by Alyaksandr Yanusik
When Minsk tried to keep a lid on swine flu news, the pot boiled over.
MINSK | Belarus has been often referred to as a Soviet preserve, and the country's bureaucrats are notorious for their persistent and ingenious efforts to control information. But, as a recent attempt to choke off news on a swine flu outbreak demonstrated, those controls prove useless when the public gets really concerned. They may even work against authorities in the Internet age.
Official information on the extent of the outbreak and related deaths was vague and hardly credible. On 1 November, Valyantsina Kachan, the country's chief medical officer, announced that pharmacies and health facilities had sufficient stockpiles of preventive and antiviral drugs. But the drugs were unavailable the following day.
While senior officials kept denying H1N1-related deaths, stories circulated on the Internet about people dying of mysterious untreatable pneumonia. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization released a statement stressing that viral pneumonia is the most common diagnosis in severe cases of swine flu and a frequent cause of death.
The difference between official statements and reality was so great that the public could not but react to it by ignoring official reports and turning to other sources such as friends and independent news sites.
A summarized story on www.naviny.by, a free-access news and analysis site of the private news agency BelaPAN, attracted an unprecedented 50,000 readers in a week compared with 2,000 to 3,000 hits for an average story on the same website, according to BelaPAN Director General Ales Lipay. About 20,000 readers visited two other stories displayed in the top news category in just half a day.
One of the most visited stories published by the agency, for which I work as a journalist, featured leaked official documents confirming two H1N1-related deaths that occurred at one hospital on the same day, prompting the authorities to release numbers and admit that there had been a score of other cases.
Even before independent reporters started to probe the topic, the authorities' clumsy handling of information and uncertainty regarding the extent of the disease fueled a growing panic and prompted a run on pharmacies. Later, officials attempted to shift the blame to the media. In an interesting wrinkle, both state-controlled and private outlets had a problem getting access to information.
As concerns escalated, 93 percent of callers to the state-controlled TV channel ONT during its 2 November Vybor talk show on swine flu said they did not trust officials' optimistic statements and believed that the authorities concealed information from the public.
Health officials refused to comment on rumors. Desperate to obtain official information, the Belarus Service of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe on 4 November posted an account by an anonymous source alleging that 16 patients died of swine flu at one hospital in one day and appealing to health officials to comment. To no avail.
The article was headlined "Hippocratic Oath or Omerta, Oath of Mafiosi." It said, "Doctors are tightlipped like Italian Mafiosi who take an oath to keep their mouths shut."
The media continued to press the authorities to release credible information. Even the government-controlled newspaper Sovetskaya Belorussiya urged the Health Ministry to provide accurate updates in its editorial "Nothing but the Truth."
On 3 November, BelaPAN posted photocopies of official documents confirming two H1N1-related deaths under the headline "Authorities Hiding Truth about Swine Flu." The agency obtained the papers from a doctor who asked that the information be published.
The government reacted immediately, beginning with predictable scare tactics. First Deputy Information Minister Liliya Ananich issued a statement threatening to clamp down on media attempts to spread "false information."
"We should stress that health care is not a matter on which one can speculate. It is true that the picture is not nice in neighboring countries," Ananich said. "But nothing with which our medicine cannot cope is taking place in the Republic of Belarus. It is true that there are ill people and there are shortages of medications, but if the media start calling on people today to rush to pharmacies, you can imagine what will happen with the pharmacies. There is no need to run to pharmacies to buy drugs."
NO ONE IMMUNE
BelaPAN chief Lipay responded in an interview with RFE/RL's Belarus Service, noting that rumors are more likely to circulate where there is a shortage of information. He urged the ministry to help with obtaining accurate and up-to-date reports on dangerous diseases and measures being taken by the government to fight them.
Asked whether BelaPAN feared repercussions, he said, "We have nothing to fear because we did not spread false information but reported facts. Do you think our Information Ministry can retaliate for telling the truth?"
Although no serious punitive measures followed, two weeks later the ministry reprimanded the Nasha Niva weekly and the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii for running allegedly unverified reports on swine flu. The ministry would not explain how journalists were to verify those reports, however, with officials banned from making comments on the subject.
The Information Ministry prohibited government-controlled media from publishing unauthorized reports on the spread of H1N1 influenza in Belarus, according to sources in those newsrooms.
The ministry reportedly allowed newspapers to reprint only reports on the topic from the government's news agency, BelTA, and gave a severe dressing-down to Narodnaya Gazeta, the only government-controlled national newspaper to run a report on Belarus' first officially confirmed swine flu-related death.
Nevertheless, pressure from the media prompted Kachan, the chief medical officer, to appear on television on 4 November to report on the registered number of swine flu cases and related deaths.
The Health Ministry posted flu and cold prevention tips on 5 November, although the first swine flu case had been diagnosed in August.
But information on the outbreak remains hard to come by. Health officials refuse to say how many patients have died of pneumonia. The Information Ministry's website reports only the total number of diagnosed swine flu cases and a decrease or increase in flu and cold-like illnesses.
Health is an issue on which the public is united regardless of political beliefs. If information concerning health is withheld, rumors spread faster than any virus, with free media and Internet outlets just speeding up the process. The authorities did not take that into account while planning their awareness, or unawareness, campaign.
Belarusian officials have failed to learn lessons from the Soviet Union, whose residents might have trusted state television because there was no other easily accessible source but were always on guard, suspecting that authorities were hiding something important that might affect their lives. Back then, it was salt and bread that people rushed to the stores to buy when rumors of scarcity spread. This time, it was potentially life-saving drugs.
Alyaksandr Yanusik is a journalist with the BelaPAN news agency in Minsk.