MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian television station that made its name covering massive street protests against President Vladimir Putin has been taken off the air by three television providers in a move the channel's chief said was censorship.
Dozhd (TV Rain), an independent-minded television station with a strong online presence, has aired aggressive reporting critical of Russian authorities and even-handed broadcasts on Ukraine's anti-government protests.
General Director Natalia Sindeyeva said three providers had dropped the channel in and around Moscow, adding Dozhd had been under pressure since it ran exposes on expensive property owned by high-ranking Kremlin officials.
"You have to call things by their names. Of course, this is censorship and pressure," she told Reuters. The station was still available on two major providers in the Moscow area.
TV provider Akado said the decision was taken due to a "meaningful change in its conception". Dozhd has faced criticism after asking on its website if Leningrad, now St Petersburg, should have been given to Nazi Germany to save lives during a 872-day blockade during World War Two.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian agency Interfax on Wednesday the survey was "beyond what was acceptable from the moral and ethical point of view of our people".
The station, which has also given generous air time to Putin foe Alexei Navalny, later took the Leningrad survey down. The Soviet victory in World War Two, in which around 10 million people died, is a source of national pride for many Russians.
"(The survey) was a fantastic excuse to tighten the screws on us," she said. "The authorities have been looking for this excuse for a long time."
The providers' decisions were the latest examples of a media crackdown that critics say is orchestrated by Putin, who has charted a more conservative course since returning to the presidency in 2012.
The main state news agency was dissolved last month replaced with an organisation to promote Moscow's image abroad.
Sindeyeva said the station tries to balance its reporting and has hosted interviews with Putin spokesman Peskov and with Dmitry Medvedev when he was president.
Officials told her informally they had been upset by the company's broadcast of protests in Ukraine, she added. Kremlin-aligned television channels have depicted the demonstrations there as a Western plot.
"Ukraine, as they told me, was a major stumbling block and bone in their throats," she said. "We are a big annoyance."
Protests broke out in late November after the government said it would spurn a free trade deal with the European Union in favour of boosting ties with former Soviet master Russia.
Lawmakers from the ruling pro-Putin United Russia party accused the channel of trying to start a "colour revolution" like Ukraine's 2004-2005 Orange Revolution that brought in a pro-Western government.
"It's clear that this is the professional signature of puppeteers who specialise in the colour theme," said a statement from Nikolai Gritsenko of United Russia's general council.
"Their goal is to sow the 'maidan' in people's heads," he said, referring to the Kiev square now under control of protesters against Ukraine's current pro-Russian leadership.
The Er-Telekom and NTV Plus providers have also dropped the channel, Dozhd said. Neither company was available for comment.
(Writing by Thomas Grove; Editing by Tom Heneghan)