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Network Shutout in Russia Casts Shadow Over Pussy Riot's Tour

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On Wednesday, the Russian activist punk band Pussy Riot - with two members now out of prison -- will appear in front of thousands of music fans at Brooklyn's Barclay's Center in a PR tour that is perhaps a triumph of free expression. Meanwhile, the independent TV network Dozhd -- where the band's two jailed members held a press conference after their release -- might be taken off air throughout Russia anytime soon.

Two extremes, brought to you by a country whose contrasts rarely cease to disappoint.

(The Kremlin, of course, would spin President Putin's mass clemency decision, of which Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were a part, as goodwill at the hands of the country's leader. But, as Julia Ioffe has put it, Putin's last wave of clemency was not so much a concession to free-speech and human-rights advocates as it was an arbitrary exercise of power disguised as autocratic gratuity.)

The formal turn against Dozhd -- which came after the network, in a viewer survey, asked whether St. Petersburg, then Leningrad, should have been surrendered in 1943, which may have prevented hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths -- had been coming. The question asked, deemed insensitive by journalists and authorities alike, appears a convenient reason -- or a "fantastic excuse," as Dozhd's director put it -- for authorities to get at a network that regularly reports on the opposition.

Last week, several cable providers announced they would promptly end the network's broadcasts, citing anything from mysteriously absent broadcasting agreements to subscribers' own opinions or insufficient patriotism. All this in a country where nine out of 10 people have TV as their main source of news, and where most TV networks are under direct or indirect state control.

The online fury directed at cable provider Akado's announcement might typify Dozhd's audience: an engaged netizenry that's concerned about free speech and doesn't think twice about chucking insults at the establishment. (In a country where the Interior Ministry is known to request IP addresses of people who comment on articles, that is a braver move than you may think.)

They are "a limited, mostly liberal audience," says Anna Sharogradskaya, the director of the Regional Press Institute in St. Petersburg. They are the "creative middle class," says Gregory Shvedov, editor-in-chief of a news portal reporting independently from the conflict-ridden Caucasus; the same folks who would join any anti-regime demonstrations unless they're busy vacationing abroad ("fresh air," I've heard them call it).

That crowd -- the choir to Dozhd's preaching -- won't vanish because the channel has been shut out by providers. Svetalana Reiter, an investigative reporter in Moscow with "many friends" at the network, might serve as case in point:

I'm switching off Akado. That's what all my friends are doing. We just need to wait until the end of the month. That's the best I can do in this situation, and subscribe for Dozhd, which will be like $30 a month.

Yet a complete shutout would rob the network of its shot at influencing the wider debate in Russia -- an admittedly small one, but a shot nonetheless. Shvedov, for instance, says Dozhd resonates with viewers in the Caucasus:

A lot of people in the regions, especially in the Caucasus, want to see something different from typical TV. There are people who watch Al Jazeera in the Northern Caucasus -- but they need to know the language. There are people who watch some other channels, like the BBC, but that's not accessible for the majority of the people.

Coverage by mainstream, state-owned networks is often "post-Soviet propaganda" that does not compare to Dozhd's reporting, Shvedov said. If web only, the daring network would go off the grid in many regions. The republic of Dagestan, in the Caucasus, for instance, in one Internet "black spot."

With satellite and Internet broadcasts, Dozhd would be confined to territory cordoned off for people who, as far as the official story goes, are anti-establishment wackos. (A vast majority of Russians go online at least once of month, but only one in five have it as their premier source of news, and even fewer trust news consumed on the Internet.)

The official stamp on Dozhd as media non grata cements the network as part of what the establishment views as an enclave of unpatriotic, EU-friendly liberals busy wooing the West and out to undermine their own country.

Yes, Pussy Riot are free to tour the world. Just don't expect to see it on Russian TV.