TheRuNet is in uproar over a new scandal that threatens the fate of one of the few arguably independent media outlets in Russia. A comment made on Twitter by a veteran Ekho Moskvy journalist has caused him trouble with the radio station's owners and possibly cost him his job. But is this really about a tweet?
Aleksandr Plushev, a journalist and radio host for Ekho Moskvy, one of Russia's most venerable media institutions, was informed he was being fired by the station and its main shareholder, Gazprom-Media. This news came soon after Plushev posted a tweet commenting on the death of the son of Sergey Ivanov, Putin's chief of staff. Some found the tweet provocative, and others, like municipal deputy and activist Maxim Katz, complained directly to Aleksey Venediktov, Plushev's chief editor.
@aavst Алексей Алексеевич, это нормально что сотрудники Эха ведут себя таким образом в паблике? Будут последствия? pic.twitter.com/j0aMOnjoyN
— Максим Кац (@max_katz) November 5, 2014
Plushev: Do you think the death of Ivanov's son, who once ran over an old woman with his car and later sued her son-in-law, to be proof of the existence of God or some cosmic justice?
Katz: @aavst Aleksey Alekseevich, is it normal for Ekho employees to behave themselves like this in public? Will there be repercussions?
While there's no hard evidence, it seems that Katz's tweet and complaint called a critical amount of attention to Plushev's comments, as shortly after Plushev found out he was being dismissed.
Меня вызвала гендиректор и сообщила, что я уволен. С приказом я не ознакомлен. @aavst узнал об этом от меня.
— Plushev (@plushev) November 6, 2014
The CEO called me in and said I was fired. I did not get to see the decree. @aavst (Venediktov) found out about this from me.
Venediktov confirmed he did not sign any documents as the chief editor, and that Plushev was fired without his knowledge, which was against the station's statute and so, illegal.
Я не подписывал приказ об увольнении Александра Плющева. Он остается журналистом «Эха Москвы».
I did not sign the decree about Aleksandr Plushev's dismissal. He remains a journalist at Ekho Moskvy.
Venediktov also said he did not approve of the tweet, but noted that social networks were a personal space not controlled by the newsroom or the editors. Some Twitter users, like opposition activist Leonid Volkov, applauded Venediktov's position.
Никогда не думал, что это напишу, но Венедиктов прямо молодец. А также п.5. ст. 29 Конституции РФ гласит: "Цензура запрещается".
— Leonid Volkov (@leonidvolkov) November 6, 2014
I never thought I'd say this, but Venediktov did pretty well. Also, section 5 of article 29 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation says: “Censorship is forbidden.”
Plushev eventually deleted the tweet and apologized to anyone who found it offensive, but claimed Katz had criticized him out of spite. Katz, in turn, defended his public criticism in a LiveJournal post, and said this was not at all about freedom of speech, but rather about common decency and journalistic responsibility. He also said he did not expect or want Plushev to be fired: a few days of suspension would have sufficed. Gazprom-Media, it seems, had a different opinion.
Mikhail Lesin, Head of Gazprom-Media, allegedly made the decision to fire Plushev himself and said his dismissal was “a question of morals,” rather than specifically about the tweet.
Это их право, писать такие вещи в «твиттере». На мой взгляд, когда дело касается моральных принципов, на первом месте должны быть они, а не формальные принципы устава. Я на их месте постеснялся бы.
It's their right to write things like this on Twitter. In my opinion, when it comes to moral principles, they should take precedence over the formal principles of the [media's] statute. I would be ashamed if I were them.
Ekho Moskvy's CEO Yekaterina Pavlova spoke to the doubts about the legality of Plushev's dismissal and said “only the court could decide” whether firing him was illegal or not. “We are prepared to go to court on this issue,” she added.
Gazprom-Media's Lesin also insinuated that Venediktov himself could “quite possibly” be fired as well if he did not agree with Plushev's dismissal. Venediktov's assistant immediately quoted his reaction to the threat on Twitter.
Венедиктов: К отставке я готов всегда. К смерти готов с рождения. Но это место медом не намазано.
— Леся Рябцева (@gdekak) November 6, 2014
Venediktov: I'm always prepared to resign. I've been prepared for death since I was born. But this place [the chief editor's chair] is not such a hot number.
Plushev, who has worked at Ekho Moskvy for almost 20 years, has been in the Kremlin's crosshairs before: just over a week ago, on October 31, Russian communications watchdog Roskomnadzor issued a warning to Ekho Moskvy for publishing the transcript of a radio interview Plushev did with journalist Timur Olevsky of TV Rain and journalist/photographer Sergey Loyko of Los Angeles Times on their website. The interview discussed the journalists’ experiences at Donetsk airport, where they witnessed the struggle of Ukrainian forces and rebel fighters. Some journalists have speculated that Plushev's dismissal was tied to this incident, and that the tweet was just a reason to cause trouble for Ekho Moskvy.
Hilariously, Gazprom-Media's Lesin was himself dismissed over a breach of “state official ethics and systematic disciplinary violations” in 2009, when he was an advisor to president Medvedev and already a fairly influential figure in the Russian media market.
Whether Plushev's dismissal is really a “question of morals” or just a convenient pretext to crush one of Russia's few remaining independent media will become clear as the situation progresses. There is already rampant speculation about how likely it is that Venediktov will really lose his post at Ekho Moskvy, as well as why the Kremlin might want to put pressure on a media outlet that is owned by Putin-frendly Gazprom, and what this says about Kremlin's relationship with Russian media in general.
Regardless of how serious the repercussions of a single tweet will be for Ekho Moskvy, for now Aleksandr Plushev has handed in his security pass and is not allowed back in the studio. In the end, it seems, the story is very much about freedom of speech and about what Russian journalists can get away with saying in public. Leonid Bershidsky, a former chief editor of the Russian news site Slon.ru, who himself emigrated to Berlin citing an unfavorable media climate in Russia as his reason, sees dark times ahead for free media in Russia, as evidenced by his rather ruthless comment on the Plushev-Katz-Ekho Moskvy debacle:
If you don't want them to mess with you, work for the LA Times, not for Gazprom.
I think that Mr Plushev’s tweet frightened some high-placed rascals, they thought something like: “And what if really ‘THERE’ exists? And how will we answer for our actions ‘HERE’ once we will be ‘THERE’? ” That’s the reason of such a violent reaction, as to fire the journalist.