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Independent journalists in Russia continue to hold the state-controlled media outlets accountable for how the latter present the COVID-19 pandemic to the Russian public.

Last week, it was statements made by a leading Russian scientist during a televised interview, which attracted particular attention from two such independent outlets: The Insider and TV Rain.

“A giant system for controlling the world”

In an interview broadcast on 6 April by the state-controlled TV channel Rossiya 1, Mikhail Kovalchuk, a Russian scientist and president of the Kurchatov Research Institute in Moscow, suggested that the coronavirus could have been manufactured by the US as a way of gaining control over the world.

Mr Kovalchuk, who was presented in his capacity as leader of the research institute, first described his understanding of the world order after the cold war, in which the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to the speaker, had led to a form of instability, which made a world war very likely; however, since this kind of war would lead to devastating global destruction with nuclear arms, the speaker said, a compensation for traditional war was needed by the U.S.:

“I don’t want at this point to discuss in detail if the virus is natural or artificial; but I do want make one point: as we began by saying, there were nuclear weapons; there were and are chemical weapons, which have been banned; and there were and are bacteriological weapons. Today, science is so sophisticated that constructing a virus, or another biological system, is not difficult at all […] This virus, which nobody sees, has forced the world system to make a complete stop. This means that a giant system for controlling the world has appeared.”

The programme’s host, Vladimir Solovyov, opened the almost half hour long interview with a statement which added a layer of deniability to the interview:

“The discussion continues in the scientific world: could the coronavirus have been created artificially or is it a natural mutation? In Russia, there is no reason to believe that COVID-19 was created artificially, as the minister of health Murashko said today; but if one virus was able to quarantine the entire planet, then we do not control the situation”.

The host did little to interrupt or challenge the speaker’s at times not very structured speech, asking only few questions in the course of the 28 minutes long interview.

 

Vladimir Solovyov, who has a permanent residency permit in Italy, hosts his own programme on state-controlled Rossiya 1 TV. He has used his programme to harass independent journalists. Follow this link to see examples of disinformation appearing is Mr Solovyov’s show.

In other words, the broadcast created a mix in which the scientist’s conspiracy theory was allowed to dominate – with a fig leaf of hesitation with the host’s reference to the health minister’s statement.

The Insider’s and TV Rain’s response

Both The Insider and TV Rain are independent Russian media whose output includes systematic fact-checking and debunking of the state-controlled media – The Insider with a special “Anti-Fake” section and TV Rain with a weekly programme called “Fake News”.

The Insider’s fact checkers challenged the claims in the Rossiya 1 talk show with an article under the headline, “President of the Kurchatov Institute and friend of Putin, Kovalchuk, said in Solovyov’s programme that COVID-19 was created by the United States to control the planet”.

Besides exposing the conspiracy theory about COVID-19 as a possible American plot, The Insider’s article challenged a number of additional statements made by the Russian scientist in support of the conspiracy theory. One of them – that “there is a process of population decline around the world” – was debunked with reference to the fact that between 1974 and 2019, the world’s population has increased from 4 billion to 7.7 billion.

Roman Dobrokhotov is the editor-in-chief of The Insider. Read his interview with EUvsDisinfo: “’Information war’ is a term used by the Kremlin to justify disinformation”.

TV Rain responded to the interview with humour, highlighting some of the more grotesque statements made in the course of the interview.

At the same time, TV Rain showed examples of how the same scientist has previously made similarly awkward public statements, including a theory claiming that global elites have genetically cultivated a form of homo sapiens especially to serve their interests.

Finally, TV Rain underlined the seriousness of the incident by pointing to Mr Kovalchuk’s family connections; his alleged close acquaintance with Russia’s president and the role he has been allowed to play in what TV Rain sees as measures than have undermined scientific institutions in Russia.

Russian journalists push back

EUvsDisinfo has already described how manipulations about COVID-19 in the pro-Kremlin media have been challenged thanks to the efforts of Russian journalists; notably The Insider, TV Rain, and BBC’s Russian service.

In addition, EUvsDisinfo has featured an interview with six Russian journalists and experts with their assessment of the way pro-Kremlin media outlets have treated the COVID-19 topic.

Before the pandemic began, EUvsDisinfo published a series of portrait interviews with independent Russian journalists about how they assess pro-Kremlin disinformation; the series included an interview with Maria Borzunova, co-host of TV Rain’s Fake News, and with Roman Dobrokhotov, editor-in-chief of The Insider.

Maria Borzunova exposes disinformation as co-host of the weekly programme ‘Fake News’ on independent TV Rain. Read her interview with EUvsDisinfo: “Distracting the Audience from the Real Problems.”

Broadcast in Russia and abroad

The programme in which the claims appeared, “Vecher s Vladimirom Solovyovym”, is Russia’s second most popular talk show, according to Russia’s leading media monitor, Media Scope. According also to Media Scope, the interview with Mr Kovalchuk on 6 April was watched by more than 400.000 people in the city of Moscow alone.

State-owned Rossiya 1 and its sister channel Rossiya 24 are part of the state media giant VGTRK whose deputy director general is the EU-sanctioned Dmitry Kiselyov. Follow this link to see 445 examples of disinformation (by 15 April 2020) appearing in the Rossiya channels’ output, collected in the EUvsDisinfo public database.

The Rossiya channels broadcast to households throughout the Russian Federation; but the output is also made available to Russian speakers outside Russia via satellite and cable TV packages under the name RTR Planeta. According to the network’s own website, its audience outside Russia amounts to more than 30 million people throughout the world.

Top image: Rossiya 1 screendump via The Insider.