At the height of the crisis over Russia’s invasion of Georgia last month, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin summoned the top executives of his nation’s most influential newspapers and broadcasters to a private meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
For the first time in five years, he also invited the editor in chief of Radio Echo of Moscow, Alexey Venediktov, the only national radio station that routinely broadcasts opposition voices.
For several minutes, according to people who attended the session or were briefed about it, Putin berated the editor in front of his peers, criticizing Echo’s coverage of the war with Georgia.
Putin pulled out a stack of transcripts to underline his points, saying, “You have to answer for this, Alexey Alexeyevich!”
“I’m not interested in who said these things,” one participant quoted Putin telling the editor, Alexey Venediktov. “You are responsible for everything that goes on at the radio station.”
“All hope is gone,” said Yevgenia Albats, a prominent journalist who hosts a show on Radio Echo of Moscow. “What’s left of the free media may disappear. We don’t know if Echo of Moscow will exist a month from now.”
A day after meeting Putin, Venediktov barred a dissident politician, Valeriya Novodvorskaya, from appearing on Echo of Moscow for the rest of the year after she made on-air remarks that appeared to defend the Chechen separatist responsible for the 2004 Beslan school siege that left 334 people dead.
He also announced that Yulia Latynina, a program host and critic of the Kremlin, would be off the air and out of the country on business and vacation for several weeks.
According to two journalists, the pressure on Radio Echo of Moscow intensified after the meeting with Putin. Top government officials reacted angrily to its coverage of the slaying of Magomed Yevloyev, the opposition leader in Ingushetia who was shot in the head in a police vehicle.
In 2001, Putin had invited Aleksey Venediktov to a meeting in the Kremlin library. By way of both embracing him and warning him about how he understood their relationship, the Russian President talked at length about the difference between enemies and traitors.
“It’s a crucial distinction for Putin,” Venediktov said. “He said, ‘Enemies are right in front of you, you are at war with them, then you make an armistice with them, and all is clear. A traitor must be destroyed, crushed.’
This is his philosophy of the world. And then he said, ‘You know, Aleksei, you are not a traitor. You are an enemy.'”