Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks with Ekho Moskvy radio editor-in-chief Alexei Venediktov during an awarding ceremony in Moscow, Jan. 13, 2012.

Removal of Russian radio station CEO stokes concerns

Shareholders replaced the head of one of Russia’s few independent broadcasters on Tuesday, fueling concerns that a government crackdown on civil liberties and human rights is growing more intense.

Yuri Fedutinov, one of the founders of the radio station, Ekho Moskvy, was replaced as CEO by the wife of a Kremlin official. Yekaterina Pavlova will be taking over after having worked most recently at the state-run radio station, Voice of Russia. The announcement on Ekho Moskvy’s website said the decision had been made “without explanation” at a meeting among the station’s shareholders, according to the BBC.

Though Ekho Moskvy had earned recognition for its independent voice and objective, sometimes critical, position on Kremlin policies, the station maintains two-thirds ownership by Gazprom Media, a state-controlled company. Ekho Moskvy’s editor-in-chief accused shareholders of buckling under pressure from Moscow to change the broadcaster’s editorial policy.

“I consider this replacement foul and unjust,” Alexei Venediktov, the station’s longtime editor, told Reuters.

Human rights advocates also expressed concern.

“This is part of the effort to tighten screws and to ensure that the way Russian politics and society is interpreted on the airwaves is the way the Russian government wants it,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, to msnbc. “It’s too soon to say what [Pavlova] will do, but it’s important to flag the concern.”

The decision to oust Fedutinov comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin battles international criticism for a series of harsh policies on freedom of expression. Over the weekend, a transgender, former member of the Italian Parliament said she was arrested and detained by Russian police after holding a gay rights protest at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. And on Tuesday, two members of the activist punk band Pussy Riot were also detained in Sochi and questioned about a theft in their hotel. The pair denied involvement and said they weren’t doing anything at the time of arrest.

Last week, Ekho Moskvy posted controversial remarks on its website from a Kremlin critic who compared the Sochi Olympics to the 1936 Games in Nazi Germany, an event used by Adolf Hitler to prop up his regime. While some could point to the remarks as the reason for Fedutinov’s removal, Denber said the decision should be viewed in a larger context.

“I wouldn’t try to tag it to any one particular event–whether it’s the Olympics or Ukraine,” she said. “You should look at all of those as markers in a much broader pattern of Russia tightening the screws inside the country and on the projection of Russia abroad.”

“There’s still a huge space for freedom of expression on the internet–a number of small niche outlets that can write whatever they want,” added Denber. “The general principle is you can say whatever you want, as long as whole lot of people aren’t listening.”

Vladimir Putin

Removal of Russian radio station CEO stokes concerns