekho Moskvy in the past.
“[For example] the prime minister expressed to me his extreme displeasure over Echo of Moscow’s editorial policies during the war with Georgia,” he said, referring to Moscow’s five-day war with Tbilisi in 2008.
Mr Putin, who leads a conservative government, has made similar comments previously, suggesting that his opponents are loyal to foreign powers. He has suggested recently that the mass protests against his rule were organised by the US State Department, and that rights activists are “jackals” who wait outside Western embassies for cash handouts.
In an exchange with Venediktov, PM Putin told him, “You’re offended, I can see it on your face”. Venediktov responded that he was indeed offended.
“But I don’t get offended with you, when you pour diarrhoea on me day and night. I’ve said two words to you and now you’re offended,” Putin replied. Mr Venediktov said he was joking, and was not actually offended. “Well, I’m not joking,” shot back Putin.
“It was completely unexpected that he would start criticising the station,” said Venediktov. “But if I criticise him, then why shouldn’t he be able to criticise me too.”
Putin is standing in presidential elections on 4 March, in which he is regarded as the favourite, despite protests against him and his United Russia party that have swept the country in recent months.