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St. Petersburg health committee blocks journalists from asking questions in coronavirus press chat

Source: Bumaga

After setting up a WhatsApp group for the specific purpose of communicating with the press about the coronavirus situation in St. Petersburg, the city’s health committee has blocked journalists from using the chat to ask questions.

According to the local news outlet Bumaga, this took place on the morning of June 16, after several journalists used the chat to ask the health committee’s spokeswoman, Olga Ryabinina, about increased hospitalization rates among coronavirus patients in St. Petersburg.

Writing in the WhatsApp group, RBC Petersburg journalist Viktoria Saitova asked: “Does the health committee plan to publish information on the number of hospitalizations with coronavirus? Or respond to media inquiries? Or hold a press conference on the epidemiological situation?” In turn, Novaya Gazeta journalist Nina Petlyanova, Bumaga editor Evgeny Antonov, and MR7 correspondent Galina Artemenko stated their interest in the answer to Saitova’s question.

The health committee’s spokeswoman then proceeded to change the group’s settings so that only the administrators (local health officials) could send messages, blocking the journalists from writing anything in the chat. Bumaga posted a screenshot from the WhatsApp group, underscoring that reporters had been “banned from sending messages.”

Bumaga also noted that spokespeople for the St. Petersburg health committee have hardly responded to inquiries from journalists about the coronavirus situation in the city since the beginning of June.

The St. Petersburg authorities haven’t published data on the number of patients hospitalized due to COVID-19 since June 2. According to unofficial reports from the local newspaper Fontanka, more than 800 coronavirus patients were hospitalized in St. Petersburg on June 14. This is more than at the peak of the pandemic’s first wave in June 2020. 

Russia has seen a sharp increase in coronavirus cases since early June. In Moscow, this forced the authorities to announce another “non-working week” from June 12 to 20, followed by a sweeping mandatory vaccination campaign for persons working in the public and service sectors. Officials in St. Petersburg, which is hosting seven matches as part of the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship, introduced a slate of new coronavirus restrictions on June 17. 

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