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Russia Wages Media War Alongside Crimea Invasion

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NEW YORK -- One of the first casualties in the Russian invasion of Crimea was independent television.

Black Sea TV, the peninsula's only independent channel, was shut down on Monday. The head editor, Oleksandra Kvitko, said a Crimean governing body had decided to close the station, claiming there had been threats against its journalists.

The crackdown on independent media is a hallmark of Kremlin-style manipulation. Such press tightening began early on during the presidency of Vladimir Putin and has continued, most recently, in the run-up to last month's Sochi Olympics and threatened closure of opposition channel TV Rain.

Russian media chiefs defended their reporting Monday against charges of bias, even as recent coverage demonstrated the Kremlin's control of the news.

Following the ouster of pro-Kremlin president Victor Yanukovych, Russian TV anchors have suggested that supporters of Ukraine’s new interim government would have sided with the fascists in World War II -- or the "Great Patriotic War," the term commonly used in Russia -- and that Western-facing protesters largely belonged to the extreme right.

Coverage of clashes in Kiev, however, shifted to the fate of the Crimean peninsula, home to predominately Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Reuters reported last Tuesday that Russian state television had begun showing Ukrainians in Crimea “saying they would not follow orders from Kiev."

Russia’s state-controlled media has undergone a shift in recent months toward increased centralization and control.

Dimitry Kiselev, a television host who is infamous for saying gays' hearts should be burned, was appointed by Putin in December to head Russia Today, a domestic media organization separate from RT, the English-language channel that broadcasts the Russian point of view to foreign audiences.

On Sunday, Kiselev said Russia needed to defend its “interests” in Russian-speaking Ukraine and that it was "impossible not to respond to this challenge,” according to the BBC.

Kiselev's broadside against Ukraine's new leadership similarly stressed that the Russian-speaking population in Crimea was looking toward leaders in Moscow, not Kiev. The program’s background, at one point, included images of Russian flags and a pro-Moscow demonstration in Crimea. To reinforce the Kremlin's message, an on-screen caption read: "We don't give up our own."

Russian state media has amplified the voices of Crimeans dissatisfied with the central Ukrainian government, while ignoring anti-war demonstrations. "Why don't they listen to us? The media shows everything that is not true, they only show what Kiev needs," one woman said in a man-on-the-street interview with Russia's Channel One. Lifenews.ru, Russia's pro-Kremlin online tabloid, upped the rhetoric with the headline, "Oddessans ask Putin to save them from the terror of the Euromaidan," showing a woman tearfully asking for protection from Western Ukraine.

Russian media also claimed to be showing people fleeing Ukraine for Russia, when in fact the footage showed an ordinary day at a Polish-Ukrainian border crossing. Russian state agency ITAR-TASS quoted the border service as saying there were signs of a "humanitarian catastrophe." A Daily Beast article on Monday described Russian state-controlled media as having gone "into full fabrication mode."

Still, Russian public opinion is more complex than, and even at odds with, the jingoistic public image coming out of Moscow. VTsIOM, the state-owned pollster, found in a survey released Feb. 24 that 73 percent of respondents though Russia did not need to interfere in the political crisis in Ukraine, and 94 percent did not want the crisis to happen.

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