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Media reporting on forest fires face restrictions

(GDF/IFEX) - 30 August 2010 - The situation with forest fires around the villages of Bayanovka and Vsevolodo-Blagodatskoye near the city of Severouralsk has become absurd: all new data about the fires has been classified, and earlier information is being thoroughly "glossed over" and "embellished" by police officers.

When a "Kommersant-Ural" correspondent called the Severouralsk fire brigade headquarters to request the latest news, he was told that "as of today, no official comments will be available" and that all fire-related information can only be requested from the press service of the Emergency Situations Ministry's regional branch in Yekaterinburg.

"When information starts to be dosed out, it means the problem really exists," said "Kommersant-Ural" editor Ella Bidileyeva, noting that it was not the first time during the summer of 201 that information was being hushed up. "When the village of Vizhai burned down in the region's north, we called the boarding house where fire victims were taking temporary shelter, and local employees frankly admitted they had been ordered not to meet with the press. They also said the victims hadn't brought along any personal things. So it's a big question whether the evacuation had been as smooth as it was reported."

Meanwhile, authorities in Severouralsk have been seeking to "scale down the level of anxiety" by editing information already published. Specifically, Mikhail Pesterev of the website Severouralsk-online.ru was told two weeks ago to edit out a report about the fire emergency in Bayanovka where 700 residents were packing things to flee from the fire raging just 300 meters from their village. The report said evacuation was unlikely because most rescuers had already left the place.

According to Pesterev, shortly before midnight a man came to his house identifying himself as the district police inspector, to question him in connection with the publication and to warn him he might be held liable "for fanning the panic". The journalist tried to explain that the report had been reprinted from the Ura.ru website with due reference to the source, but the police officer required him to submit written explanations. "I removed the report from my website that night, and now the site is temporarily inaccessible," Pesterev said.

In Yekaterinburg, official resistance prevented a reporters' trip to the Visim national park where a fire had broken out. First, authorities required coordination with the local administration, then with the regional fire headquarters - until a long-awaited rain removed the issue from the agenda.

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