Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, visits a hospital for coronavirus patients located in Moscow's Kommunarka settlement

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, visits a hospital for coronavirus patients located in Moscow's Kommunarka settlement

In a new Shorenstein Center report,Conveying Truth: Independent Media in Putin’s Russia,” Ann Cooper, a Spring 2020 Joan Shorenstein fellow, describes the origins and evolution of independent media in Russia from the late Soviet era to the coronavirus crisis of 2020. While Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin holds “a Soviet-like grip on Russian TV,” Cooper writes, “today’s Russian media is not a Soviet-style monolith.”

This condensed excerpt from “Conveying Truth” summarizes findings of research led by Cooper in the spring of 2020 on how the coronavirus pandemic in Russia was reported. Cooper writes of the pandemic that “its story was told by many voices on multiple platforms – by Russian medical workers on social media, by bloggers and tiny news sites in remote regions, by recent independent news startups led by some of the country’s most respected journalists, and by some older outlets that still manage to tell true stories in spite of Kremlin pressures.”

Read the full report, “Conveying Truth: Independent Media in Putin’s Russia,” here.

Public opinion polls show that although the TV audience is shrinking – dramatically so among younger generations – 73 percent of Russians still say they tune in to broadcast news. As the pandemic grew globally in early spring, those who only watched TV may have seen little reason for concern about COVID-19.

As for where the coronavirus came from, Channel 1’s nightly Vremya program offered a February 5 roundup of conspiracy theories: the virus originated in a Chinese bioweapons lab; or it was developed by American pharmaceutical companies “that simply wanted to make money;” or it was manmade to target only Asian populations. Anchor Kirill Kleimenov stopped short of endorsing any of these theories but concluded: “Even experts who are cautious in their assessments say that nothing can be ruled out.”

TV’s tone began to shift from peddling conspiracies and dismissing dangers when Vladimir Putin emerged from weeks of silence in late March to acknowledge the pandemic’s spread. Images of him holding a video conference with regional governors and visiting a hospital in hazmat gear sent a new message: The virus is here, it’s serious, but the president is in charge and decisively facing down the health threat.

A review of nightly news programs on Russia’s three main channels, Channel 1, Rossiya 1, and NTV—all owned or controlled by the Kremlin—showed that once Putin began to address COVID publicly, the pandemic pushed aside almost all other news. Our monitoring of programs throughout the week of April 6-10 showed anchors urging viewers to isolate and take sanitary precautions, underscoring the point at times with stark language (“If you want to live, stay at home,” warned Kleimenov, the Vremya anchor, on April 10.)

But the overall message remained upbeat. Video clips showed new hospitals being built at a feverish pace, while existing facilities had plenty of beds, up-to-date-equipment, and ample supplies of protective gear. Meanwhile, Western democracies were in chaos: TV featured scenes in the U.S. and Europe of mass graves, overloaded hospital wards, medical workers wearing improvised protections, and crowded lines of the unemployed. Things were so bad in Italy, TV reported, that Russia sent doctors there to help out.

For the Russian audience, these early April newscasts gave an impression of little to worry about at home, unless you were shopping for lemons, garlic, or ginger. Prices for all three soared, thanks to Internet stories touting them as COVID-19 home remedies.

TV’s version of the pandemic was a stark contrast with the story conveyed by other Russian media, which we monitored over two months beginning in late March and ending as Russian regions started to ease self-isolation restrictions.

We focused on several independent outlets created in the past few years: The Bell, The Insider, MediaZona, Meduza, OVD-Info, and Proekt. But we also saw that some important early warnings about the pandemic came on social media, posted by health workers or others. And the newer sites we monitored were not the only sources contradicting TV’s upbeat coverage. Novaya Gazeta, and Dozhd (TV Rain), two older newsrooms, did some of the best reporting in this period. Other noteworthy reporting came from the English-language site Moscow Times; from international outlets such as BBC Russian service; from local bloggers and news portals; and from some once-independent outlets, tamed over the years by Kremlin pressure.

While TV news was offering reassuring images of Russian health care’s readiness, for example, MediaZona reporter Sasha Bogino was filing devastating daily updates from her hospital bed in St Petersburg’s War Veterans Hospital, where she was admitted with COVID-19 symptoms.

Bogino’s hospital diary described overworked and underprotected hospital staff, as well as major sanitary lapses (cockroaches were a recurring theme in her text and photos). Patient information was hard to come by; “pneumonia” was her official diagnosis, but Bogino was tested four times for COVID and never learned all of the results. Near the end of her stay she confided to a hospital therapist that she was scared and just wanted to go home. “I don’t know how I will physically and psychologically recover from the hospital,” she wrote. “The therapist tells me that she’ll recommend antidepressants when I’m discharged.”

By the time Sasha Bogino went to the hospital, a wave of pandemic information had begun flooding Russian social media, blogs, and independent news sites, much of it contradicting TV’s upbeat reports. An early example: A March data analysis by investigative site Proekt used models developed by European researchers to forecast severe shortages of ventilators and intensive care unit beds if Russia took no quarantine measures.

Anecdotal reports of shortages came from local bloggers and medical workers, who complained on social media that they lacked masks, gloves, and other protective equipment. Independent media amplified these local messages by casting a reporting net across the country. On March 26, for example, the day after Putin’s first national address on COVID-19, the news site Meduza invited hospital workers to “tell us what is happening at your workplace.”

Meduza summarized the more than 500 responses in a March 31 article showing widespread shortages of staff, COVID tests, and protective equipment. A typical response: A nurse in Yekaterinburg said management at her hospital ordered staff to sew their own face masks. The hospital couldn’t provide them because “‘We are not China. We have nothing,’ is what the bosses tell me,” she said.

Medical workers became crucial sources for many stories pursued by independent media; few seemed fazed when Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov fumed that they should take their complaints to local health officials “and not to the media.”

But some faced workplace repercussions or threats of prosecution under a national law banning COVID “fake news,” passed early in the pandemic. The law also was invoked against journalists, including those doing groundbreaking reporting for local blogs or news portals in places far from Moscow.

In the oil-and-gas-rich region of Komi, northeast of Moscow, for example, the independent  news portal 7X7 found itself under fire when it blew the whistle on a COVID outbreak. 7X7 reported that Komi became an early hot spot after a surgeon with virus symptoms kept working at his hospital. The local health minister ordered an investigation of how the news had leaked, and police called in 7X7’s director for questioning. Before any action proceeded against 7X7, the Kremlin forced both the health minister and the regional governor to resign.

The official response was very different to another hot spot report, this one by Novaya Gazeta, which described draconian quarantine enforcement in Chechnya. Headlined “Death from coronavirus is the lesser evil,” the story said residents of Chechnya were afraid to report COVID symptoms after the region’s strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov had equated those who carried the virus with “terrorists.” Meanwhile, Kadyrov, his family, staff, and bodyguards traveled everywhere freely—and safely, said Kadyrov, because they were all tested for COVID twice a day.

“Do they have time in Chechnya to test anyone else except Kadyrov and his entourage?” asked Novaya reporter Elena Milashina.

The backlash was swift. Kadyrov issued a veiled threat to Milashina and branded Novaya journalists “foreign agents.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called Kadyrov’s statement “quite emotional,” but added, “on the other hand, the current situation is very emotional.”

Many of the pandemic themes covered by Russian independent media would sound familiar to audiences in other countries. News sites warned readers about COVID-related scams, described obstacles in applying for unemployment benefits, and looked at the impact on communities largely ignored in state media, such as those living in orphanages, nursing homes, and prisons.

Independent sites also used their particular expertise to focus on specific issues. The Insider’s “Anti-Fake” fact-checking feature debunked COVID misinformation, using the “pants on fire” rating on its “Pravda meter” for some reports in state media. The Bell’s economic analyses put the Kremlin’s financial responses in context: The $42 billion allocated for COVID relief in Russia was about 2.6 percent of the country’s GDP, while the comparable figures were 14 percent in the U.S. and 10 percent, on average, in European countries. And OVD-Info, created to monitor political activism, kept would-be protestors around the country informed about pandemic restrictions on public assembly and offered tips on “ways to contribute to the fight against repression without leaving home.”

Perhaps no pandemic issue was scrutinized more than Russia’s official mortality statistics. As world media chronicled COVID’s deadly spread through Europe and the U.S., some compared the numbers in Western countries with Russia’s relatively low official death count and asked, “What’s going on?”

National health ministry officials noted that while some countries counted nearly anyone who died and had tested positive for coronavirus as a COVID death, Russia’s guidelines called for autopsies and instructed morgue pathologists to determine whether the primary cause was COVID or another existing condition.

Thus, “if a person has a brain hemorrhage after earlier testing positive for the coronavirus, the cause of death will be classified as the hemorrhage, not Covid-19,” explained The Moscow Times.

While health officials called this system “objective,” critics told independent media that it badly underplayed COVID’s impact and was subject to political manipulation. “If you have any Russian statistics on mortality from coronavirus, you need to multiply it by an average of three to four,” one demographer told Meduza.

Independent newsrooms also investigated reports of local officials manipulating statistics in order to please political bosses in Moscow. The most damning report came from the independent site Znak. It posted an audio recording in which the governor of Lipetsk, a region southeast of Moscow, was heard telling subordinates “Your numbers need to change, otherwise they’ll think badly about our region.” The governor confirmed to Znak that his voice was the one in the recording, but said he was just trying to bring the local statistics “in line with the facts.”

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