Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 5

The other news that may have disturbed an otherwise calm two weeks for the Kremlin was the announcement by Aleksei Venediktov, chief editor of Ekho Moskvy, the private radio station created a decade ago by Vladimir Moskvy, that he was stepping down from his post because he had no desire to work for a radio station which, in his words, “belongs to the state”. Venediktov was unhappy over the fact that Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas monopoly which last summer gained a controlling share in Ekho Moskvy, along with the other media properties belonging to Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most, had earlier this month exercised its option as Ekho’s majority shareholder to appoint five of the nine members of the station’s board. A number of leading press freedom advocates saw Venediktov as the canary in the coal mine and said his departure from Ekho would mark the true end of independent media in Russia.

The blow was softened within a day, however, when Media Novosti, a new company set up by Venediktov and other Ekho Moskvy journalists, won a Press Ministry tender for three broadcasting licenses–two for FM radio signals and one for a UHF television signal. Venediktov plans to launch a new general format FM radio station later this year, to be called Arsenal, and, much like Ekho under his tutelage, it is likely to be less-than-fully respectful toward the Kremlin or others in Russia’s political establishment.

The granting of the licenses to Venediktov and his team, however, may simply have been a matter of tactical flexibility on the part of the authorities. According to some observers, the powers-that-be decided to let the highly respected Venediktov retain some sort of forum because they plan to reject a bid by Yevgeny Kiselev for TV-6’s broadcast license, which will be auctioned off next month. Kiselev is the general director of TV-6, the television channel owned by Boris Berezovsky that was taken off the air last month. “[E]ven now, after Venediktov’s victory, it is hard to shake off the feeling that his success is only a tactical move by the authorities to prove that everything is alright with press freedom here,” the website commented. “Now they will have something to show the critics if Yevgeny Kiselev’s team loses the battle for [TV-6].”