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Government Secrecy Is Not An Effective Coronavirus Strategy, RFE/RL Reporting Shows

Hiding The Bodies? Numbers At Kazakh COVID-19 Cemetery Don't Add Up
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RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reporting from a graveyard outside of Almaty said to be for COVID-19 victims. There are 32 fresh graves, but the city has recorded just 10 deaths and none have been reported from the region.

WASHINGTON -- As the coronavirus continues to ravage communities across Eurasia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reporting has revealed the extent to which deception and secrecy are the default mode for numerous governments that continue to attack journalists and first-responders, while failing in their pandemic response.

"The longer the pandemic persists, the more we see that secrecy and disinformation remain a reflex among many governments in the countries where we work – even as cases have mounted and threats to public health have grown, " said RFE/RL President Jamie Fly. "We are constantly being told by our audiences in Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Iran, and elsewhere that our reporting is helping people stay safe, but it is also providing information that helps them demand action and accountability from their governments."

Nowhere has the deception been more apparent and more consequential than in the hospitals treating coronavirus patients. A report by RFE/RL’s Russian Service, based on interviews with 20 medical workers -- many of whom spoke anonymously for fear of reprisals -- portrays a medical culture long predating the coronavirus that values the system over the patients. After describing his hospital's lack of preparedness in addressing the pandemic, a St. Petersburg doctor told RFE/RL, "If, God forbid, someone from outside the hospital starts looking around, the management of the hospital will begin blaming the doctors. There will be a big investigation, but the result is always the same -- the doctor who is responsible for the story getting out will, at the very least, be fired." An intensive-care physician in Moscow agreed. "This has always been a problem," he said. "Even in medical school they tell us that case histories are written for prosecutors."

A report by Current Time and the volunteer-run Scanner Project traced the mismanagement in one hospital back to a procurement scandal. The investigation disclosed alleged shortages of protective equipment and labor violations at a makeshift facility for coronavirus patients set up by well-known Azerbaijani-Russian businessman Araz Agalarov, who obtained state contracts worth almost 2 billion rubles ($28 million) without a public tender. After the report's publication, Moscow prosecutors on May 24 announced that they had launched an investigation; the regional Health Ministry has denied the report’s claims.

Radio Farda, ever the "polygraph," detecting lies for its audiences in Iran, continued to debunk the endless conspiracy theories and disinformation propagated by the regime. Already in the pandemic’s earliest days, Farda had exposed that the Iranian authorities were hiding the true number of coronavirus cases and deaths.

In Kazakhstan, RFE/RL reporters have taken to monitoring cemeteries to verify questionable government figures on COVID-19 deaths. In one cemetery designated for coronavirus victims outside Almaty, the country's largest city, they documented 32 fresh graves, while official figures indicated only 10 fatalities in the city and the surrounding region.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service has maintained its own list of COVID-19 victims in the absence of reliable data from a government that for nearly a month defied WHO guidance and denied the pandemic. The Service, which broke the news of the country’s first registered case, has also taken body counts at local cemeteries to fact-check official fatality figures. It documented 50 new graves in Dushanbe for the period April 30 - May 15, while official data recorded 33 deaths.

After RFE/RL published the report, Tajik authorities closed cemeteries to journalists and banned filming. The country's Foreign Ministry refuses to accredit eight members of RFE/RL’s Dushanbe bureau, preventing them from working at a time when reliable reporting is urgently needed. Government-aligned trolls have amplified authorities’ assault on information, attacking bureau staff on Facebook with posts replete with verbal abuse and obscene, photoshopped images.

Said Fly, "These are some of the bravest journalists in the world, who are risking their lives to do a public service, and yet they are obstructed at every turn and vilified by governments and their agents who seek to deny the truth. We are providing information that is saving lives -- while governments are fighting us."

Audience demand for RFE/RL reporting during the coronavirus pandemic has reached record numbers. Compared to the previous month, visits in March to RFE/RL websites and apps increased 48% to 77 million, page views were up by 43% to 128.5 million, and unique visitors increased 50% to 33.5 million; spikes were similarly registered on social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. Website and app traffic in April continued to rise, with an especially dramatic increase in Instagram story impressions of 72 percent over March.