The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has urged Russian authorities “to stop censoring news outlets” that report on the coronavirus outbreak in the country.
Citing staffers at two media outlets, the New York-based freedom-of-speech watchdog said on March 24 that Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, had ordered articles to be removed from their websites and social media and threatened them with fines.
CPJ said it communicated with the editor in chief of liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, Vitaly Ruvinsky, who said the state media regulator told him on March 20 to remove an interview with a Kremlin critic and political analyst who compared the government’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak to the Soviet mismanagement of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
The order was given as part of “measures to prevent the spread of false information related to the coronavirus,” and the radio station complied.
Roskomnadzor’s March 20 order didn’t specify what information was allegedly fake.
The analyst, Valery Solovei, was also threatened with a 100,000 ruble ($1,300) fine.
Separately, Tatyana Brais, editor in chief of the Govorit Magadan news website, told the CPJ she was told to remove a story about the death of a resident in the northeastern Siberian region suspected to have had the coronavirus.
The outlets now face fines of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,200) under a law imposing penalties for “fake news” signed by President Vladimir Putin in March 2019.
“Russian authorities should stop censoring Govorit Magadan, Ekho Moskvy, and all other outlets reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Roskomnadzor should provide media with clear and fair criteria for reporting on the outbreak and ensure that its regulations do not censor independent journalism.”
Two days before the order, Roskomnadzor issued a warning that it would take punitive measures against the "dissemination of false information" and attempts to "sow panic among the public and provoke public disturbance."
Then, on March 23, the government raised the stakes by threatening anyone who spreads “fake news” about the coronavirus with criminal charges.
Russia as of March 24 has 495 confirmed coronavirus cases and zero deaths. A 79-year-old woman who was diagnosed with COVID-19 died last week at a Moscow infectious disease hospital. Authorities attributed her death to a blood clot, not the coronavirus.
Local media reports have cited a 37 percent rise in pneumonia cases in January over the same period last year as evidence that something is amiss.
The same day, Russia's coronavirus task force issued a recommendation for regional heads to close all movie theaters, night clubs, and children’s entertainment centers.
It did not, however, recommend closing restaurants and bars or imposing a partial or full quarantine.