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Another key vulnerability in Moscow’s coronavirus travel permit system Until today, Moscow police were stopping journalists from getting to work even though they were supposed to have the same free travel rights as public servants

Source: Meduza
Sergey Kiselyov / Moskva news agency

Moscow’s permit system for traveling the city by car or public transit amid the COVID-19 pandemic is gradually shifting from chaos into order. Still, the digital passes, which became mandatory on April 15, continue to pose significant problems and suffer from regular glitches. For example, until the evening of April 17, the status of certain essential workers remained unclear: while Mayor Sergey Sobyanin had ordered police to let judges, attorneys, military personnel, journalists, and civil servants travel using their work IDs rather than a special pass, traffic police didn’t know about the order and began preventing many of those workers from traveling if they couldn’t display a digital permit. There was at least one exception to those de facto restrictions: deputies and employees for the State Duma. Meanwhile, a special option on the permit website for media and government employees appeared — and then disappeared again.

Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin issued an order on April 11 that allowed law enforcement officers, judges, attorneys, civil servants, journalists, and private security guards to move around the city using their workplace identification documents alone. Unlike most other Muscovites, they would not have to weather the often-arduous process of obtaining a digital permit to travel outside.

However, on the day before the permit system became mandatory, journalists in Russia’s capital started to hear rumors that they actually would need some kind of “digital car pass,” if not a full-blown digital permit that could prove hard to obtain. Police officers, judges, court employees, and State Duma legislators, on the other hand, were permitted to provide their license plate numbers to human resources staff in advance, according to the business newspaper Kommersant. “You might be able to show your [work] ID to a police officer, but not to a camera,” an employee for the Prosecutor General’s Office told the newspaper. “A lot of people applied for car passes on their own, too, just in case — because I think this isn’t going to go by without a mess.”

On April 15 and 16, several members of the media told the Journalists’ Union that they had problems moving around town on the job. Police officers demanded digital passes from them and didn’t let up when the journalists displayed their press passes, the work ID that was supposed to be a valid substitute. “There were several cases. A colleague I worked with at Channel One [a state outlet], my colleagues from NTV [a private, state-friendly outlet] — I know a lot of people there — they sent me tips yesterday and the day before saying that, for example, outside Ostankino, when the reporters were driving in private vehicles, they were stopped by traffic patrol officers. And when my colleagues showed them their press passes, the officers started to saying that wasn’t an established form of documentation, and they’d need one of the new codes, a QR code or a written one,” said Vladimir Solovyov, the secretary of the Journalists’ Union of Russia. He added that the union soon contacted the Internal Affairs Ministry’s police headquarters and asked law enforcement commanders to inform all officers that journalists can travel without a special pass.

On the morning of April 17, however, the website where most Muscovites can apply for digital passes changed to include a new type of permit: a “digital pass for servicemembers.” According to the website, this new category was for “the use of transport by individuals whose movements outside their place of residence may be confirmed by an identifying document issued to military servicemembers, federal and municipal civil servants, government workers, judges, attorneys, and notaries, including assistants of the roles listed, or an editorial ID or other document confirming the identity and duties of a journalist, or a form of identification issued to a private security guard, such as a security ID card.” In other words, the new permit category was intended specifically for individuals who were supposed to be able to leave home based solely on their professional IDs. The new “service” passes also had a set expiration date: April 30. By the middle of the day, all mention of them had nonetheless disappeared from Moscow’s permit application website.

Moscow’s IT Department redirected Meduza’s questions about why police officers had demanded digital passes from journalists to the Internal Affairs Ministry. When asked why the permit portal had added a category for “servicemembers,” why that category had disappeared, and whether journalists and government employees would ultimately need digital passes, the IT Department’s press service responded, “The application form for receiving a digital pass on is in compliance with Moscow Mayoral Order No. 43-UM issued April 11, 2020.” That’s the order mentioned at the beginning of this article; it states that legal, government, media, and security workers only need their work IDs to travel around the city.

A source inside the State Duma told Meduza that the federal legislative body’s deputies, their assistants, and Duma administrative employees have been able to travel through Moscow using their work IDs. Meduza obtained a copy of a memo to deputies and their assistants in which Sobyanin’s order is cited explicitly and the recipients are told they do not need a special pass. “What probably happened is that some old drafts showed up on the permit application website by accident. If any changes had been planned, then we would have been given that information — that’s for 100 percent sure,” Meduza’s source said.

The federal bureaucrat also confirmed that “at first, [Duma workers] gave [their] license plate numbers” to administrators. He had never heard that any digital passes for Duma employees might be introduced. “A patrol stopped me, they asked for a digital pass, and I showed them my analog one,” the source concluded.

On the evening of April 17, however, Moscow’s police command confirmed that journalists also have the right to travel outside their homes without a QR code. “In response to today’s announcement from the Journalists’ Union of Russia, Moscow’s police would like to clarify […] that all vehicular police patrols have been informed that federal and municipal civil servants, judges, attorneys, journalists, and security guards are not required to obtain [a digital] pass,” police representatives told TASS.

Text by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Hilah Kohen

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