The staff of the weekly Versiya had a scoop. They'd spent 10 days frantically reporting one of the biggest stories any of them could remember--the siege of a Moscow theater that ended in a dramatic assault by Russian Special Forces and the use of a knockout gas that killed more than 100 civilians. And what they were publishing amounted to a damning expose: eyewitness accounts of dead and half-dead hostages piled on top of one another, charges that none of the victims received timely medical help and a report that the gas used was not civilian but military. Finally and most explosively, Versiya planned to publish claims from unnamed government sources that the death toll in the crisis was much higher than officially reported--rather than 119, as many as 300.
Moscow is swirling with such rumors, and Versiya will be printing them. But only just. Shortly after it went to press, eight plainclothes investigators burst into the newspaper's offices in the center of Moscow. They were officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB), domestic successor to the old Soviet KGB once headed by President Vladimir Putin. "They've already taken our correspondent's computer," Versiya's Editor in Chief Rustam Arifjanov told NEWSWEEK by mobile phone as he and 15 staff members watched agents ransack the office. "Now they're carting away our server."
Was it a clumsy attempt at a cover-up? The security forces claim the raid was connected to a story on FSB corruption printed five months earlier. But conspiracy theorists (and bereaved relatives of the victims) might be inclined to think otherwise. The aftermath of the theater siege has left many unanswered questions. Why wasn't the operation to storm the building better planned? Why wasn't an emergency medical team on hand to whisk victims to the hospital? Soon after the rescue, health officials said no antidotes were available to save the lives of innocents. Days later, authorities asserted that they were. So why weren't they used? Then there were the questions about the death toll: was it as authorities said, or was it higher? Late last week families of "missing" people were still searching hospitals. "A person can't just disappear," said a friend of a 29-year-old man who had been at the theater. His wife had already been located. "But where is he?"
In most countries, a series of questions like that would add up to a very large scandal. But not in Putin's Russia. Whether the allegations by Versiya are borne out, the raid on its offices reveals how far authorities are prepared to go to intimidate the press. As for Putin himself, he's still the hero of the day, the Teflon president. He's managed to deflect or stifle criticism while burnishing his image as an unflinching, strong-willed leader.
That's partly because Putin has learned a lot since the last catastrophe on his watch--the sinking of the nuclear sub-marine Kursk two years ago. Then, Putin took an ill-advised holiday at the height of the crisis; TV caught him commenting on the disaster clad in vacation clothes. This time he canceled trips abroad and didn't leave the Kremlin. He caught his first sleep--"just a few hours," says an aide--more than 24 hours after the crisis began. After the raid, he went on television. "We were not able to save everyone," he said. "Forgive us."
But he didn't apologize for the gassing deaths, and his police and censors seemed determined to make sure he didn't have to. Apart from the Versiya raid, his Press Ministry temporarily shut down a regional TV station during the standoff--a move perhaps calculated to intimidate other journalists. The leading independent radio station Ekho Moskvy was forced to remove an interview with one of the hostage takers from its Web site. And private broadcaster NTV ran into trouble after a late-night program aired a dialogue between Putin and two ministers, which the station said it had acquired by using a lip reader to analyze official footage of a Kremlin meeting. By the end of last week the Russian government was poised to strengthen a law restricting the freedom of the press to report terrorism cases. Next time around, the awkward questions may be harder to ask, never mind answer.