KYIV -- Ukraine has banned the prominent independent Russian television station Dozhd (TV Rain) from broadcasting in the country after a report identifying the boundary between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine as the Ukrainian-Russian border angered authorities in Kyiv.
A top international media freedom advocate called the move "very damaging."
The National Radio and TV Council (NRTC) on January 12 ordered Ukrainian broadcasters to stop airing reports by Dozhd within a month after the official publication of the decision, which was expected on January 16, the Moscow-based channel said.
It cited an official from a Ukrainian partner of the channel, Volya, as saying the reason for the ban was that Dozhd had violated a prohibition on advertising.
The Interfax news agency, however, cited council member Serhiy Kostynskyy as saying Dozhd had infringed on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity when it aired an image showing the boundary with Crimea as the state border, suggesting that Crimea is part of Russia.
Russia seized control of Crimea in 2014, but Kyiv and most of the rest of the world continue to consider the Black Sea peninsula part of Ukraine.
Kostynskyy also claimed Dozhd had violated Ukrainian law by sending reporters to Crimea via Moscow instead of through the Ukrainian-controlled crossing point at the peninsula’s northern end.
Dozhd Director Natalya Sindeyeva called the ban "a pity" and defended the station’s use of the controversial map, explaining that Russian law requires that media use maps that denote Russia’s possession of Crimea.
"I hope that our Ukrainian viewers will find an opportunity to watch Dozhd through our website, our Smart TV applications, and other channels of distribution," Sindeyeva added.
Dozhd was retransmitted throughout Ukraine by some 90 broadcast providers and reached about 500,000 households, the station said.
Dunja Mijatovic, media freedom representative at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said on Twitter that the decision would be "very damaging for media pluralism in #Ukraine."
The NRTC has banned broadcasting of at least 35 Russian TV stations for infringing on national security and violating advertising regulations, according to Interfax. Dozhd reported that the number of Russian channels banned or restricted in Ukraine is more than 60.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s administration declined to comment on the Dozhd ban.
But Dozhd, which has provided a platform for government opponents in Russia, found a rare defender in the Russian government when Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova came to bat for it on her Facebook page, writing: "I hope that the Kyiv authorities have not sunk to such censorship. But if this information is true, we will inform the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe)."
Some on social media viewed Zakharova’s remark as hypocritical, given what media freedom groups say has been a crackdown on news outlets critical of the Kremlin under President Vladimir Putin.
"Leading independent news outlets have either been brought under control or throttled out of existence," international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said in a report in 2016.
The organization ranked Russia 148 out of 180 countries on its 2016 press freedom index, saying: "While TV channels continue to inundate viewers with propaganda, the climate has become very oppressive for those who question the new patriotic and neo-conservative discourse or just try to maintain quality journalism." Ukraine was ranked 107th.
Dozhd has come under pressure from Russian authorities in recent years.
The station found itself in hot water on several occasions, such as after airing an interview with a Russian man who claimed to have fought alongside Russia-backed separatists in a conflict that has killed more than 9,750 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.
Two Dozhd journalists reporting in the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk in November were expelled for conducting what the separatists said was "illegal journalistic activity."
For Ukrainians, the Dozhd ban means one fewer Russian-language news outlet to balance out Russian state-run and state-controlled broadcasters that are beamed to TV sets and radios across much of war-torn, predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
That didn’t appear to cause much concern among press-freedom advocates in Ukraine, where media rights groups have frequently accused Poroshenko and his government of suppressing independent voices.
Tetyana Popova, the former Ukrainian deputy information policy minister who resigned in protest last summer over the government’s failure to investigate alleged abuses against journalists, told RFE/RL she does not believe the Dozhd ban is censorship. She said that "unfortunately, [Dozhd] broke the law" by airing Russian advertisements.
"They could do Ukrainian version without them. It wouldn’t be hard," she added.
Press freedom defenders from the Kyiv-based Institute of Mass Information could not be reached for comment. Neither Detector Media nor Telekritika -- outlets that report on Ukraine’s media landscape and advocate for free speech -- remarked on the Dozhd ban, opting only to cover it as news.