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Russian Activist Says She's Hit By First Investigation Under 'Fake' Coronavirus News Law

The activist said that local investigators searched her apartment. (file photo)
The activist said that local investigators searched her apartment. (file photo)

Russia has launched what appears to be its first criminal probe into suspected public dissemination of false information about the new coronavirus just two days after President Vladimir Putin signed a new law on knowingly misinforming the public into the nation's criminal code.

St. Petersburg activist Anna Shushpanova said on her personal social-media page on April 4 that local investigators searched her apartment a day earlier and took her computers and telephone after she posted local residents' concerns about possibly inadequate quarantine measures at a clinic and hospital in the town of Sestroretsk in a group on VKontakte, a popular Russian equivalent of Facebook.

She said she is currently a witness in the investigation.

Russia on April 4 announced 582 new COVID-19 cases and nine deaths during the previous 24 hours, bringing its total number of declared cases to more than 4,700 and the death toll to 43.

But critics think the real number of cases is higher and have accused Russian authorities of underreporting the extent of the outbreak.

Shushpanova did not say what exactly she posted on the topic on the evening of April 2.

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Russian state news agency TASS reported that she wrote that an individual with signs of coronavirus entered the Sestroretsk clinic, made contact with doctors and visitors, and was sent home on public transport. The clinic’s department head was forced to step down following the incident, TASS cited her post as saying.

Shushpanova said another individual had posted about the alleged incident before her and that local residents replied to it. That individual then wrote under Shushpanova's post that he called the coronavirus hotline to report the incident and also wrote about it on the personal social-media page of St. Petersburg's governor.

Shushpanova said she thinks she is being targeted for her activist work in Sestroretsk on "hot topics" including ecological issues and city beautification and doesn't understand why her devices were seized if she is just a witness.

She said Open Russia, a civil rights advocacy group, has already reached out to defend her.

"I have the impression that the current situation is an attempt to silence me, to stop me from writing about the problems in the area and stop me from attracting media and public attention [to the problems]," she said, adding that she will be serving as an observer from the opposition party Yabloko during the upcoming vote on constitutional changes.

Shushpanova said she was surprised by the speed of the probe, pointing out that about 10 investigators were at her door 18 hours after her post.

Why Numbers Don’t Tell The Full Story

A daily compilation of global coronavirus cases by Johns Hopkins University is currently the most comprehensive in the world, but it relies on information provided by governments.

In many countries, there are restrictions on releasing such information or reasons why the full story might not want to be told.

The methodology, immediacy, transparency, and quality of this data can vary dramatically country by country.

She said investigators also searched her sister's apartment and took both of them to the station. The investigators' search warrant was not signed by a court, she said.

"This is really like a bad April Fool's joke," she said.

Russia has been increasing pressure on civil society in recent years amid signs of growing public dissatisfaction with living standards.

Putin on April 1 signed into law an amendment to the Russian Criminal Code allowing for the punishment of people who knowingly spread false information about the coronavirus.

Punishments include fines of up to 700,000 rubles ($8,800), correctional work up to 360 hours, and up to 3 years in prison.

Shushpanova said the authorities first must prove the information she posted is false and then prove that she knew it was false.

With reporting by Vedomosti and TASS
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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.