- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2020

Russian media outlets faced penalties Friday after federal regulators invoked the nation’s newly enacted law against “fake news” to censor reports about the coronavirus pandemic.

Roskomnadzor, the Russian government’s communications watchdog, said it asked a number of media outlets to remove “inaccurate, socially significant information” about the outbreak.

Both the Echo of Moscow radio station and the Govorit Magadan news website were asked to remove content about the novel coronavirus that had been “disseminated under the guise of reliable information, creating a threat of massive disruption of public order and (or) public safety,” Roskomnadzor said in a statement.

Roskomnadzor did not specify what reports were deemed bogus. The Moscow Times reported that both outlets said they removed the content from their respective sites, however.

YouTube, Instagram and VKontakte, a Russian social networking service, were also asked by regulators to remove content similarly deemed bogus by authorities, Roskomnadzor said.

Interfax, another Russian news outlet, reported that Echo of Moscow had been asked by regulators to remove an interview with a political analyst who cited anonymous sources to say that more than 130,000 people across the country had contracted COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, and that around 1,600 had died.

Alexei Venediktov, the radio station’s editor in chief, said the comments made in the interview included the analyst’s opinions and that the outlet may appeal, Interfax reported.

On Govorit Magadan, an article published later Friday said the news site had been asked by regulators to remove a report about a person who died at a local hospital from COVID-19.

Russia has officially reported a total of 253 cases of COVID-19 as of Friday. Only one death from the disease, announced Thursday, has been officially reported.

Internationally, the World Health Organization has confirmed more than 209,000 cases of COVID-19 since the disease was discovered late last year in Wuhan, China, including over 8,700 that resulted in death.

Signed by President Vladimir Putin last March, the Russian law against disseminating fake news stories carries a maximum penalty of 500,000 rubles for news outlets, or around $6,200, The Moscow Times reported.

Mr. Putin claimed earlier this month that “fake stories” circulating in Russia about the coronavirus were being created abroad in order to “spread panic among the public.”

Lea Gabrielle, the head of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, testified days on Capitol Hill later that the Russian government was spreading disinformation about the virus, meanwhile.

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

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