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Reporters Without Borders condemns the unprecedented campaign of harassment suddenly unleashed against Dozhd (Дождь, Rain TV), one of Russia's few really independent broadcasters, a station that is often outspoken and gives space to opposition views.
Although available only via cable, satellite and on the Internet, Dozhd had managed to acquire a sizeable number of viewers since its launch in 2010, especially among the urban middle class.
But a controversial poll about the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War has been used as a pretext by many carriers for dropping Dozhd's signal in the past few days and, since yesterday, the station is being investigated by the St. Petersburg prosecutor's office.
"The colossal disproportion between Dozhd's alleged offence and the measures taken against it clearly suggests that a convenient excuse has been found to silence a uniquely independent TV station" said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
"While questions could be raised about the station's poll of its viewers, these questions concern journalistic ethics and recent history, not the law. It would be more appropriate for the prosecutor's office to investigate the arbitrary way many cable and satellite TV carriers dropped Dozhd's signal, as Russia's Human Rights Council has requested.
"Meddling by TV channel providers in editorial content cannot be tolerated. The decision by most providers to suspend Dozhd will probably cause it to lose many advertisers and endanger its financial viability. With just days to go to the Sochi Winter Olympics, the importance of this case cannot be underestimated. Dozhd's disappearance would be a major blow to freedom of information in Russia."
The controversial question that Dozhd asked its viewers on 26 January, on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the lifting of the German army siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) during the Second World War was: "Should Leningrad have been surrendered in order to avoid hundred of thousands of deaths?"
More than a million civilians died during the two-and-a-half-year siege but Dozhd's question has caused outrage in a country where Soviet resistance to Nazism is hallowed and few question the official history of the Second World War.
Dozhd reacted to the outcry by issuing a swift apology and withdrawing the poll from its website. But far from abating, the attacks on Dozhd and the calls for it to be sactioned have continued to grow, especially from parliamentarians.
Most Russian cable and satellite providers began suspending its signal on 29 January. The current situation is unclear, because some providers have alternated between cutting and restoring Dozhd, but it is currently unavailable through Akado, Dom.ru, NTV+ (on which Dozhd had about 80 per cent of its viewers), Rostelekom and Beeline.
In some regions, these fluctuations have led many local providers to drop Dozhd as well. The biggest cable provider, Trikolor TV, complained in writing to Dozhd about its "violation of public morals" and warned that it would terminate its contract within 30 days if the station "maintained an improper content policy."
The federal communications regulator Roskomnadzor refused to issue a formal warning to Dozhd but sent it a "preventive letter." The St. Petersburg prosecutor's office, on the other hand, began an investigation yesterday to determine if Dozhd broke any law, possibly article 282 of the penal code on "extremism."
The Human Rights Council, a body comprising many human rights defenders that reports to the Kremlin, has asked the federal prosecutor's office to verify whether the cable and satellite TV providers acted legally when they dropped Dozhd's signal.