A leaked memo from Russia’s health ministry, dated Tuesday, demands staff send all comments and articles on coronavirus for approval by the ministry’s official service before publication.
Confirming the authenticity of the directive, a spokesman later claimed the order had gone out to “improve the efficiency of public communications” and to stop the spread of Covid-19. “The news agenda is overloaded with scarcely useful facts, assumptions and forecasts,” the official told the Meduza publication.
The instruction applies to all 167 medical institutions that answer directly to the health ministry. It does not cover hospitals under the control of regional authorities, although similar instructions are already in place in some of those jurisdictions.
News of the gagging order follows widespread criticism over government transparency during the spring wave of the pandemic.
Then, a combination of public health interventions and the late arrival of the coronavirus likely shielded most Russian regions from the worst of the virus. But the official counts also massively underestimated mortality. It was often doctors themselves who were the first to flag the discrepancies.
Already, Covid-19 appears to be taking even greater hold of Russia during its autumn phase. On Wednesday, the country recorded its highest official death count, 346, with overnight infection rate just short of a record, at 16,202. Unlike the spring phase, which was dominated by infections in Moscow, the virus appears to be hitting the regions hardest.
Numerous reports documented regional health systems stretched beyond their limits. In Altai region and Kemerovo, Siberia, local news led with stories of overflowing morgues. On Tuesday, two ambulances in the Siberian city of Omsk staged an impromptu protest outside of the regional health ministry after being unable to hospitalise two elderly patients suffering from severe Covid-19 symptoms.
Vladimir Soloviev, the head of Russia’s official journalist union, and hardly known for independent positions, described the decision of the health ministry to rubber-stamp comments as an “attempt to restrict information.”
“We are living in a complex and dangerous enough period as it is,” he said.