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Moscow protest for media freedom draws 5,000 people

MOSCOW (Reuters) - About 5,000 Russians, some waving Ukrainian flags, rallied in central Moscow on Sunday to protest at what they say is a government crackdown on independent media intended to stifle debate about the crisis in Ukraine.

In the past few weeks, Russia has removed the longtime editor of a popular Russian Internet news site Lenta.ru and taken an independent television channel off air.

The Kremlin denies allegations of censorship or pressure on the media. Most Russians support the Kremlin's policy on Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula has significantly boosted public approval ratings of President Vladimir Putin, polls indicate.

Protesters at the heavily policed rally listened to speeches from activists, decrying state control of the media.

"Russia's main problem at the moment is lying, a problem leading to war in Ukraine, (and) the isolation of Russia from the rest of the world," said Igor Yakovenko, the former head of Russia's Union of Journalists, who helped to organize the protest.

The crisis in Ukraine has led to the most serious standoff between Russia and the West in decades. Both sides accuse each other of manipulating the news for political ends.

In March, Russia blocked access to the blogs of prominent Kremlin foes Alexei Navalny and Garry Kasparov and other Internet sites that have become platforms for opposition voices.

The move followed the enactment of a law allowing prosecutors to order providers to block access to sites deemed to have published calls for participation in demonstrations planned without the consent of the government.

At Sunday's rally, protester Ekaterina Maldonko said the media atmosphere in Russia was reminiscent of the country's Communist totalitarian past.

"I'm here to protest against the rapid return of 1937, against censorship, (and) endless lies from our zombie-box (television). I also want to express my support for the heroes of Ukraine," Maldonko said.

Her mention of 1937 was a reference to the height of purges by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin who during his long rule sent of millions of people to their deaths.

(Reporting by Alexander Reshetnikov; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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