Muscovites who switched on Channel 3 Friday for the 6 o'clock news about the mesmerizing hostage crisis were suddenly presented with a blank screen. Moskovia TV was not allowed back on the air until 15 hours later, after the standoff had ended, as punishment for what the press minister considered improper coverage.
The station's blackout is just one example of how the Kremlin has muscled the mass media throughout the hostage crisis, prohibiting doctors who treated freed hostages from speaking publicly and reprimanding an official newspaper for insensitivity in publishing the photo of a dead victim.
The impulse of a government to clamp down on information in a situation where it is struggling to save hundreds of innocent hostages is understandable. But to some free press advocates, and some ordinary Russians as well, the Kremlin has tightened its usual short leash on mass media outlets to the point where the official version of events is paramount and unpleasant truths are sidelined.
Long before rebels took over a theater Wednesday in the middle of a popular musical, the Russian press was on notice that the Kremlin does not care to be publicly raked over the coals. The owners of two independent national television stations were all but run out of the country after Vladimir Putin became president, and many journalists privately say they censor themselves rather than risk the Kremlin's ire.
But with the hostage crisis, the Kremlin's management of the press kicked into high gear.
Today, the government's own daily, Rossiskaya Gazeta, decried the lack of basic facts about the Saturday raid that freed most hostages safely but left 115 of them dead from an apparently opiate-like gas that was pumped into the theater to incapacitate their captors.
The newspaper said the "total secrecy around the rescue operation" reminded it of "the times when we were denied a right to information."
Mikhail Seslavinsky, the government's deputy press minister, disputed that in an interview today, saying the government gave out as much information as it could without endangering an anti-terrorist operation. "We were trying to make minimum restrictions," he said. "The entire country was watching TV all the time."
In the capital, they were not watching Moskovia TV, at least not until after the troops had stormed the theater, known as the House of Culture for the State Ball-Bearing Factory, and freed the hostages early on Saturday.
Cutting the station's signal without notice two minutes before its 6 p.m. broadcast on Friday "was absolutely illegal," said general director Vladimir Zhelonkin in an interview today. "No one can just switch off a channel without even a written decision. It's just an example of pure arbitrariness."
Seslavinsky said the signal was pulled because the station aired possible exit routes for the rebels, as well as ethnic slurs against Chechens.
But Zhelonkin denied any slurs, and said the station never showed how the rebels might flee. A journalist simply suggested that the rebels might be flown out of a military airport if the Kremlin agreed to let them return to Chechnya in exchange for freeing the hostages, he said.
Rossiskaya Gazeta was given a reprimand from the Press Ministry for publishing a front-page photo Friday that showed two doctors in white coats dragging a dead body away from the theater. The rebels had shot the woman as she tried to enter the House of Culture, where they held about 700 theatergoers hostage.
Seslavinsky told an Internet news site that the photo "disgraces the memory and dignity" of the woman who was killed and was "not ethical in terms of the hostages who are sitting in the theater." He asked the mass media to be more sensitive about the photos they publish.
But some journalists said the newspaper's photo was judged unacceptable because it showed a side of the crisis the Kremlin wants to play down -- the hostage casualties.
For that same reason, some suspect, reporters and relatives of the hostages have been kept out of the hospitals and the government has not identified the type of gas it used. Echo Moskvy, the city's leading radio station, also reported that doctors treating the freed hostages were forbidden by a local health committee decree to speak to the press.
The distraught mother of one freed hostage complained that officials from ORT, a state-controlled national television network, even refused to tell her at which hospital they filmed her daughter, saying they needed permission from the prosecutor's office.
Igor Burenkov, an ORT spokesman, said today he knew nothing about the case. "But this is true," he said. "We cannot do anything without permission." Then he retracted that, blaming the incident on a misunderstanding.
Russian officials argue that the hospitals must be strictly guarded while the Federal Security Service (FSB) ensures that none of the rebels ended up there. And Kremlin supporters say identifying the gas might help other terrorists protect themselves with antidotes.
Still, other signs suggest that the government is going to great lengths to orchestrate the public perception of the hostage drama, including possibly planting a few props around the dead body of the leading rebel, Movsar Barayev. FSB footage of the body showed an unopened bottle of cognac and syringes nearby.
Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist drafted as a negotiator, said today she thought Barayev might be under the influence of narcotics the one time she spoke to him over the phone. But others who served as intermediaries said the rebels did not drink, smoke or use drugs. Yosif Kobzon, a well-known Russian singer who negotiated for the government, said today he thought the bottle of cognac was placed there "for the public to think it was a depraved gang."
The government's strongest stricture throughout the crisis was that the media not give the hostage-takers a megaphone for their demands. Seslavinsky said anti-terrorism and mass media laws prohibit broadcasts or publication of interviews with terrorists. "If we put all the terrorists on the air with their propaganda, they would take hostages just to be on the air," he said.
Russia's policy is stricter than the U.S. government's. Under pressure from the White House, the five major American television networks last October agreed to abridge videotapes from Osama bin Laden or his followers to remove language that the government considered inflammatory. The networks said they would broadcast only short parts of any tape, partly to ensure that bin Laden did not use the media to send coded messages to other terrorists.
The Russian Press Ministry enforced its rule rigorously throughout the hostage crisis.
When Echo Moskvy posted an interview with one of the hostage-takers on its Web site, the ministry sent notice that the site would be shut down, said Alexei Venediktov, director of the radio station. The station managed to air the interview live before the ministry was able to react.
On the air, the hostage-taker, who identified himself as Hasmamat, mocked the radio correspondent's plea for mercy for the children in the theater, saying Chechens suffered far more at the hands of Russian troops.
"Oh, you sound so sad," said the rebel. "Do you want to make me even sadder? During two wars in Chechnya, more than 3,000 kids younger than 10 years old were killed."
NTV also was barred from airing an interview with Barayev that took place inside the theater. The television network showed only the images of Barayev and other rebels until the standoff ended. An NTV correspondent who conducted the interview said Barayev told other reporters from the station that he would "cut off" the correspondent's head for not airing the tape.
Correspondents Peter Baker and Susan B. Glasser contributed to this report.