MOSCOW – Prosecutors on Thursday opened an inquiry into Russia’s top independent TV station over a poll that asked a question about a sensitive aspect of World War II.
The controversy over the Dozhd station reflects the challenges faced by the few media outlets outside the Kremlin control. It also shows just how divisive history issues can be in today’s Russia.
Dozhd, which broadcasts on the Internet, cable and satellite channels, asked if the Soviets should have surrendered Leningrad to the Nazis to avoid the more than 1 million deaths that followed.
Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, said Wednesday that the poll crossed a moral “red line” but may not have been illegal.
That didn’t stop prosecutors from opening an inquiry Thursday on whether or not the station violated the law.
Russia’s media oversight agency warned Dozhd that it had violated a legal provision that requires the media to respect the public.
Without waiting for the results of the official probe, several top cable and satellite providers cut Dozhd from their packages, a move that Dozhd’s owner, Nataliya Sindeyeva, attributed to government pressure.
While Dozhd’s reach is small compared to state-controlled nationwide television stations, it has been very popular among the urban middle class, who were the driving force behind massive protests in Moscow in 2011-2012 against Putin’s re-election. The station’s eagerness to give the floor to opposition leaders and its critical reporting long have made it a thorn in the Kremlin’s side.
The poll that ran Sunday touched on one of the most tragic pages in the nation’s history, the 872-day Nazi siege of Leningrad, which began in September 1941. More than 1 million residents of the city died, mostly of starvation, and the city’s resistance has become a major symbol of the country’s suffering and heroism during World War II.
War historians have argued over the years about whether the heavy death toll could have been avoided. But Dozhd’s attempt to thrust the issue into public debate struck a raw nerve and drew a quick and angry response from officials. Some lawmakers in the Kremlin-controlled parliament immediately called for the station’s closure.
“This (poll) is not just immoral, it is sacrilegious,” said Vladimir Radin, a communist, who was among a group of lawmakers who sent a letter urging prosecutors to look into the matter. “I would even say it directly violated the law.”
Dozhd quickly retracted the poll from its website and apologized, but that didn’t end its troubles.
“The situation began moving in the following direction: all of a sudden, our partners — cable networks — first started warning us that they are going to disconnect us and then started actually disconnecting us,” Dozhd’s editor, Mikhail Zygar, said.
Sindeyeva and Zygar said the networks’ action appeared to have been instigated by the Kremlin, where they said some officials were angry at the station for airing a report about expensive country residences owned by officials and lawmakers.