On the first day of the Sochi Olympics, several dozen Russians gathered near Red Square in Moscow for an unusual show of defiance: they opened their umbrellas within sight of the Kremlin walls on an overcast, but dry, day.
Police quickly ended the silent protest, herding the demonstrators into waiting police vans.
The umbrella-bearers were showing their support for TV Dozhd (the name means "TV Rain"), a station that has stood out among Russian television channels for its willingness to criticize, and investigate, the country's political and economic elites. Now the station is at the centre of a controversy over how far the right to freedom of speech extends in Russia, and how much control the state should have over the country's media.
Long a thorn in the Kremlin's side, Dozhd apparently crossed an invisible line in late January when it ran a poll – amidst the country's marking of the 70th anniversary of the 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg – asking whether the city should have been surrendered to save some of the hundreds of thousands of people who died during the blockade.
The poll ran only for a few hours before the station pulled it down, but the damage was done. Legislators from President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party denounced the station as unpatriotic, and the St. Petersburg prosecutor's office opened an investigation into whether the station had "incited hatred" by running the poll.
Sensing the angry official mood, Russia's cable and satellite operators began dropping Dozhd from their packages. The station has seen the number of homes it reaches shrink by more than 85 per cent since the poll, from 17 million to two million. Tricolour TV, Russia's biggest satellite provider, said it stopped offering Dozhd because the station's "editorial policy opposes the desired content."
The treatment of Dozhd is seen as symbolic of a new Kremlin effort to increase its control over the media that began shortly after Mr. Putin returned to the presidency following four years in the theoretically junior post of prime minister while his former aide Dmitry Medvedev served as president. Mr. Medvedev pursued a relatively liberal line during his presidency – he allowed the establishment of Dozhd in 2010 – only to see many of his initiatives rolled back following Mr. Putin's return to the Kremlin.
The pressure on Dozhd follows a December reorganization of the RIA Novosti news agency, which brought the former Soviet bugle back under tighter state control. During Mr. Medvedev's period in the Kremlin, RIA Novosti had adopted a more neutral style of reporting that included reports on the anti-Putin opposition and the protests in Ukraine.
RIA Novosti, which controls The Moscow News, has now been merged with the official Voice of Russia radio into a new state-owned conglomerate headed by Dmitry Kiselyov, a controversial television host known for both his anti-gay views and his bombastic support of Mr. Putin.
There are hints that the liberal Echo of Moscow (Ekho Moskvy) radio station could be the next outlet to face pressure. The station was criticized on Tuesday by Vladimir Vasilyev, the head of the United Russia faction in parliament, for publishing a blog on its website that compared the Sochi Olympics to the 1936 Summer Games hosted by Nazi Germany because the Sochi Games were intended to legitimize Mr. Putin's "illegitimate rule."
"We already have one campaign that appeals to public opinion – the situation around [television channel] Dozhd," Mr. Vasilyev said. "Now information has been published on Ekho Moskvy for which someone will have to apologize."
Dozhd officials says it is being targeted because of the airtime it gives to opposition activists.
The station made its name during the 2012 protests before and after the election that saw Mr. Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third term as president. More recently, Dozhd was the only Russian channel that covered the political protests in neighbouring Ukraine as a popular uprising against a corrupt government.
Russia's other state-controlled channels portray Ukraine's protests as a Western-sponsored attempt at violent revolution.
Natalia Antonova, acting editor-in-chief of The Moscow News, an English-language website, said the pressure on Dozhd may have been related to its coverage of the so-called EuroMaidan protests in Ukraine, and worries that broadcasting those scenes live might inspire renewed protests in Russia. "I don't think that the Kremlin is in fear of a EuroMaidan erupting in Moscow today or tomorrow," Ms. Antonova said, but "the events in Ukraine and what's happening there have given a lot of people here pause."
Dozhd was the only Russian channel that covered the political protests in neighbouring Ukraine as a popular uprising against a corrupt government. Russia's other state-controlled, channels portray Ukraine's protests as a Western-sponsored attempt at violent revolution.
Ms. Antonova said Dozhd – knowing it had powerful enemies – made an error by running the Leningrad poll. "They misjudged. They put themselves in a position to get pummelled, so they got pummelled and they're still getting pummelled."
"The administration is both securing some space for the Olympics, and at the same time pushing the envelope. They're trying to see what they can do with media, what new limits they can impose," said Ivan Zassoursky, publisher of Private Correspondent, an online newspaper. He said a key test would be whether Dozhd is allowed back on the air after the Olympics end on Feb. 23.
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