Now, all information requests sent to Rosprirodnadzor’s press service will be subject to scouring by the special commission before it is released to the public – a decision greeted by some of Kirillov‘s subordinates as anti-democratic and needlessly complex.
Rosprirodnadzor is one of the Russian government’s most important sources of information about environmental conditions in Russia, and the new process of reviewing journalistic requests will, at the very least, make reporting on Russia’s environment far more cumbersome, possibly leading to interminable delays on facts about eventual catastrophes – if indeed the special commission intends to release information at all.
“Rosprirodnadzor, as any other governmental agency, must strive to provide timely and correct information to the public,” said Igor Kudrik, a Russian environmental and nuclear expert with Bellona. “The decision [to create the special commission] further alienates the Russian governmental structures from the people.”
According to the daily official newspaper Izvestia, Rosprirodnadzor officials will now be forbidden to comment on any information concerning emergency situations.
Information on environmental emergencies will be subject to special scrutiny by the new commission, according to Rosprirodnadzor’s remarks to the paper, in order to avoid fanning flames of panic among the population. The special commission will be made of up Rosprirodnadzor upper brass.
“Such a commission has not existed earlier, it’s a fresh directive that was issued literally this week by Kirillov, and I have no choice but to subordinate myself to it,” an unnamed source within the service told Izvestia. “We have many things of interest, and trying to hold in one’s head what can be told and what cannot be told is complicated. Our outward appearance is democratic, but that is not in fact the case.”
The source also said that the decision to create the special commission was taken largely as the result of this summer’s catastrophic flooding in the Krasnodar Region. The region experienced unprecedented flash flooding on July 7 after heavy rains.
State television reports, based on information from Rosprirodnadzor, blamed the floods on an equivalent of three to four months’ worth of rainfall in a typical year.
Official lessons from Krymsk disaster: keep your mouth shut
In the hilly area, water formed torrents that rushed into towns, including Krymsk, killing, by official counts, 172 people and constituting the worst natural calamity in the area in decades.
Tsunami-like waves of several meters were reported, although the nearest sea coast, on the Black Sea, is located 20 kilometers southwest of Krymsk across a mountain range.
Russian government officials acknowledged that authorities were aware of rising waters the night before the inundation of the town, but failed to notify residents of the approaching flood. Officials admitted to the New York Times that the failure was a “major error.”
The disaster offered a glimpse of the gap that has opened between Russians and their government. One official version for the cause of the flooding posited that it had resulted from an official decision to release some water from a swollen reservoir in the hills above the Krymsk.
Rosprirodnadzor, however, countered that, saying rains swelled nearby rivers with the equivalent of six months’ average precipitation.
The Rosprirodnadzor source told Izvestia that the new information filtering commission is intended to avoid the release of contradictory or unconfirmed information that characterized the Krymsk disaster.
But Kudrik said that is exactly the wrong tack to take, especially when dealing when national catastrophes are underway.
“The best way to fight panic among the population is to be honest,” he said. “The commissions as proposed by Rosprirodnadzor will raise further suspicion to the information coming from the agency.”
Former Rosprirodnadzor deputy chief Oleg Mitvol, who is familiar with the forming of the commission, says the decision is “extremely unreasonable.”
Waves of scandal real reason behind gagging agency
He told Izvestia that the order to create the commission is tied to scandals that have recently rocked the government service.
“What do we see if we search for Rosprirodnadzor on the Internet? We begin with the fact that a number of officials from the central apparatus are still in jail under investigation, some have been released, like the chief financial officer, but some remain, and someone was fired under a cloud of scandal,” he said. “Therefore they think their biggest headache is journalists asking stupid questions and that it’s better not to answer them.”
What of Russia’s regions?
The Federal Rosprirodnadzor office in Moscow has yet to comment on the new arrangement in the press, though the same cannot be said of its regional representative offices.
Vladimir Khrutsky, head of the Murmansk Region’s Rosprirodnadzor office said he hadn’t noticed any howling distortions or bungling by local journalists in their reports on environmental problems– in fact quite the opposite.
“I haven’t noticed anything like that in the Murmansk region. To the contrary our journalists don’t even work hard enough” to report on environmental issues, Khrutsky told Bellona. “Our region has many environmental problems to which reporters do not devote sufficient attention. Our journalists are often passive, although they could more actively exert themselves.”
But not all regional Rosprirodnadzor divisions are striving for such openness. During the summer of last year, the Russian Internet was aflame with discussions of a tender held by the Ural’s Chelyabinsk Regional Administration to purge search engines like Google and Yandex of negative material about the areas radiological woes – and as host to the Mayak Chemical Combine nuclear fuel reprocessing site, it has many.
The scheme was to scrub negative radiological information from the first 10 search results returned on key-word searches such as “Ozersk,” the closed city where Mayak resides; “Mayak;” “River Techa,” where Mayak still dumps its liquid radioactive waste; “Muslyumovo,” the village on the banks of the Techa that has bourn the brunt of the radioactive waste dumping;” “radiation in Chelyabinsk;” “world’s most contaminated city;” “Russia’s most contaminated city;”“Kyshtym disaster,” the 1957 precursor to Chernobyl when a radioactive waste storage tank at Mayak exploded and showered the region with fallout, and other similar Internet searches.
These first 10 results were to be replaced with reference returns that presented a positive picture of the Chelyabinsk environment, and the Chelyabinsk Region was willing to pay $13,000 to the information technology company that could tweak the searches, according to zakupki.gov.ru, the Russia government’s official site for state tenders.
Gazeta.ru petitioned the local administration of Rosprirodnadzor for comment, which was not forthcoming. Articles on the internet manipulation project – some true, some simply rumor – went viral in the absence of any official information.
Ecologists’ reaction to the Rosprirodnadzor order
According to Andrei Zolotkov, director of Bellona Murmansk, there is a sense that having one’s own opinions or judgments within he walls of Rosprirodnadzor is forbidden.
“If higher ups in the service don’t like the explanations or commentary of their colleagues, then you have to deal with the role and participation of the agency in specific events, not the other way around,” said Zolotkov.
“The practice of monitoring interviews or comments of colleagues existed and continues to exist in many structures – it is foreseen in internal instructions that more often than not are stamped ‘for internal use,’ and they just try to keep this quiet,’” he said, adding, “It’s not surprising that Rosprirodnadzor decided to adopt this for itself.”
Tightening the choke hold on independent media
Commenting to Izvestia, Ivan Blokov, program director for Greenpeace Russia, said that secreting environmental information violates the Russian constitution.
“First, as per the Constitution of the Russian Federation, information about emergency situations cannot be kept secret. But it’s worth noting that Rosprirodnadzor has never distinguished itself with its openness,” he told the paper.
Kudrik agreed, adding that, ”The lack of adequate information about natural disasters is not an entirely Russian phenomena. Information released by Japanese officials about the Fukushima disaster was far from being adequate.”
But Kudrik said efforts to close mouths at Rosprirodnadzor is hardly isolated to the Kremlin’s desire to keep the Russian public in the dark about its dismal environmental situation.
“If we look at the broader picture of the situation in Russia as of today, the initiative from Rosprirodnadzor is not an isolated incident but rather a trend characterized by a crack down on internet media,” he said, adding that Russia four state television stations and most of its daily newspapers were hardly in danger of shriveling in an information drought – mainly because truthful information is not their business.
“The traditional media, like television and newspapers have been under tight Kremlin control for a decade now,” he said.
Anna Kireeva reported from Murmansk and Charles Digges reported from Oslo.