Head of Russian News Site Sacked Amid Ukraine Crisis

AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky
After protests in Ukraine, the country this weekend will hold a referendum on its relationship with Russia.

UPDATED: Russia blocks access to Internet sites of Kremlin critics.

MOSCOW – The chief editor of one of Russia's most widely read news sites, Lenta.ru, has been dismissed after she published an interview with a Ukrainian nationalist, becoming the latest victim of the Ukrainian crisis.

Galina Timchenko, who worked at Lenta, which means "tape" or "ribbon" in Russian, since 1999, the last 10 years as chief editor, was replaced by Alexei Goreslavskly, until recently the head of a pro-Kremlin site.

Her dismissal, on the orders of Lenta owner and billionaire Alexander Mamut -- who also owns British book store chain Waterstones and runs a popular boutique Moscow cinema, Pioneer -- came just days after Russia's state media regulator issued a formal warning for publishing material of an "extremist nature."

The interview, with the head of the Kiev branch of Right Sector, a hardline Ukrainain nationalist group that was among the most active anti-government groups during the country's short but deadly uprising last month, contained a link to the site of the movement's leader, Dmitry Yarosh.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin has dubbed Right Sector and other Ukrainian nationalist groups neo-Nazi and on Wednesday a Moscow court issued an arrest warrant for Yarosh on charges of inciting terrorism.

The interview, published Monday, reported Right Sector's belief that "sooner or later we are doomed to fight with the Moscow empire."

Timchenko has not commented in detail on her sacking beyond a post on her Facebook page stating: "That's it. Thank you, it was interesting."

Staffer at Lenta, which last year was taken over by Mamut's Afisha-Rambler-SUP media group, rallied to Timchenko's defense.

An open letter published on Lenta's home page late Wednesday was signed by 69 staffers. They warned of a "dramatic decline" in the scope for free journalism in Russia. "The dismissal of an independent chief editor and the appointment of a person who can be controlled from outside, including directly from offices in the Kremlin -- that is already a violation of the media law," the letter stated.

Independent media voices are fast becoming a casualty of the growing international crisis following the deadly culmination last month of Ukraine's three months of civil strife.

Ukrainian TV channels in Crimea, where the Kremlin is backing ethnic Russians determined to break away from the Ukraine, have been taken off the air at gunpoint.

A referendum, backed by a regional assembly in Crimea headed by a pro-Kremlin politician put in place after thousands of Russian troops arrived on the Black Sea peninsula, is due on Sunday. It offers two choices – unification with Russia or a vote in support of a 1991 constitution that the parliament has already said would automatically ensure the same result.

In Kiev, a government that took power after the president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country after more than 80 people died in clashes with riot police and security forces, signals from Russian TV stations have also been closed down.

Timchenko's dismissal follows a spate of recent cases in Russia where independent media voices have been restrained.

In December, Russian state news agency Ria Novosti was closed and relaunched under a Kremlin-loyal editor; independent TV channel Dozhd (Rain) has been dropped by leading cable and satellite operators amid warnings from its senior management that it may soon be closed completely; and the director-general of radio station Ekho Moskvy, considered one of Russia's most objective news sources, Yury Fedutinov, has been replaced.

Alexei Venediktov, Ekho's chief editor, whose future at the station is also under review, condemned Timchenko's sacking as a "clearly political decision."

In another development, Russian authorities late Thursday announced tthe blocking of access to the Internet sites of two key Kremlin oppositio figures, Alexei Navalny and Garry Kasparov,.

The prosecutor general's office ordered Russian Internet providers to block Navalny's blog, chess champion and Putin critic Kasparov's Internet news site and two other sites, grani.ru and ej.ru, state regulator Roskomnadzor said.

Ej.ru editor Alexander Ryklin dubbed the move "monstrous", sating it was a "direct violation of all the principles of freedom of speech." He added he did not know why the site was blocked.