Russia suppresses coronavirus information at home, manipulates it abroad

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Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is concerned to see the Russian government stepping up control of domestic reporting in connection with the coronavirus epidemic while, according to the European Union, conducting a disinformation campaign about it internationally. 

Russian journalists covering the coronavirus are being targeted by Roskomnadzor, the media control agency that RSF has included in its list of Digital Predators of Press Freedom. The regional online newspaper Magadan Govorit was forced to delete a story at the start of the week about the death of a patient suspected of having the virus who finally tested negative. The newspaper said its information was reliable and verified, and did not give the cause of death. Roskomnadzor nonetheless insisted on its deletion.

Radio Echo Moskvy, Facebook and the Russian social network VKontakte were also forced to delete posts at the start of the week under the law on disinformation that took effect in March 2019.

“Russia’s big censor, Roskomnadzor, must not increase its activities at a time of crisis, when unrestricted access to information is extremely necessary,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. 

“Information control initiatives are being stepped up on the pretext of combatting disinformation. The Russian authorities must not take advantage of this epidemic to restrict press freedom. We call for the repeal of the excessively vague ‘fake news’ law, which violates the freedom to inform.”

At Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin’s behest, a centre tasked with informing Russian citizens about the coronavirus epidemic, called “StopCoronavirus.rf,” was launched on 17 March. Although operated by the state, it has been attached to an NGO run by Alexey Goreslavsky, who used to work for the presidential administration overseeing Internet policy.

Vladimir Tabak, the former deputy director of the Institute for Internet Development (IRI) is to assist Goreslavsky. He says he will be responsible for “information risks, fake news, and content production.” He and Goreslavsky previously distinguished themselves by helping to create RuNet, the Russian “Sovereign Internet,” which is supposed to protect Russia against digital threats in the event of conflict but provides also a new way to control online activities.

Media access to information is meanwhile being restricted more and more. Since 17 March, reporters cannot attend an event at which Vladimir Putin is present unless their temperature has been taken at least three times.

On 19 March, foreign reporters were denied access to the Russian parliament, while the courts began preventing the press from attending public hearings. Although the Moscow court authorities promised to provide written reports and video retransmission “when possible,” the measure was regarded as arbitrary and lacking in transparency.

At the same time, the EU has accused Russia of conducting a disinformation campaign about the coronavirus epidemic in five languages with the aim of sapping trust in European institutions and spreading panic. More than 80 cases of disinformation have been registered since 22 January. One of the examples cited was Russia’s amplification of Iranian claims that Covid-19 is a US biological weapon with the aim of inciting nationalist and anti-American sentiment in Europe.

Russia is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 29.03.2020