A Russian television report suggesting Muscovites were paid to attend mass protests against the recent reelection of Vladimir Putin continues to anger opposition sympathizers.
But as demonstrations continue and activists prepare lawsuits against NTV, the Kremlin-friendly television station that aired the show, the outcry also threatens to ensnare one of the world's biggest companies.
Procter & Gamble, the U.S. manufacturer of personal hygiene and household products, is being dragged into the dispute as one of NTV's largest advertisers. Disgruntled Russians are calling on consumers to boycott its products.
The U.S. corporation was quick to denounce the boycott campaign as an attempt to pressure the company.
"Proctor & Gamble respects the right of citizens to freedom of speech and to expressing their position," the company said in a statement
posted on its Facebook page. "The idea of a boycott puts pressure on the company in the hope of turning Proctor & Gamble into an instrument for the resolution of this conflict."
In its report, "Anatomy of a Protest," the NTV station last week claimed the White House was funding the anti-Putin protests and said demonstrators were given money and biscuits to take part.
Among those taking NTV to court is Igor Drandin, the leader of the Democratic Choice movement.
"In the first lawsuit, we demand compensation for the fact that NTV's report used footage that we shot on election day, without indicating that we are the authors and without our consent," Drandin said. "The second suit concerns the protection of our honor and dignity. The opposition was accused of hiring people to take part in protests, to show that it was all a performance. This is not true, and we demand a refutation."
Several other opposition figures are preparing lawsuits against NTV. Violetta Volkova, a prominent lawyer who represents opposition campaigners in court, is putting together a class-action suit against the station.
Russia's state-controlled television has a long track record of smearing political opponents and alleged foreign spies. But many Russians consider that NTV, by targeting ordinary citizens, has gone a step too far.
Hundreds of protesters rallied near Moscow's largest television tower on March 18 to denounce the report and condemn what they said was the Kremlin's domination of the media. They laid red carnations in front of the buildings to symbolically mourn the death of free media in Russia.
Police detained dozens of participants
The report has created dismay even among NTV's staff.
"Obviously it was a professional propaganda piece," NTV journalist Yekaterina Gordeyeva said. "If people recognize themselves in the footage, people from the crowd, or protest leaders -- and I was told that some people have already been identified -- then these people should definitely file a lawsuit."
Remarks by NTV Director Vladimir Kulistikov, who thanked the opposition for "raising NTV's ratings to an unprecedented level," have fueled the outcry.
Putin stepped down as president in 2008 to comply with a two-consecutive-term limit in the Russian Constitution. He was elected to a six-year term as president on March 4, following four years as prime minister.
Written by Claire Bigg with reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service