Russia has asked Google to block a news article which repeats allegations the Kremlin may be underreporting its coronavirus death toll.
The article, by online news outlet MBKh Media, refers to a Financial Times report claiming Russia could have 70 per cent more Covid-19 deaths than it reports.
MBKh Media said on Thursday it had been told by Google in a letter the request was made after a decision by the prosecutor-general’s office.
The prosecutor-general claimed the article “contained calls for riots, extremist activities, [and] participation in mass public events held in violation of the established order”, according to MBKh Media.
“I believe the demand to remove the news about this article is pure political censorship,” the outlet’s editor Veronika Kutsillo said of the request, which was made by the Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor.
She told the website Open Media she would not delete the story.
A Google spokesperson said: “We consider all valid legal requests from government authorities in the countries we operate in. We regularly disclose this kind of data.”
It came as Russia’s foreign ministry criticised the Financial Times report, as well as a similar New York Times story. Both were based on a spike in total mortality rates reported by officials in Moscow, who said the capital registered about 1,800 deaths more in April 2020 than the monthly average.
The New York Times reported that total is far higher than the official Covid-19 death count of 642, which the newspaper said was an indication of significant underreporting by the authorities.
It quoted Tatiana Mikhailova, a senior researcher at the Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration in Moscow, as saying that the number who died from the virus is “possibly almost three times higher than the official toll”.
The Financial Times pointed to a similar surge in deaths reported by authorities in St Petersburg.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova complained about what she called “disinformation” by the two newspapers and said letters demanding a retraction would be passed on to both.
Danielle Ha, vice-president for communications for The New York Times, told Russian news agencies the report was accurate because it was based on data released by an official state agency.
On Saturday, the Financial Times published a letter from Andrey Kelin, Russia’s ambassador to the UK, who refuted the newspaper’s coverage of Russia’s outbreak.
The New York Times reported that Russia’s mortality rate of only about 13 deaths per million was far below the world average of 36.
Russian health officials insisted that the relatively low coronavirus death toll is due to its instituting a quick ban on travel from neighbouring China earlier this year, an early introduction of restrictions and tracing of the infected contacts. Donald Trump has cited a similar travel ban for his efforts to combat the virus.
Russian officials also have said the scope of testing has been significantly increased in recent weeks, allowing for officials to spot the infections quickly and prevent patients from developing life-threatening complications.
Following the foreign ministry statement, MP Vasily Piskaryov demanded that reporters from the newspapers be stripped of their accreditation, effectively banning them from working in the country.
Ms Zakharova said measures against the media organisations “will depend on whether they run the retraction”.
Last month, Russian lawmakers approved fines of up to £20,650 and prison terms of up to five years for anyone who spreads what is deemed to be false information during the outbreak. Under the measure, media outlets could be fined up to £105,000 for disseminating disinformation about the virus.
On Wednesday, Moscow’s health department rejected the allegations of undercounting coronavirus deaths. Officials said autopsies are being conducted in all suspected coronavirus deaths.
“That’s why post-mortem diagnoses in Moscow and causes of death, in the end, are exceedingly accurate, and the mortality data absolutely transparent,” the statement said.
More than 60 per cent of deaths of people with coronavirus in Moscow were ascribed to other causes, such as cardiovascular ailments, cancer, diseases involving organ failures and other illnesses, according to the statement.
Guidelines on reporting coronavirus deaths, issued by the World Health Organisation in mid-April, state that “deaths due to Covid-19” should be considered as such “unless there is a clear alternative cause of death that cannot be related to Covid disease”.
Additional reporting by AP
Russia has reported over 250,000 coronavirus cases on Thursday and 2,305 deaths. The comparatively low death toll raised questions in the West, with some critics suggesting it could be much higher.