The removal of Lenta.ru editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko deepened concerns about what many Russians see as a crackdown on independent and critical media outlets amid tension over the Ukrainian crisis during President Vladimir Putin's third term.
It came after a state regulatory agency issued what Timchenko said was a warning to Lenta over an interview with a member of a Ukrainian far-right group, Right Sector, which included a link to remarks by its leader Dmytro Yarosh.
Russian officials depict the ousting of Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovich last month as an illegal, Western-backed power grab by "extremists". A Russian court issued an arrest warrant for Yarosh under arrest in absentia on Wednesday on charges of inciting terrorism.
A statement on the Lenta website cited Timchenko as saying the owner of Lenta's parent company Afisha-Rambler-SUP, Alexander Mamut, had decided to replace her with Alexei Goreslavsky, a deputy director. Mamut, his company and Goreslavsky could not be reached for comment.
"Well, now it's definitely over," Timchenko, who had been editor-in-chief since 2004, said later on Facebook. "Thank you, it's been very interesting."
"We believe that this appointment is direct pressure on the editor's offices of Lenta.ru," said a letter posted on the site and signed by more than 80 of its employees. "The dismissal of a independent editor-in-chief and appointment of a person who is controlled ... from offices in the Kremlin is a violation of the media law, which says censorship is inadmissible," it said.
Pressure on media
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the accusation of Kremlin censorship was "completely baseless" and that there was nothing unusual about the warning from the regulatory agency.
"The space for free journalism in Russia has shrunk dramatically in the past couple of years," the Lenta.ru employees' letter said. "Some publications are managed directly by the Kremlin, others through middlemen and still others by editors who fear losing their jobs."
Dozhd, a television and internet channel whose even-handed coverage of anti-government protests in Ukraine stood out in contrast to Russian state TV reports, was taken off the air by providers nationwide earlier this year in what its head said was censorship.
The chief executive of Ekho Moskvy, a radio station that often carries criticism of the Kremlin, was replaced last month in a move its editor-in-chief called a "foul and unjust" sign of pressure on the station.
In the building that houses Lenta.ru late on Wednesday, some employees said they planned to quit.
"This firing makes my work at Lenta.ru impossible," special correspondent Svetlana Reiter said. "I think this is some kind of an artificial, unnatural limitation of the freedom of speech and the media that is taking place in Russia".