Russian Radio Station Goes On, Despite Clampdown
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
I'm Madeleine Brand.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has waged a campaign against his country's independent press. During his seven years in office, the state has taken over or shut down most of the national media. Only a single radio station continues to broadcast critical reports to 40 cities around the country.
NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.
(Soundbite of crowd)
GREGORY FEIFER: When riot police cracked down against an opposition protest, beating and arresting hundreds of peaceful demonstrators in Moscow earlier this month, there was only one place to tune in to find out what was going on.
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Unidentified Man: Radio Ekho Moskvy.
FEIFER: Radio Ekho Moskvy or Echo of Moscow is Russia's last independent broadcast outlet. Its director, Alexsey Venediktov, and his wild wiry hair, have become a symbol of press freedom in Russia. But Venediktov said that's an increasingly difficult role to fill.
Mr. ALEXSEY VENEDIKTOV (Director, Echo of Moscow): (Through translator) There is constant pressure. Lately, political parties in power had been demanding we stop inviting their political opponents on air, saying those people are extremists.
FEIFER: Journalist at another private radio network say they have been ordered to not even mention the names of opposition figures. The list includes chess champion Garry Kasparov, who helped organize this month's protest.
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FEIFER: But Ekho Moskvy continues to invite Kasparov, who recently appeared on air to describe his questioning by the Federal Security Service. Outside Ekho Moskvy's busy reception room, hundreds of photos of famous guests line at dingy hallway.
Recording studios are cramped. The acrid smell of tobacco pervades everything here but especially the guest waiting room, where the intellectual and political elite rubs shoulders on their way to interviews. But Venediktov says sometimes guests have to be kept apart. Earlier this year, he interviewed Andrei Lugovoy, suspected in Britain of poisoning former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko. Venediktov said Lugovoy arrived at the radio station just before the British ambassador.
Mr. VENEDIKTOV: (Through translator) We have to make sure they didn't meet. Maybe they would have had to shake hands and it would have more than awkward for the ambassador, so we snuck him in through another corridor.
FEIFER: Venediktov has interviewed many heads of state but says one of his most memorable moments on air was in the year 2000 with then President Bill Clinton. Venediktov says he doesn't speak English, which posed a communication problem.
Mr. VENEDIKTOV: (Through translator) So when it seemed to me President Clinton was taking too long to answer one of my questions, I kicked him under the table. He understood immediately and stopped.
FEIFER: Venediktov says later, when he was talking too much, Mr. Clinton returned the favor and kicked him. Ekho Moskvy has become a refuge for top reporters who've been fired or quit their jobs elsewhere. Yevgeny Kiselyov was one considered Russia's most influential journalist as director of news at NTV Television, which is now controlled by a state-owned company. Kiselyov, who hosts a program on Ekho Moskvy says the authorities are using the radio station as a window dressing to argue Russia still has a free press.
Mr. YEVGENY KISELYOV (Host, Ekho Moskvy): Let's say Condoleezza Rice comes here and starts to ask difficult questions about human rights and freedom of speech and they would, we at least, well look, we have Ekho Moskvy. And well, they are allowed to say everything.
FEIFER: Director Venediktov says another reason he thinks Ekho Moskvy may be allowed to continue broadcasting is that government officials need at least one serious source of information for their own use. He says the authorities know the station doesn't have the nationwide reach to influence public opinion, but if a serious political threat arises, he says, they can shut us down at any moment.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.