On Sunday night, the Russian news show Central Television aired its typical reel of fluff and propaganda. A village boy recited a poem in praise of a policeman. Officials from Siberia were shown rehearsing for a play. And Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, dressed in a bomber jacket, took the wheel of a combine and harvested six tons of corn. "Imagine how much popcorn you can make!" rejoiced the anchor of the show. But then something strange happened. The program showed a piece about torture and police brutality in the region of Chechnya. It was an aberration. Had the censors fallen asleep? Had the journalists gone mad?
If so, then not for very long. The exposé about Chechen rights abuses, one of the most taboo subjects in the state-controlled media, only aired in half the country. Rolling westward across Russia's nine time zones, the original broadcast reached audiences in the Far East and Siberia, got to the Ural Mountains and was then abruptly stripped of the Chechnya story before it reached the country's heartland. In its place, most of Russia's citizens were shown a piece about ballet.
But the rest of the country got a stark dose of reality. A young Chechen man named Islam Umarpashaev, his mangled nose still bleeding into a bandage, told the viewers how he had been kidnapped from his home by men in uniform after he criticized the Chechen police online. He said he was held for four months, chained to a radiator in a basement, beaten, pistol whipped in the temple and repeatedly electrocuted. When he refused to confess to terrorism charges, he said the police began readying him for a staged counterterrorism operation, a practice he said they called "preparing results."
That meant, as a Russian journalist explained in the voice-over, his captors allowed his wounds to heal, fed him and allowed him to wash. Only he was not allowed to shave, so that his beard would make him look like the stereotype of an Islamic radical. As the voice-over went on to allege, Chechen police regularly stage shoot-outs with these dummy terrorists, whose bodies are left strewn about a building in Chechnya. The officers then tally the dead and file them as the latest success in Russia's war on terrorism. "The head of the [police] unit told me straight out," Umarpashaev said in the report, which was later posted on YouTube, "'We'll grow your hair and beard out a little more and put you in a trench.'"
Although rights advocates have been reporting such abuses for years, nothing like this has been shown on state television since at least the early 2000s, when Putin asserted control over Russia's leading broadcasters. NTV, the channel that ran the Chechnya report on Sunday, was one of the last to be reined in. It was bought out by a state-run firm in 2001, and within a few years all of its critical journalists were fired.
Chechnya was meanwhile fading from the television screens and the public discourse. After two separatist wars between 1994 and 2000, billions of dollars were spent on the region's reconstruction. Putin also installed a loyal clan, led by the Kadyrov family, to control the region's militants. Every few months, claims of torture and extrajudicial killings in Chechnya would break through the region's media blackout, but the journalists and rights activists who reported them were often abducted, beaten or murdered. Most recently, in 2009, the activist Natalia Estemirova was kidnapped in Chechnya and dumped on the side of a road hours later with bullets in her head and chest.
The Russian Committee Against Torture, one of the only rights groups to remain in Chechnya after that murder, was still able to pressure police to release Umarpashaev when his parents contacted them with his story. The activists then gave him and his family refuge in a safe house, where the NTV journalists filmed. "[The reporters] told us they were taking a big risk," says Alexander Nemov, one of the group's activists. "They said there wasn't much chance of the program airing in Moscow. They just wanted to try it."
But why now? And why did they back down? In statements to the press, NTV said it had pulled the story "for improvements" and has declined to comment further. The past year, however, has seen a noticeable loosening of the taboos that bind what is shown on Russian television. In May, an interview with imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of Putin's oldest enemies, was allowed on state television for the first time in years. The report even mentioned the view of Amnesty International that he is a "prisoner of conscience."
But this is not because Russian journalists have gotten more brave or independent, says a senior producer at Channel One, the government's leading network. "The Kremlin simply realized that its grip is too tight, that nobody can breathe anymore," he told TIME in an interview Tuesday, asking to remain anonymous for fear of being fired. "It was starting to make us look bad in front of the West, and the difference between what is said on TV and what is discussed online was getting absurd, like the two are discussing different worlds."
President Dmitri Medvedev admitted as much last December, when he told the heads of the three leading channels that "news coverage is miserable ... as if there is no freedom of speech." He went on to insist that online news should not be "dramatically different" from television coverage. But like most of Medvedev's reformist ideas, this one stalled upon implementation.
"When the topic is politically sensitive, the Kremlin still calls and the story gets yanked," says the Channel One producer. So Sunday's exposé will do little more than reaffirm the gag order on coverage of Chechnya. By next March, when Putin is set to return to the presidency, such flukes will likely become a thing of the past. Across all of Russia's time zones, prime time will show pictures of him operating heavy machinery or performing other mindless tricks. And there is no use changing the channel.