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Europe fails to shield its journalists against abuse during the COVID-19 crisis (Demo)

This statement was originally published on on 8 April 2020.

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

In one brutal incident, Ana Lalić, a journalist for the Serbian news site, was arrested late at night on 1 April and ordered to spend 48 hours in detention. Her apartment was thoroughly searched and her cell phones and computer seized. The raid took place on the first day of 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 accusing her 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. This is 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 the 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 health crisis to prosecute journalists who work in the public interest. On the contrary, they should shield them from attacks and provide them with ample information, so that they can help defeat the pandemic by informing citizens.”

Repressive laws and prosecutions

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 will decide in practice what is true. The legislation followed concerted attacks and threats against independent media, accused of disinformation, even though they reported on the COVID-19 more responsibly than the pro-government media.

Since the adoption of the law, a smear campaign has been carried out. Because of his criticism of the Emergency Law, a journalist of the weekly Magyar Hang, Balázs Gulyás, was termed a “wretched idiot” and threatened he would be “the first or the second to be held to account” by Hír TV, a channel close to the government. Meanwhile in Belgium, a 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, having landed in 87th place in 2019.

In Poland, the government has tightened the screws once again. Under the pretext of having broken the health rules, independent journalist Włodzimierz Ciejka had to spend two hours at a police station for filming a protest of four people in front of the house of the chairman of the ruling PiS party. 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 President Andrzej Duda. Refusing to postpone the election amidst the coronavirus crisis, the ruling majority has passed a law stipulating that the election will be conducted by postal ballot, sparking fears of the opposition and civil society that the constitution, democracy and oversight by the media will be compromised.

In Romania, 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 stemming from the crisis legislation is a ruling that a radio station in the capital, 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 derogatory 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, as 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 the municipal administration of Velenje.

Elsewhere in the Balkans, the phenomenon of hate speech has sprung up. At the outset of the coronavirus crisis, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama asked citizens in a pre-recorded telephone message to take hygienic 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, threats of a very specific kind were addressed to the media. When the journalists of the investigative portal CINS reported on some Orthodox priests who refused to social distance, 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.

The post Europe fails to shield its journalists against abuse during the COVID-19 crisis appeared first on IFEX.


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