As Russia struggles to cope with record numbers of COVID-19 infections, news reports that suggest fatalities from the virus are higher than officially stated have become a fresh target for the country’s ever-watchful media regulatory agency, Roskomnadzor.
The prosecution of two journalists in the Urals region of Bashkortostan for allegedly disseminating “fake news” about the pandemic illustrates the potential risks involved for media who deviate from official narratives about Russia’s anti-coronavirus campaign.
This spring, Kommersant-Ufa, a local edition of the influential business-political daily Kommersant, reported that the municipal cemetery in Bashkortostan’s main city, Ufa, planned to add another 1,000 grave sites to accommodate pandemic victims. The story was confirmed by the independent news portal ProUfu (About Ufa) and also picked up by other local outlets.
Although the head of the city’s funeral-services administration, Ruslan Kiznikeyev, and Ufa mayor’s office spokesman Marsel Baidavletov were cited as having confirmed the report, Roskomnadzor filed lawsuits against then Kommersant-Ufa Editor-in-Chief Natalya Pavlova and ProUfu Editor-in-Chief Timur Almaev for the dissemination of “fake news” about the pandemic – a criminal offense under Russian law.
Claiming that it had not yet received a single request to bury a COVID-19 victim, the city denied its reported remarks. The funeral-services bureau claimed that it adds 1,000 new graves each year as part of its standard cemetery upkeep.
Roskomnadzor demanded that Kommersant-Ufa and other news outlets remove the story from their sites. The outlets complied.
Ufa’s regional magistrates have since fined Pavlova 30,000 rubles (roughly $394) and Almaev, 60,000 ($787.20) for their respective reports about the Timashevsky cemetery’s expansion.
Both journalists plan to appeal the ruling. “I had no intention to spread fake news,” Pavlova told Current Time's Footage Vs. Footage. “I was absolutely confident about its reliability.”
Under Russia’s Criminal Code, the dissemination of knowingly inaccurate information about COVID-19 that threatens the health and safety of citizens can be punished by three years’ imprisonment, forced labor, or a fine of up to 700,000 rubles ($9,257). Information that results in actual harm or death can entail a five-year prison sentence and a fine of 2 million rubles ($26,449).
The “fake news” law, introduced this March, has become “a convenient tool for punishing public critics of the government,” with activists, journalists, bloggers, and politicians among those prosecuted, the Agora Human Rights Group charged in an undated overview of the changes.
“You can’t guess which publication will catch their eye,” Maria Bukhtuyeva, editor-in-chief of TVK Television, commented in reference to officials. (In June, Roskomnadzor dropped a fake-news complaint against TVK.) “Independent media are probably more likely to attract the attention of the police.”
ProUfu, which regularly criticizes local officials, declares its mission as “news free from censorship.” Its publisher, Raufa Rakhimova, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty currently face prosecution for alleged defamation after Rakhimova told RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service that officials were pressuring advertisers on ProUfu.ru and a sister publication, Bonus. (RFE/RL runs Current Time TV in association with the Voice of America.)
Kommersant-Ufa, however, is part of an arguably more powerful company than ProUfu. The owner of Kommersant, Alisher Usmanov, is a Kremlin-friendly, Uzbekistan-born businessman with extensive holdings in Russia’s iron-and-steel and Internet industries. Usmanov does not appear to have commented publicly on the Roskomnadzor case.
Regulators charged that the two outlets’ news about Ufa’s expanded cemetery contained “unreliable, publicly significant information” and “causes harm to citizens’ life and (or) health.”
Roskomnadzor did not elaborate about how an officially confirmed report that a public cemetery was adding 1,000 graves to its Russian Orthodox and Muslim sections would cause such harm.
But at the time the stories appeared, in April, complaints had already surfaced that Russia was keeping its coronavirus statistics artificially low.
Bashkortostan is one of the prime examples of this trend, charged Mikhail Zelenskiy, deputy editor-in-chief of the online investigative journal Kholod (Cold), which has researched Russia’s official mortality rates from COVID-19.
Between April and September, the region’s mortality rate increased by 4,688 deaths compared with 2019, but only 60 cases out of this number were officially attributed to the coronavirus.
“This is a very, very doubtful figure,” Zelenskiy said. No official explanation exists for 99 percent of these “excess deaths,” he alleged on Facebook.
As of November 20, Bashkortostan’s tally of official COVID-19 deaths had increased to 76, still one of the lowest rates in the country.
But, at the time that the Kommersant-Ufa story appeared, local officials claimed that not a single COVID-19 death had been recorded.
On November 24, Russia registered 491 coronavirus deaths – a fresh record, according to Reuters – and 24,326 new coronavirus infections. Russia currently ranks fifth in the world for its official cumulative number of COVID-19 infections, now at nearly 2.14 million. Its official 37,031 deaths rank Russia 12th in the world for coronavirus fatalities.
Swamped by shortages of hospital beds, doctors, supplies, and medicine to fight the virus, the country’s predominantly state-funded medical system has appeared under increasing duress in recent months. Some health officials have attempted to obscure any such signs.
In Bashkortostan, regional head Radiy Khabirov has described the situation as “stably difficult,” but stories on the government-run Bashinform agency emphasize that officials are responding effectively – whether by setting up an information hotline or opening a new, 360-bed infectious-diseases facility.
Official measures against those who contradict this narrative continue. Bashkortostan announced plans in January 2020 to host part of the 2022 FIVB (Federation Internationale de Volleyball) Volleyball World Championships in Ufa, and, against that backdrop, deaths from a pandemic appear a particularly sensitive topic.
In August, a district court upheld a lower court’s ruling that the editor-in-chief of Bashinform, Alik Shakirov, should be fined 50,000 rubles (roughly $660.80) for an April story based on Kommersant-Ufa’s report about the Ufa municipal cemetery’s new graves for COVID-19 victims.
In early November, Bashkortostan’s health ministry charged that a Twitter video that showed Ufa’s morgue could no longer accommodate bodies was fake. It cited alleged inconsistencies in interviewees’ accents and in the morgue’s interior. The creator of the video, Ruslan Akchulpanov, later publicly apologized for posting the footage.
Last month, the Ufa mayor’s office charged that a ProUfu report that the city’s then mayor, Ulfat Mustafin, had been flown to Moscow for emergency COVID-19 treatment was “unreliable” – until, that is, the mayor died in Moscow from the virus on October 29.
Generally viewed as dependent on the central government, Russian courts do not have a consistent record of challenging the state in such cases.
Russia’s Supreme Court has emphasized that intent must be proven before penalties for alleged fake-news can be applied, but the Ufa magistrates, who are elected to office, likely “are afraid,” commented Aidar Muplanurov, the managing partner of Barrister, an Ufa company that specializes in legal advice for entrepreneurs.
In their first ruling on the Ufa cemetery case this June, the city’s magistrates affirmed that the information about COVID-19 graves could somehow lead to damaged property and public disorder, apart from threats to citizens’ health and safety.
“They approach [this fake-news suit] with the principle that ‘Well, in any case, we’ll fine them, hold [them accountable]. And then we’ll see,’” Muplanurov said. “’If necessary, a higher court will correct us.’”