Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks with Alexei Venediktov (L), Editor in Chief of the "Echo of Moscow" radio station, after a state awards ceremony for achievements in printed media in Moscow January 13, 2011.

© Reuters/Yana Lapikova/RIA Novosti/Pool 2011

A popular Russian radio station and one of the last bastions of free speech in Russia, Echo of Moscow (Ekho Moskvy), is under attack. On Thursday, the station’s general director fired one of its leading journalists upon request of the board of directors. Gazprom Media, which controls 66 percent of Echo, is owned by the state-run natural gas company Gazprom.

The journalist, Aleksander Plushchev, was fired after posting a tweet on Wednesday about the accidental death of Aleksander Ivanov, the son of President Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff. The tweet referred to a 2005 car accident in which Ivanov killed an elderly woman but avoided criminal prosecution, asking if his death was proof that God existed. Media reports say Ivanov drowned in the United Arab Emirates.

Plushchev deleted the tweet shortly thereafter, acknowledging it was “inappropriate,” and apologized for it.   

Regardless of how one feels about Plushchev’s tweet, the nature of his dismissal appears to violate Echo’s bylaws, which makes the editor-in-chief responsible for hiring and firing staff. Aleksei Venediktov, Echo’s editor in chief, refused to fire the journalist. After Venediktov learned of Pluchshev’s dismissal, he immediately and publicly denounced it.

By having a hand in firing Plushchev, Gazprom Media may have been trying to weaken Venediktov’s authority, and by extension put further pressure on Russia’s only major independent radio broadcaster. Just last week, Russia’s federal agency for media oversight, Roskomnadzor, issued Echo a written warning accusing it of “justifying war crimes” in a radio program. The program, moderated by Plushchev, discussed military operations in eastern Ukraine. Venediktov said he would appeal the warning in court.

Government interference with Echo sets yet another dangerous precedent for a country where independent media is practically on its death bed. Earlier this year, independent television channel Dozhd TV was subjected to a government investigation and dropped from major cable and satellite providers after posting an online poll about the blockade of Leningrad during World War II. After losing much of its revenue and staff, Dozhd TV managed to stay on the air. If the standoff between Gazprom Media and Echo’s editor continues, Echo of Moscow might not last long, and one of the last independent voices in Russia will go silent.