TV censorship crosses time zones in Putin’s Russia

MOSCOW (AP) ? On a recent Sunday evening, television viewers in Russia’s eastern regions watched as a young Chechen man with a bandaged bloody nose described the details of his torture by Chechen special police.

But viewers in Russia’s west never got to hear his story. By the time they tuned in to the news program some seven or eight hours later, the report had been replaced with 10 minutes of ads.

Censorship across time zones has become an established practice on national television networks, which under Russian leader Vladimir Putin were all brought under Kremlin control. Controversial or sensitive programs are shown in full to audiences in the Far East, Siberia and the Urals, but are often edited before they reach viewers in Russia’s western regions, where 70 percent of the population lives.

Sometimes, the programs are canceled altogether.

Increasingly, however, the uncut programs are quickly posted on the Internet, where they are discussed and spread through Russia’s thriving blogosphere by a growing number of Russians unhappy with Putin’s rule.

As many as 80 percent of Russians still rely on television as their main news source, which explains the Kremlin’s reluctance to ease its hold. But Internet use is growing dramatically and the free exchange of critical information is beginning to chip away at the Kremlin’s ability to influence public opinion.

Russia now has the highest number of Internet users among 18 countries in Europe, with market research company comScore Inc. recording 50.8 million unique visitors to the Internet in September. In the same month, Russia had the fifth most engaged social networking audience in the world, with the average user spending 9.7 hours a day on popular social networking sites.

The percentage of Russians using the Internet is still low by European standards but it has been growing steadily.

The journalists who produced the report on Chechnya knew what they were risking. They warned their sources even as they were filming that the story might show only in the east, if it made it to the airwaves at all. When the report was pulled, they immediately posted it on YouTube, and by the next day the video had been seen by more than 300,000 people across the country.

The report, belying the Kremlin’s portrayal of growing stability in Chechnya, came at a sensitive time as Prime Minister Putin prepares to reclaim the presidency in March elections. A key test for Putin comes Sunday, when his party faces a national vote to keep its majority in parliament.

But such censorship attempts may be backfiring.

“I presume, in the end, more people actually watched it than would have had it run properly,” said Tatyana Lokshina, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who has worked extensively in Russia’s restive North Caucasus region, which includes Chechnya.

Lokshina said the wide audience the report attracted on the Internet was unlikely to have gone unnoticed by the Kremlin.

“The Kremlin censors are becoming more and more aware of the scandal potential of online media and social networks and blogs, and how if they make a rash decision to kill a certain sensitive story, there will be consequences,” she said.

The censoring of the Chechnya report caused a minor scandal and was covered by Russian newspapers and some international media organizations.

The Kremlin has tolerated the criticism proliferating on the Internet and also in Russia’s non-governmental media. Some of the most biting attacks have come from a burst of creative political satire that followed Putin’s announcement in September that he and President Dmitry Medvedev planned to switch jobs next year.

So far, however, the political cartoons, lively debates and critical reports posted online have largely served to let off steam among what is a growing but still relatively small portion of the population.

The Internet “may be a vehicle of critical opinion, critical analysis, of even exposure of wrongdoing and abuse of authority, but it is not a vehicle of political mobilization or political organization,” said Masha Lipman, a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Russians do not want a revolution like those that brought down regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, and they have little appetite for political activism, she said.

Most Russians still prefer the political stability that Putin promises and they still get their news from television.

“The people who pull reports off the air, they don’t care about the Internet,” said journalist Andrei Loshak. “They understand that there is an audience for the Internet, and there is an audience for television that is much more important. And with them it’s a separate conversation.”

Loshak had a 25-minute documentary film pulled off the air in 2008 after it had been shown in the Far East. The film touched on a sensitive issue under Moscow’s mayor at the time, although it never mentioned him by name. Loshak posted the video online but otherwise decided not to raise a fuss for fear of losing his job.

In the same way, the report on abuses in Chechnya was apparently considered to reflect too negatively on the Kremlin. Putin has backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, whose brutal rule has brought a semblance of calm after years of war, but rights activists claim that his forces are responsible for disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings.

“You just can’t touch such issues right now, especially during elections,” veteran television executive Anatoly Lysenko said in an interview published in the newspaper Kommersant. “There are things we simply cannot show.”