London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The editor of a leading Russian leading news website, Lenta.ru was fired on Wednesday and replaced by a Kremlin-friendly successor, the latest incident in a series of Russian media crackdowns taking place against the backdrop of the ongoing Russian–Ukraine standoff.
In an open letter posted on the website following the move, editors and writers condemned the sacking of Galina Timchenko as a direct attack on Lenta’s independent editorial line, accusing the new editor-in-chief, Alexei Goreslavsky, of serving the Kremlin’s interests.
“The dismissal of an independent editor-in-chief and appointment of a person who is controlled . . . from offices in the Kremlin is a violation of the media law, which says censorship is inadmissible,” it said.
“Over the past few years, the space of free media in Russia has shrunk dramatically. Some outlets are directly controlled by the Kremlin, others through gatekeepers, others through editors who are scared to lose their jobs,” the statement added.
The news website’s billionaire owner, Alexander Mamut, did not give an official reason for firing longtime editor-in-chief Timchenko, who had been in charge of Lenta’s editorial policy since the website was founded in 1999, and who oversaw the website’s development into one of Russia’s most popular news websites.
“Lenta.ru has been one of the few sources of independent news coverage in an ocean of propaganda, and even more so since the start of the Ukrainian crisis,” said Johann Bihr, head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“Given the site’s influence and the recognition it has received, her dismissal sends a very scary signal and deals a major blow to independent journalism in Russia,” he added.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has come under increasing pressure over his government’s hardline stance on the media, particularly following Russia’s military takeover of the Crimea. However Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said accusations of Kremlin censorship were “completely baseless.”
The Ukraine crisis has exposed the fragile state of Russia’s media scene. Earlier this month, Liz Wahl, an American news anchor at Russia Today’s (RT) Washington bureau, quit the channel live on air, citing “ethical and moral challenges.”
Wahl said: “I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin. I’m proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth, and that is why after this newscast I am resigning.”
RT issued a statement condemning her actions as being “nothing more than a self-promotional stunt,” adding that it would have been more professional for Wahl to have raised her concerns with her editors or quit in a more professional manner.
Wahl’s dramatic on-air resignation took place just one day after another American RT presenter, Abby Martin, criticized Russian intervention in Crimea, saying: “What Russia did is wrong. I will not sit here and apologize for or defend military action.”
In an official response to Martin’s comments, RT said: “Contrary to popular opinion, RT doesn’t beat its journalists into submission, and they are free to express their own opinions, not just in private but on the air. This is the case with Abby’s commentary on the Ukraine.”
The statement to The Huffington Post added: “In her comment, Ms. Martin also noted that she does not possess a deep knowledge of reality of the situation in Crimea. As such we’ll be sending her to Crimea to give her an opportunity to make up her own mind from the epicenter of the story.”
However, the Ukrainian authorities have also been criticized for clamping down on pro-Kremlin media. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned a decision by Kiev to block the transmission of Russian state-controlled TV stations in the country.
“We call on Ukrainian authorities to allow Russian television channels to broadcast in the country and to ensure that the citizens of Ukraine have a plurality of information sources available,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said.
“Ukrainian people should be able to choose for themselves what information and opinion to access. Restricting access would escalate, not alleviate, the current tensions,” she added.