MOSCOW: Concern is growing among Russian journalists that Vladimir Putin is tightening the screws on independent media before a presidential election but any crackdown would be unlikely to succeed, a prominent television journalist said on Friday.
An investigation into a TV channel and changes forced on the editorial board of a radio station this week suggest the prime minister's patience is running out with media that criticise him before the March 4 poll which he hopes to win.
The moves have cast doubts on earlier signals that the Kremlin may be easing its grip on the media, after state television broadcast footage of opposition protests and allowed air time to some of the more moderate opposition leaders.
"The obvious thing is ... is this not a sign of trying to crack down on the quasi-free media in Russia?" Vladimir Pozner, a television journalist with high-level contacts to elite groups stretching back to Soviet times, said in an interview.
"It's too early to say 'Yes' or 'No'. But it certainly is something you want to keep your eye on," he told Reuters Television.
Pozner, who hosts a talk show broadcast by Russia's Channel One and has observed many changes in the media since making his name as a compere in the late 1980s under former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost (openness), said Russian journalists were "very concerned" about the latest moves.
State prosecutors opened an investigation into Dozhd, a cable and Internet channel, on Thursday after a member of parliament accused it of helping organise the protests.
The editor of Ekho Moskvy radio station accused the authorities of trying to stifle editorial freedom when its state-controlled owners demanded changes to the membership of the editorial board on Wednesday.
Pozner said the moves had made him "bristle" and Putin would face pressure from some of his aides to crack down on the media and the opposition if, as expected, he returns to the Kremlin.
But he said "something has changed" since the start of the opposition protests, which were prompted by allegations of fraud in a parliamentary election won by Putin's ruling party on Dec. 4 but have increasingly focused criticism on the prime minister.
"The genie is out of the bottle, and to put it back in would be exceptionally difficult, if at all possible," Pozner said.
SIGNS OF CHANGE
Putin cracked down on the media soon after he was elected president in 2000, a post he held until he made way for his protege Dmitry Medvedev to become president in 2008 because the constitution prevented him seeking a third successive term.
But state television has in the past two months shown footage of the demonstrations by tens of thousands of people.
The loyal NTV channel allowed Boris Nemtsov, a fierce Putin critic, into its studios for the first time in years, and his ally, Vladimir Ryzhkov, appeared on state-owned Channel One.
But the protest footage has largely excluded direct criticism of Putin, and opposition figures regarded as more radical by the Kremlin, such as anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, have struggled to find a voice on state-run media.
Although all the presidential election candidates have been shown on television this month, channels loyal to the Kremlin continue to give Putin blanket coverage.
Putin's spokesman has denied the prime minister ordered the changes on the board at Ekho Moskvy although Putin accused it last month of "pouring shit" over him with its criticism.
Pozner said he still hoped media was about to embrace a new era of openness after years of tight Kremlin control.
"There has been no glasnost since (the mid-1990s) in the sense of a really open media that would allow people to get as full a picture of what is going on as possible. Now will that come back? I think it has a chance," he said.
"Obviously it all depends on the Kremlin and I think the Kremlin - which is Mr Putin basically - has come to the conclusion that it's better that way."