Rus­sia’s ‘fake news’ law

Ac­tivists and med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als who ques­tion the ac­cu­racy of Rus­sia’s covid-19 sta­tis­tics face pros­e­cu­tion un­der ‘fake news’ law

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY ROBYN DIXON robyn.dixon@wash­post.com

As Putin says his coun­try’s out­break is in re­treat, ex­perts and crit­ics face penal­ties for dis­agree­ing.

MOSCOW — As Rus­sia holds a week-long na­tion­wide vote on con­sti­tu­tional changes that could keep Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in power un­til 2036, the of­fi­cial line is that the coro­n­avirus pan­demic has re­treated, Rus­sia’s health sys­tem coped just fine and it is now safe to vote and go to gyms, restau­rants, shops and hair sa­lons.

But some­times in­for­ma­tion slips out, telling a more dire story for Rus­sians grap­pling with mixed mes­sages: the Krem­lin’s up­beat as­sess­ments vs. sta­tis­tics show­ing that Rus­sia’s con­firmed cases of the novel coro­n­avirus are still climb­ing.

When in­fec­tious-dis­ease doc­tor Vic­to­ria Adonyeva pre­dicted in a news­pa­per in­ter­view that the na­tion­wide vote would cause a spike in new cases, many read­ers ap­plauded her hon­esty.

Adonyeva, chief in­fec­tious­dis­ease spe­cial­ist for the Orlovskaya re­gion, about 220 miles south of Moscow, also called into ques­tion the ac­cu­racy of Rus­sia’s sta­tis­tics on coro­n­avirus deaths — now at 9,152 — in the in­ter­view with the Orlovsky Novosti news­pa­per.

“The numbers are go­ing up. There’s no plateau,” she said. “What kind of sta­bi­liza­tion, what kind of lift­ing of re­stric­tions can we talk about?” Her hos­pi­tal and oth­ers in the city of Oryol had no free beds, she added.

Au­thor­i­ties push back

But pros­e­cu­tors swiftly called her in for ques­tion­ing. No rea­son for the sum­mons has been given, but other peo­ple who con­tra­dicted the of­fi­cial line have been called un­der a law against “fake news” on coro­n­avirus in­for­ma­tion, which car­ries a penalty of up to six years in pri­son. Lo­cal of­fi­cials fell over them­selves to con­tra­dict her.

The re­gional gov­er­nor, An­drei Kly­chkov, blamed a jour­nal­ist at the news­pa­per for “mis­in­ter­pret­ing” the spe­cial­ist’s words, al­though the in­ter­view was pub­lished as a ques­tion-and-answer tran­script.

Un­der pres­sure, Adonyeva her­self was soon try­ing to back­track.

A sim­i­lar boomerang ef­fect came after the star­tling ad­mis­sion this month from Alla Samoilova, an of­fi­cial from Rus­sia’s Fed­eral Ser­vice for Sur­veil­lance in Health Care, that 489 Rus­sian med­i­cal work­ers had died of covid-19, the dis­ease caused by the coro­n­avirus — some 6 per­cent of the coun­try’s of­fi­cial death toll at the time. The agency swiftly back­tracked, say­ing the fig­ure was “un­of­fi­cial,” even though the num­ber was broadly in line with a memo­rial list of health worker deaths main­tained by doc­tors, which had 496 names on it last week.

Putin is not alone among lead­ers try­ing to por­tray the pan­demic as a fad­ing threat. But, as in other coun­tries, the cri­sis has laid bare some hard truths.

In Rus­sia — where more than 640,245 con­firmed cases rep­re­sent the third-largest caseload after those in the United States and Brazil — the pan­demic also has dented Putin’s im­age just when he wanted it in top shape with vot­ing end­ing Wed­nes­day on the con­sti­tu­tional changes, which in­clude al­low­ing Putin to seek two more terms after his cur­rent one ends in 2024.

Ques­tions over death count

Ques­tions have been raised about pos­si­ble ma­nip­u­la­tion of sta­tis­tics on covid-19 deaths, fiercely de­nied by of­fi­cials. The un­even med­i­cal care has ex­posed the en­trenched in­equal­ity be­tween wealthy cities and re­mote, poorly ser­viced re­gions where health ser­vices have been cut.

In some places, ven­ti­la­tors were bro­ken, lacked parts, mal­func­tioned or even caught fire.

Med­i­cal work­ers have walked off the job at some hospi­tals over lack of pro­tec­tive equip­ment.

Al­though Rus­sia has suc­ceeded in de­creas­ing the daily per­cent­age in­crease in cases, new in­fec­tions keep ris­ing stub­bornly, adding more than 7,000 cases a day.

In an ad­dress to the na­tion June 23, Putin said the health sys­tem had coped well, thanks to the gov­ern­ment’s work to im­prove and bet­ter equip hospi­tals. While the dan­ger was not fully over, he said, Rus­sians had “forced the epi­demic to re­cede.”

“We are over­com­ing it,” Putin said. “But the virus is still dan­ger­ous: Thou­sands of peo­ple still en­counter this dis­ease daily. I am ask­ing you to re­main care­ful, vig­i­lant and cau­tious.”

But Adonyeva told the Orlovsky Novosti news­pa­per that the Rus­sian health sta­tis­tics were in a state of dis­or­der, with many re­gions omit­ting deaths of pa­tients with covid-19 from the count un­less there was se­vere res­pi­ra­tory tract dam­age.

She said the na­tion­wide vote on the con­sti­tu­tional changes would in­evitably cause an in­crease in cases. “But we have nowhere to put them,” she said, re­fer­ring to her hos­pi­tal and oth­ers in Oryol.

“If growth continues, there will be no one to treat peo­ple,” she said in the in­ter­view pub­lished June 18. “Doc­tors treat peo­ple, but they them­selves be­come ill and are un­able to treat peo­ple. Doc­tors are al­ready work­ing to the limit.”

A cred­i­bil­ity gap

Au­thor­i­ties have im­posed tough new penal­ties for those who post in­for­ma­tion about the pan­demic deemed to be “fake news.” Dozens of doc­tors, jour­nal­ists, med­i­cal union of­fi­cials and ac­tivists have been tar­geted.

But health au­thor­i­ties have strug­gled with a cred­i­bil­ity gap amid images that have sur­faced of hos­pi­tal beds in cor­ri­dors and lines of am­bu­lances.

Since 2012, Putin’s cen­tral­iza­tion of the health-care sys­tem closed many small, ru­ral hospi­tals. Coun­try­wide, med­i­cal staff de­clined by 9.3 per­cent to 1.3 mil­lion work­ers from 2013 to 2019, ac­cord­ing to the Fed­eral State Sta­tis­tics Ser­vice.

Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Tatyana Go­likova said in Novem­ber that health-care re­forms had failed in many re­gions. An­ton Silu­anov, now fi­nance min­is­ter, said at that time that district hospi­tals and clin­ics were in “poor, if not ter­ri­ble, con­di­tion.”

Ac­tivists, op­po­si­tion fig­ures and an in­de­pen­dent health union have filled the in­for­ma­tion vac­uum on the coro­n­avirus.

Alexei Minyaylo, who spent seven weeks in cus­tody for par­tic­i­pat­ing in anti-gov­ern­ment protests last sum­mer, set up a civil so­ci­ety think tank, Ra­zoom, and or­ga­nized Zoom meet­ings with 67 ex­perts from 16 Rus­sian re­gions. Ra­zoom also an­a­lyzed Rus­sian and for­eign sci­en­tific ev­i­dence to pro­duce a re­port on what went wrong in Rus­sia, and what could go wrong in the fu­ture.

“In Euro­pean coun­tries, we see a plateau, but in Rus­sia we don’t see any plateau. So we started to think of what the so­ci­ety can do to cope with the sit­u­a­tion be­cause we re­ally can’t rely on the gov­ern­ment,” Minyaylo said. “They say that there is re­ally not a lot of deaths, but when we dig into the sta­tis­tics, we find that a lot of deaths from coro­n­avirus are hid­den as deaths from pneu­mo­nia,” he said.

Ac­tivists step in

The re­port iden­ti­fied more than 200 cases of of­fi­cial pres­sure on jour­nal­ists and ac­tivists ex­pos­ing in­for­ma­tion about the pan­demic.

Dmitry Kolezev, edi­tor of in­de­pen­dent on­line news site Znak based in Yeka­ter­in­burg, Rus­sia’s fourth-largest city, said that the re­gion had one of the high­est rates of covid-19 but that many pneu­mo­nia pa­tients had told him they were un­able to get tested for the coro­n­avirus. This sug­gested that sta­tis­tics on cases and deaths were un­re­li­able, he said.

“They wanted to be tested, but ei­ther they had to wait for a long time, or tests are just not done,” he said. “Un­of­fi­cially, ac­cord­ing to our sources in the ad­min­is­tra­tion and also from pa­tients, we know that there are not enough va­cant beds in hospi­tals.” Some pa­tients were be­ing dis­charged be­fore they recovered, he added.

The mor­tal­ity fig­ures, he said, have led many peo­ple to let down their guard. At the same time, Putin’s gov­ern­ment is ap­peal­ing for a high turnout in the con­sti­tu­tional vote.

“Peo­ple are very re­laxed. They get to­gether in the streets; they’re out­side to­day, or in gyms that started work­ing. They meet in groups, and it seems to me this is be­cause the sta­tis­tics they are given about in­fec­tions are low.”

Yuri KOCHETKOV/EPA-EFE/SHUT­TER­STOCK

KIR­ILL KUDRYAVTSE­V/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

EVGENIA NOVOZHENIN­A/REUTERS

TOP: Pas­sen­gers, only a few in masks, travel on a sub­ur­ban train in Moscow. ABOVE: Peo­ple en­joy drinks out­side a Moscow cafe. Rus­sians have been told it is now safe to go to gyms, eater­ies, shops and hair sa­lons — and to vote on mea­sures that could keep Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in power un­til 2036.

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