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Officials hold back COVID-19 facts from media and the public

2020 2020-05-06T17:02:29+0300 2020-05-06T17:09:26+0300 en The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”

The state propaganda accuses its private counterparts of misinformation and escalation, and the authorities threaten reporters with penalties. Meanwhile, officials have built a ‘wall of silence’ to suppress information about the COVID-19 crisis, Belarusian Association of Journalists said.

Many reporters say that it is extremely difficult to get a comment, and even formal requests from the journalists are increasingly ignored, says Iryna Leushyna, chief editor of the BelaPAN news agency.

The press service of the Ministry of Health Care runs a chat in Viber for journalists writing on the subject of COVID-19, and a Telegram channel, too, offering regular updates. However, information is incomplete, for example, there are no statistics on patients on mechanical ventilation or on local outbreaks of COVID-19.

“There is no information on the methodology for determining the causes of death from coronavirus, which prompts the question of why Belarus keeps reporting low COVID-19 mortality rates against the background of hundreds of new patients? The Ministry of Health Care argues that the deceased suffered a number of chronic diseases, but in some cases their families tell reporters contradicting stories,” Iryna Leushyna said.

A separate issue of concern is the behavior of officials during press conferences. They go the length of being rude instead of answering the questions. They teach journalists how to work and what to write about.

It is known that about 10 years ago, health care officials and doctors were instructed to avoid talking to reporters without approval from the Ministry’s press service. The problem of unequal access to information by state and private media has proved especially acute when covering the topic of COVID-19.

Government-owned media publish regular interviews with and comments from doctors and health officials, while private outlets are deprived of such an opportunity. Health care professionals are afraid to give comments, and often choose to remain anonymous.

Siarhei Lazar, head doctor at an emergency care hospital in Viciebsk, who was fired after giving a comment to The government denies the dismissal is linked to freedom of speech
Siarhei Lazar, head doctor at an emergency care hospital in Viciebsk, was fired after giving a comment to The government denies the dismissal is linked to freedom of speech

The psychological pressure on journalists is also exerted by the constant reproaches of the head of state and other officials accusing private media of ‘whipping up panic’, ‘speculating on the topic of COVID-19’ and ‘making money on fakes’.

“In the first weeks of the epidemic, the press service of the Ministry of Health Care worked perfectly. The spokesperson answered our calls and replied to our comments in her social media accounts. It ended abruptly and very soon. Now every journalist has dozens of unanswered calls on their mobile phones,” says Valiantsin Zhdanko of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Belarus service.

The journalist says the spokesperson answered his call on April 29 and asked to send a formal request.

“There are dozens of such requests from Radio Svaboda since the beginning of March. We have not yet received a single response,” Mr. Zhdanko said.

In such a complex epidemiological situation, all these requests are urgent. When alarming reports of overcrowded hospitals began to arrive from Viciebsk in late March, the information had to be confirmed immediately. And if, four weeks later, the Ministry of Health Care answers how many COVID-19 patients there were in Viciebsk in late March, it will make no sense at all, he says.

Mikalai Kazlovich, chief editor of, a news website with hundreds of thousands of daily readers, says the corporate email box is full of rumors and allegations on COVID-19. But investigating these reports is a huge challenge, since most officials turn their backs on the journalists, which gives more space for fakes and rumors.

“Journalists are faced with the problem of getting information in every city and village where they go to do their stories. It is the regions now that are the main zones of silence,” he said.

According to Ulyiana Babaed, editor of the news site, for some reason, there were no Q&As at the recent briefings arranged by the Ministry of Health Care.

“This is very discouraging: we have a lot of questions, and we want to ask them to the experts. Readers need expertise, they need analysis. This is what we really lack to suppress the panic and to tell people something other than just news and statistics,” she said.

Private media say the government’s media policies run counter to WHO’s recommendations, which repeatedly urged countries to be more open during this year’s pandemic.

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