The United States expressed deep concern Friday about the firing of U.S. businessman Boris Jordan as head of the media wing of the state-dominated Russian energy corporation, Gazprom. Critics in Moscow allege the move is an attempt to curb the independence of the Russian television network NTV.
Executives of the Gazprom conglomerate insist that the firing of Mr. Jordan was strictly a business decision, and unrelated to the editorial policies of the NTV subsidiary.
But critics in Moscow are alleging that the replacement of the U.S.-born businessman, a major figure in the Russian media and financial scene for a decade, was a politically-motivated move, aimed at ensuring pro-Kremlin news coverage in advance of parliamentary elections later this year.
At a State Department briefing, spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. officials have been monitoring the situation, and share the concern that the departure of Mr. Jordan might affect NTV's free-wheeling news coverage.
"We have heard these reports. We're deeply concerned," he said. "We note that, under the direction of Boris Jordan, an American citizen of Russian descent, NTV has grown into one of the most lively, vibrant and independent voices on the Russian airwaves. We strongly hope that NTV will retain this independent spirit under its new management.
We'd be very much concerned were the management to change - were a management change to presage a change in NTV's editorial independence. Independent media voices are a critical part of democratic society."
Mr. Boucher said the United States is also concerned by reports of Russian government influence in Mr. Jordan's dismissal, which he said, if true "would constitute a serious blow to Russia's independent media."
Reports from Moscow say that while he was dismissed as the head of Gazprom's media wing, Mr. Jordan technically remained head of the NTV network though a Gazprom spokesman said management changes at the station can be expected soon.
Russian media observers say Mr. Jordan may have been punished for NTV's aggressive coverage of last October's takeover of a Moscow theater by Chechen gunmen, and generally-critical reporting on Russian President Vladimir Putin's handling of the Chechnya conflict.
The United States had expressed concern in the past about NTV's journalistic independence, in particular two years ago, when its parent company was taken over by the Gazprom monopoly, which is largely government-owned.