Vilnius, Lithuania, June 16, 2020 — Russian authorities should stop harassing journalists reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic and allow them to work freely and safely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Russia has more than 500,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the most in Europe, and had recorded 7,091 deaths from the virus as of yesterday, according to the World Health Organization.
On June 9, a court in the central Russian city of Ufa fined Timur Almaev, chief editor of independent news website ProUfu, 60,000 rubles ($862) after the outlet published a story alleging that one thousand graves were dug in Ufa for possible victims of COVID-19, according to news reports.
Yesterday, police in the town of Sivirsky, outside St. Petersburg, questioned Tatyana Voltskaya, a reporter with the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, over an April 11 report for the broadcaster that alleged hospitals lacked the supplies to respond to the pandemic, she told CPJ in a phone interview.
Authorities opened an investigation into that article on April 25, and allege that Voltskaya was “spreading false news,” she said. If charged and convicted, she could face a fine and up to five years in jail under the Russian criminal code.
“Russian authorities should stop harassing journalists and media outlets that report on the coronavirus pandemic. Such actions will only restrict the amount of truthful information that is available about the virus,” said CPJ‘s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator Gulnoza Said, in New York. “By trying to control the narrative on COVID-19 and gagging critical reporting, officials are putting people‘s lives at risk.”
Almaev told CPJ in a phone interview that he believed his case was “absurd,” saying that the ProUfu article in question simply quoted a local government official who later insisted that his comments were not on the record. The court fined Almaev for spreading false news, and he has appealed the decision to a higher court, he said.
Also on June 9, the Investigative Committee of the Northern Caucasus Karachaevo-Cherkesiya Region opened criminal investigations into the Instagram accounts “Chernyi Kub” and “Politika 09,” both for allegedly spreading false news about the pandemic, according to news reports.
Both channels post news stories and live broadcasts discussing current events, according to CPJ’s review of their output. Politika 09 issued a statement denying the allegations.
CPJ called the police offices in Ufa and St. Petersburg for comment, but no one answered the calls.