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The COVID-19 Media Crackdown


Opening screen of the RFE/RL-OCCRP-Kloop investigative report "Plunder and Patronage in Central Asia"

RFE/RL And Partners Win 'Tom Renner Award' For Central Asia Money-Laundering Report

RFE/RL, the Organized Crime And Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), and OCCRP member center Kloop have received the prestigious 2019 Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) for Plunder and Patronage in the Heart of Central Asia, a six-part report revealing the operations of a massive underground network that funneled more than $700 million from Kyrgyzstan.

INCIDENTS AND THREATS

Repressive Laws, Prosecutions, Attacks: Europe Fails To Shield Its Journalists Against the Abuse of the COVID-19 Crisis – RSF
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has called on national and European institutions to protect the media as they fulfill their public mission to report on the Covid-19 pandemic under risky conditions.

Council Of Europe Says Russia Using Pandemic To Limit Media Freedom
In an April 3 statement, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic expressed concern that authorities in Russia and elsewhere may use the fight against the coronavirus pandemic to further restrict media freedom. Mijatovic warned that “access to information is a collateral victim of the measures governments are taking to face the pandemic.”

EU Monitor Says Russia, China Sow Distrust In West Through Coronavirus Disinformation
Russia and China continue to deploy a campaign of disinformation around the coronavirus outbreak that could directly challenge the credibility of the European Union and its partners and have "harmful consequences" for public health around the world, according to a report published by the EU's foreign-policy arm.

Moscow Surgeon Threatened With Dismissal After Speaking To Current Time About Lack Of Medical Supplies
Moscow neurosurgeon Vsevolod Shurkhai has told Current Time that he was summoned to the prosecutor's office after he complained to the state agency overseeing the Covid-19 response about a lack of protective equipment for doctors. After he spoke to Current Time, his hospital’s leadership asked him for a written explanation about the media outlet and hinted that he might be dismissed from his position.

St. Petersburg Activist Reportedly Targeted Under Coronavirus 'Fake News' Law
Russia appears to have launched its first criminal probe under a newly minted law against knowingly misinforming the public about the coronavirus. St. Petersburg activist Anna Shushpanova says that local investigators on April 4 searched her apartment and seized her computers and telephone after she published a post on social media about local residents' concerns over inadequate quarantine measures at medical facilities in the town of Sestroretsk.

Counting Cameras: How Moscow’s Coronavirus Tracking System Works
A Current Time reporter investigating Moscow’s plans to implement a social monitoring app and data-tracking to enforce the city’s lockdown documented 20 cameras on his commute home from work. The report included an interview with a cyber-rights activist who says the city’s app is illegal.

Russian Journalist Documents Her Coronavirus-Related Death, Though Officials Call It Pneumonia
Perm-based journalist Anastasia Petrova was determined to report until the end, posting on social media and texting to friends about her lonely last days fighting the coronavirus. Her comments also reveal that while she tested positive in the hospital for Covid-19, Perm officials identified the cause of death as double pneumonia.

Serbian Journalist Detained Over Critical Coronavirus Article
Serbian police detained Ana Lalic, a journalist with the Nova.rs newsite, who wrote a critical text on the handling of the coronavirus epidemic. She was released on April 2 after being interrogated overnight. Lalic had reported that staff at a hospital in the northern city of Novi Sad were lacking adequate protective gear and medications, and that several nurses may have become infected.

RFE/RL Kyrgyz Investigative Reporter Receives Death Threat
A recent, award-winning investigative report revealing a massive smuggling scheme in Kyrgyzstan has reverberated throughout this Central Asian nation, mobilizing public attention around crippling graft in a poor country sandwiched between Russia and China. The impact, however, has come at a price. Ali Toktakunov, the journalist leading the investigative team, has received threats on his life.

Kyrgyzstan Curfew Favors Official Media In Covid-19 Fight
The Kyrgyz government’s March 24 introduction of a state of emergency and curfew to fight the coronavirus has obstructed reporting efforts by Current Time’s Bishkek-based program, Current Time Asia. The curfew requires special passes to access Bishkek’s city center. While authorities announced that the new measures would not affect the media, they refused to provide passes to reporters working for independent outlets. Only state media has been allowed to continue its work.

RFE/RL IMPACT

COVID-19 COVERAGE: March 2020 saw substantial increases in global RFE/RL audiences in response to its authoritative reporting on the coronavirus pandemic. In comparison to the previous month, RFE/RL websites and apps received 77 million visits, a 48% increase, and 33.5 million unique visitors, an increase of 50%. Video views on the company’s YouTube channels totaled 144.5 million, an increase of 18%. Video views on Facebook increased by 44% to 351 million, and engaged users increased by 33% to 58.1 million.

CURRENT TIME: A video explainer for Russian-speaking audiences tackled the one question that knows no borders: Can a face mask help ward off the coronavirus, and, if so, which is the best to use? The April 3 video has received over 1.1 million views across digital platforms to date.

BULGARIA: The Bulgarian Service has sought to counter rising anti-Western sentiment in the country and the dominant perception that, despite substantial EU aid to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, “the EU has left us alone.” The Service has published data and a fact-checker that has drawn 35,000 views on its website and hundreds of shares on Facebook.

TAJIKISTAN: A report by RFE/RL’s Tajik Service documenting the death of a patient from the coronavirus and the hospitalization of 11 medical workers with related symptoms led the government to shift its stance on the pandemic, which it has previously denied. After the report went viral, with thousands of comments and citations by three dozen media outlets, authorities in Dushanbe and Khujand convened press conferences to confirm the death and subsequent cases. Authorities then backtracked the next day, denying any citizens had tested positive for the virus. In a concurrent smear campaign against the Service, pro-government journalists and trolls on Facebook accused its journalists of spreading disinformation, and used obscene and explicit hashtags to incite violence against them.

RADIO FARDA: RFE/RL’s Iranian Service continued to challenge official narratives about the coronavirus, and report human stories that convey its seriousness as a threat to public health and societal well-being. Reporting addressed the dire situation of drug addicts in Iran, implications of the disease for women and the elderly, educational challenges under current conditions, and the impact of the outbreak on religious beliefs and family cohesion. One shocking video obtained by Radio Farda showed a small boy working in a hospital in Iran.

About Journalists in Trouble

Journalists in Trouble is a bi-weekly report of incidents targeting RFE/RL journalists and their work, and developments affecting press freedom in our coverage region.​

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