Vilnius, Lithuania, March 24, 2020 — Russian authorities should stop censoring news outlets reporting on the COVID-19 outbreak and allow journalists to report freely and safely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On March 20, Russia’s state media regulator, Roskomnadzor, ordered liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy and independent news site Govorit Magadan to remove articles about the COVID-19 outbreak from their websites and social media, according to staffers at those outlets, who spoke to CPJ, and media reports.
The regulator required Ekho Moskvy to remove an interview with a disease expert who compared the government’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak to the Soviet mismanagement of the Chernobyl disaster, according to Vitaly Ruvinsky, the editor-in-chief of the outlet, who communicated with CPJ via email.
Govorit Magadan editor-in-chief Tatyana Brais told CPJ in a phone interview that Roskomnadzor ordered her outlet to take down a report about the pneumonia death of a man in a local hospital.
“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.”
On March 18, Roskomnadzor published 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.” The statement did not specify any penalties that may be imposed on journalists or their outlets.
Ruvinsky said that Ekho Moskvy removed the article in question, and plans to appeal the decision in court. He also added that Roskomnadzor did not provide media outlets with criteria or any “instructions on what can and cannot be reported about coronavirus.”
Police in Magadan, a city in northeastern Siberia where Govorit Magadan is based, opened an investigation into the outlet for “spreading false news,” interrogated Brais yesterday, and ordered a “linguistic investigation” of the article in question, Brais told CPJ.
CPJ called the police officer in charge of the Govorit Magadan investigation, but he did not pick up the phone.
In response to CPJ’s emailed request for comment, Roskomnadzor’s press office sent a statement saying that the regulator “was executing the decision of the Prosecutor General’s Office to remove inaccurate information” that was “creating a threat of massive disruption of public order and safety.”