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Putin squelches press by stealth

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From his first days in power, Russian President Vladimir Putin realized that control over television was critical to maintaining his hold over the huge country. Mr. Putin tightened his grip on the major broadcast television stations, wresting the powerful Channel 1 away from the oligarch Boris Berezovsky. In the years that followed, the main broadcast television stations reflected Mr. Putin’s dominance, while some independent radio, print and Internet outlets, with much smaller followings, functioned largely unfettered.

In April 2010, an independent television station entered into this mix of soft authoritarianism: TV Dozhd, which means "rain" in Russian. Transmitting by Internet and cable, it soon became a beacon for an urban and progressive audience. The station called itself the "optimistic channel" and reflected the idealism of a younger generation that hung out in Moscow’s cafes and enjoyed the snappy programming, a stark contrast to the staid and often somnolent broadcasts from state television. TV Dozhd pushed the boundaries of the permitted with biting satire, talk shows and extensive news coverage of opposition leaders, including Alexei Navalny, as well as the massive street protests against Mr. Putin in 2011 and 2012.

Now, as NBC broadcasts from Sochi, this edgy experiment in a free press is facing a wave of silent pressure that could suffocate it. One by one, cable and satellite operators who carried TV Dozhd have informed the channel in recent weeks that it is being dropped.

The pretext for the pressure campaign was a Jan. 26 broadcast marking the 70th anniversary of the Leningrad blockade by the Nazis, which took nearly 1 million lives and remains a sensitive touchstone for feelings about the war and the immense sacrifices the Russian people made to defeat Hitler. TV Dozhd aired a poll asking whether the city should have been surrendered to save lives. Many Russians were angered by the question, and the channel pulled it quickly and apologized. Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that the poll question was "an issue of moral and ethical dimensions" and that Dozhd had "crossed every boundary of acceptable behavior." Soon thereafter, the cable and satellite operators, vital to TV Dozhd’s survival, began to switch it off.

This knives-in-the-night approach is typical of the latter-day Putin regime. While Mr. Putin once caused a stir with a highly publicized takeover of the independent TV channel NTV, now he is stealthier, working his will from the shadows. Ostensibly taking offense at the Leningrad poll cynically provides a bit of patriotic cover. But the result is the same: It looks like yet another light in Russia’s democratic struggle — the refreshing openness of TV Dozhd — is about to go dark.

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