Monday, August 23, 2010

Window on Eurasia: ‘Freedom in an Unfree Country’ – Ekho Moskvy at 20

Paul Goble

Staunton, August 23 –Ekho Moskvy, an island of “freedom in an unfree country,” is now able to celebrate its 20th anniversary, its chief editor says, because it makes Russia look good to Moscow’s Western partners, because its radio audience is too small to affect elections, and because it serves as an alternative source of reliable information for the powers that be.
In an interview published in the current issue of “New Times,” Aleksey Venediktov says that these three reasons are fundamental, but he suggests that the profitability of the station for its owner, Gazprom, and his own skills as an editor committed to reporting facts rather than have warded off numerous threats to the station (
Asked directly how he explains why the Kremlin puts up with the independence of Ekho Moskvy, Venediktov says that first of all, there is a simple explanation: You, [the powers that be] tell me, are a display case for [Russia’s] Western partners,” who cannot say there is no freedom of speech in Russia as long as Ekho Moskvy is on the air.
Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once told him that while in Soviet times, a foreign visitor had to visit the Kremlin, [Lenin’s] Mausoleum, and the Bolshoi Theater, now, “the three obligatory places for visiting are the Kremlin, “Ekho Moskvy,” and the Bolshoi Theater.”
“Another explanation,” the editor says, is that “we are not an electoral resource,” not only because the station does not take sides but because unlike Russian television, “Ekho Moskvy” has an audience of “less than a million in Moscow and less than three million in Russia as a whole.” The station is influential, “but not on voting.”
And a third explanation, he suggests is that “we are an alternative source of information for people taking decisions, [who] understand that we are not playing on behalf of America, Israel, Chechnya, Luzhkov, Putin or someone else,” but rather serve as “a channel through which comes a flood of information from which it is possible to choose.”
The interview however showed that despite these advantages, Ekho Moskvy would likely have been shut down at various points had it not been for the editorial and even political skills of Venediktov himself. Shortly after the station went on the air in 1990, Venediktov says Mikhail Gorbachev told him, many wanted to close it as a “hostile” radio station.
During the August 1991 putsch, the station was taken off the air three times, he continues, and there have always been threats and in the most “varied situations” that “we will take you off the air if …” But the crackdown on most of the electronic media that began in 2000 did not lead to the station’s closure.
At the time of the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war, Venediktov continues, there was “a real threat” not that the station would be closed but that the station would be forced to change its approach by means of his replacement, something that apparently was under active discussion in the Kremlin.
But again, Ekho Moskvy and Venediktov dodged the bullet, in no small measure because he and his colleagues recognized that “[Russian] laws are such that the powers that be at any movement can close electronic media,” and that it is “more difficult to open than a paper. Therefore we try not to violate the laws.”
Asked directly “who today can close Ekho Moskvy,” the station’s chief editor answered just as directly: Putin, Medvedev and “functionally, Gazprom” which holds the license but would do so only on “orders from above.” But Gazprom has no problems with the station because it is profitable and thus “we are satisfied and it is satisfied.”
As to the other top leaders, Venediktov said he has maintained good relations with them not as a journalist but as an editor committed to freedom of information and prepared to explain to them and to others that such freedom is good for them as well. Up to now, that strategy has worked, but Venediktov admits that he lives with fear of closure “every day.”

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