Repressive laws, prosecutions, attacks… Europe fails to shield its journalists against the abuse of the COVID-19 crisis

While contributing to the fight against the coronavirus, journalists in the Balkans and Central Europe are attacked by governments as well as other actors they criticise. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) call on national and European institutions to protect the media as they fulfill their public mission in risky conditions.

The police intervention was brutal. Ana Lalić, journalist of the Serbian news site, was arrested late at night on 1 April and ordered a 48-hour detention. Her apartment was thoroughly searched and her cell phones and computer seized. The raid took place on the first day of the entry into force of a new government decision giving a de facto monopoly on the distribution of information about the coronavirus to Serbia’s Crisis Management Taskforce. When Ana Lalić published the article “Vojvodina Clinical Center at breaking point: No protection for nurses”, the hospital filed a complaint against her with the accusation of damaging its reputation and upsetting the public. It referred to the recent government decision. After an outcry from the media supported by RSF, Ana Lalić was released from custody the following morning, and the Prime Minister withdrew the new government decision and apologized. Yet, the journalist may still end up with a punishment of up to five years in prison and a fine. In addition, her sources may have been compromised due to the overnight seizure of her equipment. Another setback for independent media in the country which is already ranked 90th in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.


In fact, the case of Ana Lalić reflects a larger trend in the Balkans and the east of European Union. As states take measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, they use repressive laws to curb press freedom and open the door to arbitrary prosecutions, while critical journalists are already harassed by smear campaigns conducted by politicians and other actors amidst the coronavirus crisis.


“The case of Ana Lalić is alarming. The European Union should make sure that the Hungarian virus doesn't spread to the whole Balkans and Central Europe,” says Pavol Szalai, Head of the European Union and Balkans Desk at RSF. “State authorities in Europe should not abuse the sanitary crisis to prosecute journalists who work in the public interest. On the contrary, they should shield them from attacks and provide them with maximum information, so that they can help defeat the pandemic by informing citizens.”


Repressive laws and prosecutions


It is for an undetermined period of time a government in the heart of Europe was entrusted last week with emergency powers. Hungary’s Coronavirus Emergency Law imposes punishments of up to five years in prison for spreading fake news, while the government decides in practice what is true. The legislation followed concerted attacks and threats against independent media, accused of disinformation, although they reported on the COVID-19 more responsibly than the pro-government media.


After the adoption of the law, the smear campaign is going on. Because of his criticism of the Emergency Law, journalist of the weekly Magyar Hang, Balázs Gulyás, was treated a "wretched idiot" and threatened he to be "the first or the second to be held to account" by Hír TV, a channel close to the government. Meanwhile in Belgium, the journalist of La Libre Belgique, Maria Udrescu, experienced a tirade of vulgar messages following her coverage of yet another authoritarian turn in Hungary, which keeps backsliding in the World Press Freedom Index, landing on 87th place in 2019.


In Poland, too, the government has tightened the screws once again. Under the pretext of having broken the sanitary rules, the independent journalist Włodzimierz Ciejka had to pass two hours at the police station for filming a protest of four people in front of the house of the chairman of the ruling party PiS. The gathering was critical of the government’s plan to maintain the first round of the presidential election on 10 May in order to ensure the reelection of its President Andrzej Duda. Refusing to postpone the election amidst the coronavirus crisis, the ruling majority has passed a law on conducting the election by postal ballot, sparking fears of the opposition and civil society that constitution, democracy and oversight by media are compromised.


In Romania, the recent presidential decrees and government ordinances now allow for arbitrary blocking of news sites as well as for delays in responding to freedom of information requests. Accused of spreading fake news, two websites have already been blocked by the Group of Strategic Communication, a government crisis cell which has no media expertise and whose decisions are not subject to judicial review. Another disproportionate measure referring to the crisis legislation is the decision that a radio in the capital city, Bucuresti FM, must delete an article from its website.


In Bulgaria, which is EU’s worst-ranked country in the World Press Freedom Index (111th), the government adopted a law punishing the spread of false information on coronavirus with a prison term of up to 3 years and a fine of 5,000 euros. Eventually, the law was vetoed by the President.


In Bosnia, journalists were not so lucky. According to the new decree issued by the entity of Republika Srpska, spreading fake news is punishable by fines. The Brčko District, another territory in Bosnia, has adopted measures similarly curbing freedom of information, a step proposed also by the Interior Minister of the entity of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Verbal and physical attacks


In Slovenia, the government of Janez Janša, an ally of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, engaged in a smear campaign against journalists immediately after taking power in mid-March. Cyber-harassment and even a physical attack against journalists have already followed. RSF’s correspondent and investigative journalist Blaž Zgaga has been facing an immense wave of online threats, including calls for his death, since he sent a freedom of information request on the functioning of the newly established COVID-19 Crisis Headquarters. Instead of responding, the Twitter account of the institution, shared a tweet calling Blaž Zgaga, the intellectual Slavoj Žižek and two other critical personalities “psychiatric patients who escaped from the quarantine”. Media owned by the ruling party SDS followed with smear articles.


While refuting the appeal of seven press freedom organisations in favor of Blaž Zgaga as “fake news”, Prime Minister Janez Janša continues with verbal attacks against the public television, RTV Slovenija, because its journalists criticized a possible pay rise for ministers. He has accused them of “spreading lies” and being “overpaid”, threatening the public broadcaster with decreasing its funding. Demokracija, an SDS-owned weekly, framed the reporters as “terrorists” from ISIS. In this atmosphere, an unknown perpetrator threatened an RTV news team and damaged its vehicle. Prior to that, a news team of the public media was verbally attacked in the street in Maribor and, in a separate incident, RTV’s journalists were verbally attacked by the director of a municipal administration of Velenje.


The phenomenon of hate speech develops elsewhere in the Balkans. At the outset of the coronavirus crisis, Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama asked citizens in a pre-recorded telephone message to take hygiene measures including “protecting themselves against the media”. Meanwhile in Northern Macedonia, the investigative journalism platform faced threats after it published a report titled “Pandemic Profiteering or Community Care: The Other Side of the COVID-19 Tests”. Acibadem Sistina, the hospital chain in question owned by the oligarch Orce Kamcev, insulted the journalists and asked for the withdrawal of the article. In Serbia, the threats of a very specific kind were addressed to media. When the journalists of the investigative portal CINS reported on some Orthodox priests refusing social distancing, they were told they would be cursed should they not change their attitude.


This is but another grim illustration of the fact that while journalists contribute to fighting COVID-19, they become collateral victims themselves, facing attacks by various enemies of press freedom - including, regrettably, also some governments - who take advantage of the situation by prosecuting their critics. 

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Updated on 14.04.2020