‘A great victory’ Russian court drops case against journalist accused of spreading ‘fake news’ about the coronavirus pandemic

An ambulance outside of the emergency room of the Pokrovskaya Hospital in St. Petersburg. April 25, 2020. Anatoly Maltsev / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

Last May, Russian journalist Tatiana Voltskaya interviewed an ICU doctor who told her about the critical situation facing St. Petersburg’s coronavirus hospitals. After her report came out, state investigators launched an inquiry on suspicion that she had committed a felony — they accused her of spreading fake news about the coronavirus pandemic. Though there wasn’t enough evidence to press criminal charges, Voltskaya and her newsroom were fined for a similar misdemeanor. But with the help of media rights lawyers, Voltskaya appealed the fines in a landmark court case — and won.

The Gatchina City Court in Russia’s Leningrad region has dropped an administrative case against journalist Tatiana Voltskaya, who was accused of disseminating fake news about the coronavirus. Voltskaya reports for RFE/RL’s Russian bureau, Radio Svoboda, and its regional project Sever.Realii — the Russian authorities have designated both of these outlets as “foreign agent media.”

The case against Voltskaya was opened over an interview published by Sever.Realii in May 2020. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an intensive care doctor from St. Petersburg told the journalist about shortages of personnel, personal protective equipment (PPE), and medical equipment at municipal hospitals. “In all honesty, I can say that forced euthanasia is taking place in city hospitals. There already aren’t enough ventilators for everyone, people are already being forcibly unplugged, that’s to say, they’re being killed,” the doctors said.

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After the interview came out, the Russian Investigative Committee launched an inquiry on suspicion of the criminal distribution of fake news about COVID-19. “As far as I understood from my communication with the investigators, they expect a journalist to verify information that only an investigative body can verify. A journalist should have the right to publish socially relevant information in the form that they received it. The investigator can verify this information, but the journalist might be right or wrong,” Voltskaya said. 

Tatiana Voltskaya

State investigators demanded that Voltskaya reveal the name of the doctor who gave the interview. The journalist refused, citing media legislation that prohibits disclosing the identities of anonymous sources. In turn, Russia’s censorship agency (Roskomnadzor) ordered Radio Svoboda to take down Volkstkaya’s interview. The newsroom didn’t comply. Instead, Radio Svoboda verified the information contained in the article by speaking to two dozen doctors from different Russian regions. Radio Svoboda concluded that these interviews corroborated Volktskaya’s report. 

In the end, the Investigative Committee didn’t find grounds for launching a criminal case. Nevertheless, Voltskaya was handed similar misdemeanor charges. The journalist was fined 30,000 rubles ($400), and Radio Svoboda was fined 300,000 rubles ($4,000). “In my opinion, the decision to impose the minimum possible fine on me under this [administrative] article shows that everyone understands that I’m not at fault in any way. But the system can’t admit that a person was persecuted for nothing,” Voltskaya commented on the fine. 

The Media Rights Protection Center, a non-profit organization also designated as a “foreign agent” in Russia, offered legal support to both Tatiana Voltskaya and Radio Svoboda. The organization’s director and leading lawyer, Galina Arapova, called the case against Voltskaya one of the most emblematic fake news cases against Russian journalists in 2020. 

Along with the Media Rights Protection Center, Tatiana Voltskaya’s lawyer, Leonid Krikun, challenged the penalties. The Gatchina City Court, which considered the appeal, dismissed the case and cancelled the fines. “In the complaint, we pointed out that bringing administrative charges against Voltskaya was aimed at violating freedom of speech. A journalist has the right to speak out about socially significant issues. We believe that the termination of the case is a great victory,” Krikun said. 

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Story by Olga Korelina

Translated by Eilish Hart

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