MOSCOW, January 29 (RIA Novosti) – Several major Russian cable and satellite TV companies said Wednesday they would stop broadcasting liberal-leaning Dozhd channel in response to it running an online poll that officials say dishonored World War II veterans.
The row is likely to reignite concerns over media freedoms in Russia as the country readies for the international exposure of the Winter Olympics, which are set to get under way in the city of Sochi next month.
Dozhd initially drew outrage by running a survey on its website Monday asking viewers if Leningrad – now renamed St. Petersburg – should have been surrendered to the invading Nazi army in order to save hundreds of thousands of lives.
The station quickly withdrew the poll, but is now facing calls from lawmakers in the St. Petersburg legislature for prosecutors to take action against the broadcaster. A number of satellite and cable providers have preempted potential action by the authorities and pulled Dozhd from the packages they offer subscribers.
“Three satellite TV providers – Akado, NTV Plus and Dom.ru – refused [to transmit Dozhd], not four, as was previously announced,” the website of state news channel Rossiya-24 reported.
Rostelecom, the largest universal telecommunications companies in Russia, later said it too had cut off Dozhd broadcasts to its cable subscribers.
Media had previously reported that Tricolor TV, Russia’s biggest satellite television provider with over 14 million subscribers, also decided to exclude Dozhd from its satellite package. The company released an official statement condemn the station’s poll, but denied it planned to stop transmitting Dozhd.
“We hope that the channel drew the due conclusions and that its future broadcasts will make amends for this mistake,” the statement said.
At least one St. Petersburg cable television provider, ER-Telecom Holding, said Wednesday that Dozhd was no longer to be made available to subscribers.
Later in the day, broadcasts were stopped by other regional cable companies, including in the Urals cities of Yekaterinburg and Kurgan and in the Volga region city of Samara, according to one of the channel’s presenters, Mikhail Kozyrev.
In a resolution backed by 34 of St. Petersburg legislature’s 50 deputies, Prosecutor General Yury Chaika is requested to “conduct an investigation into provocative material posted on the website of the Dozhd television channel … and, if just cause is found, take appropriate measures, including shutting down the channel.”
Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Dozhd had “crossed a moral and ethical red line,” but “failed to offer any kind of reasonable apologies.”
Speaking about calls to close the channel down, however, Peskov said it was up to satellite and cable providers to decide on whether to exclude the channel from their packages.
Independent media has for more than a decade been subject to pressure from the authorities eager to keep a tight limit on critical reporting.
Shortly after Vladimir Putin ascended to the presidency at the end of 1999, independent television station NTV, which had distinguished itself for its pungent attacks on the government, was targeted by tax investigations. The channel eventually came under control of state gas company Gazprom.
Many journalists from NTV migrated to a smaller channel owned by avowed Kremlin foe and businessman Boris Berezovsky, only for it to be shut down in 2002.
The media freedom commission of the Presidential Council on Human Rights spoke in the station’s defense Wednesday, saying Dozhd should not be kicked out of cable television because “such proposals stand in stark contrast to the interests of viewers.”
Following a flood of angry messages, the channel hastily took down its Leningrad siege poll on Monday and said on Twitter that the incident was “a mistake by the producer … and the social network editor.”
A screenshot of the poll made available on Twitter showed 54 percent supporting the would-be surrender of Leningrad. The number of respondents was not specified.
The poll was held to coincide with the marking of the 75th anniversary of the lifting of the Leningrad siege.
Dozhd struck a defiant note, saying in a statement on its website Wednesday that it rejected any suggestion that it lacked patriotism.
“We don’t want the sense of ‘patriotism’ to be monopolized. We do not want it to be confused with loyalty to the authorities,” the statement said. “The more you love your country, the more you worry for it.”
The Dozhd incident has also triggered renewed talk of making it a criminal offense to question the Soviet Union’s actions during the war.
The Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Russia, plays a crucial role in state ideology, which credits Soviet forces with defeating Axis powers through an unprecedented popular effort.
The Soviet Union lost up to 27 million lives over the course of the war.
Updates with Peskov’s statement, Rostelecom cutting broadcast