A cable-news mystery, Russian-style

Alexei Nikolsky/AP - Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on fulfilling social policy tasks outside Moscow on Wednesday, July 11, 2012. Putin complained about foreign news coverage of Russia in a speech Monday.

MOSCOW — First, a few customers complained, but the people who run Akado, a major Internet TV and cable provider here, ducked calls from the press. Then Alexei Navalny, a crusading blogger, tweeted it Thursday morning: Akado had dropped CNN International and BBC World, two mainstays of English-language news.

The retweets poured out, adding a spin: Either Akado is an awfully lame cable company, or something was going on — and it might be related to President Vladimir Putin’s complaints Monday about how Russia is portrayed in the foreign news media.

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At midday, an Akado spokesman, Sergei Fyodorov, issued a statement saying that the channels had been canceled for reasons “beyond” the company’s control.

That helped stir the pot.

A little later, another spokesman said the problem was that CNN and the BBC had not obtained proper licenses. And, by the way, Bloomberg TV was taken off the air for the same reason.

Akado is a big provider, but it is not the biggest. It has about a million customers in Moscow, reaching 54 percent of pay-TV subscribers, but the standard cable provider, Mostelecom, is about three times as large, said Elena Krylova, an analyst with iks Consulting in Moscow. There are dozens of Internet TV competitors, so it wasn’t as if Akado was blacking out the whole city or leaving viewers with nowhere else to turn.

And that licensing business? Krylova said it doesn’t, on the face of it, make any sense.

Among the alternative explanations circulating: Maybe someone was hoping to garner a little favor on high by acting on Putin’s complaints. Maybe the company was trying to show its loyalty a day after the Russian parliament passed a law expanding government control of the Internet. Or maybe Akado was trying to put the arm on the three channels for its own reasons, and all three just happened to be news stations. (A request for a response from CNN elicited the suggestion from a Turner Broadcasting representative in Moscow that The Washington Post should call back Friday.)

But maybe, in the end, Akado was taken aback when respected news Web sites — as well as the Ekho Moskvy radio station, the swashbuckling TV Rain Internet television channel and even the foreign media — took notice and asked questions.

Late in the day came yet another statement, this one from Akado Vice President Sergey Nazarov. “The company has received required confirmation from CNN, BBC and the Bloomberg channels, which allows us to resume broadcasting,” he said.

In Russia, it seems that trial balloons are never a complete loss, even when they deflate. If this episode really was about taking a swipe at the foreign media, and the person behind it decided to back off, it wouldn’t be seen as a defeat so much as a useful shot across the bow.

It coincided with a denial-of-service attack on the Web site of Ekho Moskvy, a homegrown news organization but one that has long been a thorn in Putin’s side. By late in the day, Ekho Moskvy, too, was up and running.

 
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