RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
With less than two weeks before Russia's presidential election, the country's independent media are in a state of anxiety. State-run television has aired some viewpoints that are different from Vladimir Putin's, but NPR's Corey Flintoff reports the government has made clear who is in charge.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Two incidents last week suggested that the Russian government is prepared to lean on journalists, both domestic and foreign. The first concerned the editor-in-chief of the capital's influential news-and-talk radio station, Moscow Echo.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Russian spoken)
FLINTOFF: Alexsei Venediktov and his deputy were ousted from the station's board of directors. They were replaced by directors chosen by Gazprom Media, a subsidiary of the giant, state-owned gas company that is Moscow Echo's major shareholder. Moscow Echo has a reputation for airing a wide range of views, but it has drawn the ire of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who's running for president in next month's election. Putin and Venediktov had a run-in at a meeting of prominent editors in January. Putin charged that Moscow Echo was serving the interests of America, and he accused Venediktov of trashing him.
PRIME MINISTER VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Russian spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Russian spoken)
FLINTOFF: The prime minister said he had no hard feelings, although he told Venediktov, quote, "You pour diarrhea on me from morning till night." Venediktov said last week that his removal from the radio station board wasn't a catastrophe, but that he did regard it as an attempt to adjust the station's editorial policy. Venediktov also said he doesn't see his ouster as a direct action by Putin, but as an attack by the system that Putin has created.
ALEXSEI VENEDIKTOV: (Russian spoken)
FLINTOFF: He says that as Putin criticizes the radio station in public or private, zealous officials in his administration take that as an order to attack. There was another apparent example of official overzealousness last week in the provincial region of Vladimir, east of Moscow. Anne Nivat, a French writer and war reporter, was expelled from the country. Nivat, now back in France, says the excuse was that there was a problem with her visa. But she said officials told her that the real problem was that she'd been interviewing members of the opposition.
ANNE NIVAT: And that was a big shock to me, because to have conversation with people from the opposition, from the legal opposition in Russia, is it a crime? Well, I didn't know that.
FLINTOFF: Nivat, who speaks fluent Russian, says she was surprised to find that the authorities knew all about her activities, including the addresses of people she had visited. It was the kind of surveillance of foreigners that was common in Soviet times, but something Nivat says she had never encountered in more than 10 years of working in post-Soviet Russia.
NIVAT: Everybody is afraid, everybody, from the top to the very bottom in the deep province where I was travelling around when they sort of caught me.
FLINTOFF: Nivat's story has a positive ending. The local immigration official who expelled her was forced to resign, and authorities say she's been invited back to Russia. Masha Lipman says the latest developments are worrying, but that there are hopeful signs.
MASHA LIPMAN: Well, I would say that right now is a time of very mixed signals and very mixed reality.
FLINTOFF: Lipman is an analyst and editor at the Carnegie Center, a think-tank in Moscow. She notes that even the three state-controlled television channels now include opposition voices, although in general they're overwhelmingly pro-Putin. Lipman says there is a danger that the government may crack down once the election is over. But she says it's unlikely that the government will ever be able to stifle independent voices on Russia's Internet, where anti-government commentaries and jokes are posted and re-posted throughout the country.
LIPMAN: You know, it's like an avalanche. Russian people are known to be, you know, very creative, very verbal, not infrequently quite cynical. And the culture of re-posting is very high in Russia,
FLINTOFF: And, she says, that culture has been emboldened by the opposition rallies that have drawn tens of thousands of people to the streets of the capital. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.
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