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'The Government Knows Where You Live': Russia's Journalists Walk A Dangerous Tightrope Covering COVID-19 Pandemic


Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov visits a hospital for suspected coronavirus patients in Grozny on April 20. He has threatened critics in the media.

The Novosibirsk-based news website Taiga.info recently published an interview with a woman who told the independent outlet that she called an ambulance after experiencing severe flu-like symptoms that she feared could be COVID-19. The paramedics who showed up had no gloves, masks, or other personal protective equipment (PPE), she said.

"The management of Novosibirsk's ambulance service wrote a complaint to the prosecutor's office and [state media-monitoring agency] Roskomnadzor," the Siberian website's editor, Aleksei Mazur, told RFE/RL. "A few days later, an ambulance paramedic who had been handling possible coronavirus infections was diagnosed with COVID-19. It turned out he had only a normal mask and had not been issued a respirator."

Earlier this month, St. Petersburg journalist Tatyana Voltskaya, who writes for RFE/RL's Russian Service, published an interview with a local doctor who warned of a looming shortage of ventilators and qualified emergency doctors in the city. The doctor, concerned about possible retribution for speaking out, insisted that his name be withheld.

Days after the interview was published, Voltskaya received a phone call from a police investigator. "He immediately asked me to reveal my source," Voltskaya said. "I refused."

Tatyana Voltskaya
Tatyana Voltskaya

Voltskaya said the investigator claimed that he only wanted to make sure the hospital where the doctor worked had adequate supplies.

"The investigator said that Bastrykin was interested in the interview," she recalled, referring to the head of the federal Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin. "If that is true, then get to work! They should put on masks and go and see [what is going on].... Is that so hard? Why drag me into it?"

A few days later, local state-friendly media reported that St. Petersburg Governor Aleksandr Beglov had warned that the city faced a dire shortage of ventilators and PPE for medical workers.

Real Pressure On 'Fake News'

Independent journalists across Russia are facing similar encounters as they work to cover the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian government's efforts to cope with it. On March 31, even before the government had announced a general lockdown and other emergency measures, the legislature adopted a law criminalizing the distribution of "fake information" about the health crisis, a measure that President Vladimir Putin signed into law on April 1.

On April 4, St. Petersburg activist Anna Shushpanova became the first person to face investigation under the law because of a social-media post sharing concerns about the adequacy of hygiene measures at a local hospital.

"Our deputies live in a world that they have spent years creating in their minds -- a world in which information that is disseminated in the interests of their bosses is 'correct' information," said Viktor Muchnik, editor in chief of the TV2 information agency in the Siberian city of Tomsk. "And any 'incorrect' information is distributed to help their bosses' enemies. And they can't imagine any other kind of information, so they need to put an end to all this 'fake information' that is coming either from abroad or from some sort of [opposition leader Aleksei] Navalny or some other enemies of the regime."

Viktor Muchnik
Viktor Muchnik

"And the bosses, of course, welcome any such initiatives," he concluded. "It is obvious why this is being done."

In such a climate, Muchnik said, "doctors are really frightened." He recently interviewed one doctor who told him "everything was normal" at her hospital. Later that night, however, she called him back and told him the hospital was critically short of qualified personnel. "Earlier, I had caught her at work, and she was not able to speak honestly," he said.

Maria Bukhtuyeva, editor in chief of the TVK television company in Krasnoyarsk, said the best way to combat rumors and speculation would be for the authorities to work better with the media. "Our politicians and parliamentarians and law enforcement personnel and others involved in this matter locally have lost the ability to make independent decisions and therefore they are not in a position to give adequate, timely commentary [to the media]," she said. "What can be prosecuted as 'fake news'? Whatever they want."

And More Than Pressure...

In addition to the intimidating law on "fake news," some Russian regional figures have been intimidating journalists more directly. Chechnya's Kremlin-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, recently accused journalists of the independent Novaya gazeta of being "traitors." Shortly after he called an article about the region's COVID-19 crisis "absurd," the Russian authorities forced Novaya gazeta to take it off the Internet.

Earlier in April, Kadyrov issued a video in which he threatened the head of RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service, Aslan Doukaev, for an article about how the region’s farmers are struggling through the pandemic. "The head of that region has been quite effective at using extrajudicial means to resolve issues," Taiga.info's Mazur said, referring to Kadyrov. "But the main complaint shouldn't be to him, but to the federal authorities."

Alexei Mazur
Alexei Mazur

Kadyrov "has always tended to test the limits of the laws and instructions. When you draw a line in the sand for him, he crosses it and waits to see what happens. When nothing happens, he goes further," he said. "It's a shame that the federal government and the [president] put up with this."

There are similar examples elsewhere in Russia. In an interview with state media on April 17, Tomsk region Governor Sergei Zhvachkin warned those who "smear the authorities with dirt" during a "semi-war period."

"The government knows your names and where you live," he said. "Don't be offended, but if you cross the line, we will be forced to stop you.... Don't play around."

TV2's Muchnik and his team are used to working under government pressure. The company's flagship TV station was closed down in 2014 after a campaign against it by local officials.

"If this had happened in the late 1990s or early 2000s, we would have had the people who were responsible in our studio, constantly communicating with our viewers," he said. "We would have found ways to convey in detail what was happening. And not only us -- there were many media outlets who were competing with one another.

"But over a period of many years, the media space has been made flat and regulated," he concluded. "Of course, we have our sources of information, but the people now are in a panic and a lot of unreliable information is out there. We have to spend a lot of time checking things. And we also have to check official information, of course."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Aleksandr Molchanov of the Siberia Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service
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