States of emergency to fight the coronavirus a threat to press freedom

States of emergency to fight the coronavirus a threat to press freedom
The parliament building in Belgrade, credit: EC - Audio-visual service, 2018

Several EU member states have imposed emergency measures during the coronavirus crisis. Such measures are allowed to fight the virus but should be strictly proportional and limited in time, according to the European Commission. Silencing open discussion and critical voices is dangerous during a crisis.

Hungary is among the member states. Its government has passed a law that extends the state of emergency indefinitely and imposes prison sentences for spreading falsehoods about the coronavirus. The Commissions says that it follows the situation in Hungary closely but is reluctant to openly condemn the emergency legislation.

A similar situation appears in Serbia, a frontrunner until now among the candidate countries. A state of emergency was declared already in mid-March by president Aleksandar Vucic to fight the virus and limit is effects on the economy. “Serbia is today at a war against an enemy it has to defeat,” he said.

At the time, few people had been infected in the country and there were no coronavirus-related deaths. Since then, according to the latest figures (23 April) from Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Crisis Center, the number of confirmed infected persons are 2,284 and the death toll is 125.

According to the Steering Committee of the Serbian Bar Association, the state of emergency was introduced in an unconstitutional manner without the formal approval of the parliament. The European Parliament has also protested against the decision.

On 9 April, a number of MEPs sent an open letter to enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi and expressed their concerns about the situation in Serbia, especially the threat against press freedom. Várhelyi, himself from Hungary, was asked about his position on the “rather extreme” emergency measures in Serbia and what impact they might have on its EU membership prospects.

Until now the European Commission has not replied to the letter. Asked by The Brussels Times about the letter, a Commission spokesperson confirmed on Monday (20 April) that it had received the letter and would reply in due course. Countries must have all tools necessary to tackle an unprecedented crisis but a state of emergency must be limited in time and measures should respect European values.

Press freedom

“Serbia has taken adequate, responsible and proportionate measures to effectively combat this serious crisis. These measures are equal or similar to the ones applied in the EU member states and many other countries,” Serbia’s ambassador to the EU, Ana Hrustanović, assured The Brussels Times. She does not agree with the letter which she sees as a kind of political exploitation of the crisis.

In the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, published this week by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Serbia is ranked after Hungary. Under its current president, “Serbia has become a country where it is often dangerous to be a journalist and where fake news is gaining in visibility and popularity at an alarming rate”.

The report mentions that most investigations into attacks on media personnel have stalled or been shelved, such as investigations into the attacks against journalist Milan Jovanovic, whose house was set on fire in December 2018 while he and his wife were asleep inside.

The index ranks 180 countries and regions according to the level of freedom available to journalists. The degree of freedom available to journalists is determined by pooling the responses of experts to a questionnaire on indicators such as pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, and legislative framework.

Pavol Szalai, head of RSF’s EU & Balkans Desk, explained that independent journalists are targeted in smear campaigns by the governments in Hungary and Serbia and face restriction in doing their work. The atmosphere for journalists is similar in both countries but in Serbia journalists have also been physically attacked.

On the other hand, the Serbian government has overturned some of the initial restrictions it imposed on journalists during the coronavirus crisis such as granting monopoly on giving out information to the crisis headquarters or limiting active presence of journalists at press conferences.

The situation in Serbia seems also to have been confounded by an election process that started before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and with elections scheduled to take place on 26 April. For the time being, the election process has been halted and the state of emergency must be cancelled for the elections to take place later on.

State of emergency

“It seems that the true nature of political regimes in every state of the world is revealed in times of crisis,” says Biljana Stojković, a civil activist and biology professor at the University of Belgrade. “What we hear from the president is that he is the savior whose duty is to take care of us.”

“In general, what is happening in Serbia is typical of an authoritarian regime. The authorities are spreading a climate of panic and using their media to strengthen the power of the president,” she added.

President Vucic decides which emergency measures will be applied in the next few days, what medical equipment will be purchased, from where the supplies will be acquired, and basically all the details on how to deal with pandemic situation, according to Biljana Stojković.

As in most countries in Europe, schools, universities, restaurants and shopping malls have been closed since the beginning of state of emergency but she describes other lockdown measures as unnecessary and bordering to a militarisation of society.

“In the beginning of the state of emergency, citizens were forbidden to venture out on the streets during several hours during the day and were completely locked in their homes during the weekends. The most devastating and humiliating measure concerned senior citizens who were even more restricted in their movements.”

While the number of infections has been reduced in recent days, Serbia has been more hit by the virus than other Western Balkans countries. “The data raise the question whether the most rigorous emergency measures in the region were justified and if the same results could have been achieved by applying milder restrictions of human rights.”

She is concerned about the impact of the state of emergency on human rights in her country. “It seems that the Serbian government is using the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to suspend rights and to exploit the situation for political purposes.”

“During the crisis dozens of people have been arrested and accused of not obeying the self-isolation rules. Some of these people are known to be critical of the ruling party and government. Many of them were sentenced to two or three years of imprisonment in speed trials via Skype, contrary to criminal law.”

Media were instructed by a decree not to report on pandemic data from non-governmental sources. A journalist who wrote about the conditions in one hospital was arrested and then released but faces a trial. The reaction of citizens on social media and the reaction of the European Commission forced the government to withdraw the decree.

How do you expect the European Commission to react to the letter from the MEPs - will it affect the accession negotiations?

“There are many people in Serbia committed to European values and who are looking forward for Serbia to join the EU, " Biljana Stojković replies.  "However, we feel that EU has lost interest in Serbia and watched silently the antidemocratic changes in our country. I’m sure that policymakers in EU know what is happening in Serbia but for some reasons they choose not to react.”

She fears that such a policy is affecting the attitudes towards the EU. “Recognizing that the political system in Serbia does not meet EU’s criteria will certainly, in the short term, affect the accession negotiation negatively but might improve the situation in the long term. I know that a change depends on our internal political fight but we need help from the EU.”

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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