Russian freelance journalist Vladimir Sevrinovsky reporting in Russia's Udmurt Republic. Sevrinovsky described the challenges of covering the COVID-19 pandemic in the North Caucasus. (Maria Smozhenkova)

Freelancer Vladimir Sevrinovsky on covering COVID-19 in the North Caucasus: ‘The main misinformation I fight is from the state’

Vladimir Sevrinovsky is a Moscow-based freelance journalist and documentary photographer who has covered social and cultural issues in Russia for independent news site Meduza, independent weekly Russkii Reporter, and Kavkaz.Realii, a regional service of the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, among others.

Sevrinovsky’s most recent assignment was to report from Russia’s North Caucasus region on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In March, he was among the first journalists in Russia to cover the pandemic-related shutdown of Chechnya, whose leader Ramzan Kadyrov has a record of human rights and press freedom violations and was blacklisted by the U.S. government for human rights abuses. Sevrinovsky also covered health crises caused by the pandemic in Dagestan and Karachay-Cherkessia–republics where the number of cases reported by the local authorities were significantly lower than the real figures, according to news reports and Sevrinovsky’s investigations.

Sevrinovsky spoke with CPJ by phone in late June and July about his experiences covering the COVID-19 pandemic in the North Caucasus. His answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did the pandemic affect your journalistic work?

I stopped doing all non-COVID-related journalistic work. I got to report on a complete shutdown in Chechnya, which was a unique experience. What distinguishes Chechnya from the rest of the North Caucasus is the incredibly strict control by the local authorities. When coronavirus came there–the trigger was the death of the first person from COVID, which happened in the beginning of the last week of March–Kadyrov literally shut the republic down immediately. The decision to close all public spaces was taken on March 23, and on the same day, everything was closed down with an unprecedented swiftness.

Can you describe how the COVID-19 shutdown in Chechnya happened?

My colleague and I were in a café on that day. Several men in khaki uniform entered while we were eating and said that it was closed, so we had to leave. Only two restaurants were allowed to stay open until the evening of March 23: Paris, allegedly owned by Kadyrov’s daughter, and a restaurant located in [luxury high-rise hotel] Grozny City. The same thing happened regarding Kadyrov’s order to wear masks and gloves in public: we were going to an interview in a taxi, and on our way there, no masks were even mentioned, on our way back, the taxi driver already demanded that we put on masks and gloves. The order was issued and implemented while we were conducting that interview.

Did you experience any pressure from the local authorities while working in Chechnya during the shutdown?

I was lucky not to be interfered with, but I understood that I was in a privileged position being a journalist coming from outside of Chechnya. I had a relative freedom of movement, I could go to the city center, walk around. But when I spoke with my Chechen friends, they told me that unlike me they were severely limited in movements. After I left Chechnya on April 3, I was told that there were days on which leaving the house was banned completely, even for going to the grocery store.

[On May 15, Kadyrov announced that Chechnya’s “quarantine exit” would occur in three stages, with the first stage starting on May 15, the second on May 27, and third on June 15.]

You covered COVID-19 in neighboring Dagestan after you left Chechnya. How was it different from Chechnya?

Unlike in Chechnya, authorities in Dagestan did not regulate anything for a long time after the pandemic started nationwide. The mosques stayed open, and thousands of people were coming to pray even as late as in April. People kept celebrating big weddings and attending funerals, congregating in large crowds. In the absence of proper actions on the part of the government, this led to truly catastrophic consequences.

Why do you think people ignored COVID-19 for so long in Dagestan?  

Dagestani authorities became the victims of their own lies: while they half-heartedly advised people to be cautious during the pandemic, people did not believe them. People in Dagestan do not trust the local government much. At the same time, when they looked into the statistics coming from the republic’s operational headquarters, they saw that the death rate in Dagestan stayed very low–one person per day. Later it was found that the statistics were not reflecting the actual picture. As a result, Dagestanis did not pay COVID-19 any attention and continued attending mass events. Plus, due to artificially deflated statistics they did not get enough medicines from the federal center, given that their distribution was based on the official statistics.

Doctors attend to a COVID-19 patient on a ventilator in the Central District Hospital of Gergebil, a village in central Dagestan. (Vladimir Sevrinovsky)

When did people finally realize the scale of COVID-19 pandemic in Dagestan?

The moment when the scale of the pandemic became clear was when people started massively getting sick and dying in the villages. While the capital of Dagestan, Makhachkala, is a big city where it is hard to track how many people get sick or die, in the small mountainous Dagestani villages it is impossible to conceal. Local media started conducting their own investigations, comparing the official COVID statistics with the number of cases of people registered to be sick with community-acquired pneumonia. And finally, on May 16 Dagestan’s Minister of Health Dzhamaludin Gadzhiibragimov, in a video interview in the Instagram stream of a Dagestani journalist and blogger Ruslan Kurbanov, stated that “13,697 people were sick with COVID-19 and pneumonia” while only 3,280 COVID-infected people were identified in the official statistics. He also said that by May 16, at least 40 doctors in Dagestan died from COVID, while the official number of people who died from COVID in the republic overall at that time was 27. This rapidly became a national sensation.

What was the most impressive thing about Dagestan, is once the people understood the scale of the problem, they demonstrated an amazing skill at self-organizing. In the villages, the local jamaats [communities of village inhabitants and natives who maintain stable ties with the village] established quarantine regimes on the local communal level, organized communication, grocery, and free medicine delivery coordination via WhatsApp. This grassroots efficiency contrasted quite starkly with the absolute helplessness of the authorities.

Did local authorities interfere with your journalistic work?

Not actively, but they were not eager to cooperate either. When I was writing a report for Meduza and requested that the Ministry of Health provide me the statistics of the people infected with community-acquired pneumonia, it didn’t. When I asked to facilitate my access to the hospitals and to a medical emergency team, the ministry did not do this. The local authorities also concealed the true numbers of corona-infected people for as long as they could. But I can’t tell if it was intentional, or just the lack of preparedness: in Dagestan the rate of coronavirus testing was 4 to 5 times lower than in Russia overall.

The biggest problem for me were the checkpoints, which at some point sprouted all across Dagestan in an attempt to regulate the spread of coronavirus. When I went to the village of Gergebil, I was stopped at one of these. I had a press permit on me, so I was allowed to proceed, but my taxi driver did not have one, so he was not. I had to hitchhike in order to get to my destination.

[CPJ reached out to the Apparatus of the Government of the Russian Federation and Dagestan Ministry of Health for comment regarding the COVID-19 statistics and the testing rate in Dagestan. On July 30, CPJ was notified by the Apparatus of the Government of the Russian Federation that the request for comment was received, evaluated, and directed to the Russian Ministry of Health for consideration. CPJ did not receive any reply from the Dagestan Ministry of Health.]

What was your experience covering COVID-19 in Karachay-Cherkessia?

It was the hardest in terms of my interaction with the local authorities. In Karachay, authorities only registered deaths as being caused by COVID when the deceased did not have any chronic diseases and when there was a very extensive invasion. This led to a significant deflation of statistics. The local authorities were scared of being exposed and tried to prevent any honest reporting on the situation. While they do not have leverage against me, a Moscow journalist, they pressured local media and the doctors who bravely told the truth about the situation with COVID.

What kind of pressure is that? What local media are being targeted?

At the moment, two local independent media resources–YouTube channel Cherny Kub and Instagram-based Politika 09–are being investigated by the local penal authorities for “spreading fake news.” Both of them published interviews with Leila Batchaeva, the head of the department of epidemiology of the Karachay central district hospital, who said that COVID statistics that she provided for her district were artificially deflated up to almost seven times once they came out on the republic level. After that, Batchaeva herself was summoned for interrogations to the Centre for Combating Extremism. Three doctors who agreed to be interviewed for the article I wrote for Meduza are now being harassed by the head of their hospital, who is threatening to fire them for speaking with me.

[Since the interview was conducted, Batchaeva was forced to resign, and in a new interview with Sevrinovsky she said the head of the hospital and the local law enforcement persecuted her for speaking with the press. CPJ reached out to the Russian and Karachay-Cherkessia Ministries of Health and to the Karachay central district hospital for comment regarding the alleged deflation of coronavirus statistics in the republic, and the pressure allegedly directed at Batchaeva, but did not receive a reply.]

What are you doing to keep yourself safe? How have you been protecting yourself while working?

When I fly, I pick a window seat. For local transportation, I use taxis, and have my own masks, respirators, and medical glasses whenever I go to hospitals. Some hospitals provided me with safety equipment, but not all.

How are you dealing with and responding to misinformation around the virus?

The main misinformation that I fight is the one coming from the state, and my primary goal is to reveal falsification coming from the local authorities. At the same time regionally, people demonstrate a huge demand, a “hunger” for truthful reporting, and I try to keep up with their expectations. So, while it is very stressful to cover COVID, this incredibly strong support from the people inspires me and keeps me going.  

CPJ’s safety advisory for journalists covering the coronavirus outbreak is available in EnglishRussian, and more than 35 other languages.