Serbian journalist detained for coronavirus reporting

A woman passes a banner reading in Serbian Cyrillic 'Exit, protect yourself and others' in Belgrade, Serbia, 31 March 2020. Serbian authorities have closed all places where people could gather in groups to limit the spread of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 which causes the COVID-19 disease. [EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC]

A Serbian journalist was detained by police on Wednesday (1 April) on charges of causing public unrest and damaging a hospital’s reputation after she reported about a shortage of protective medical equipment available for staff at a medical centre in the northern Vojvodina province.

Ana Lalić, a journalist of the Nova.rs news portal, was released on Thursday morning (2 April) following public pressure.

After her release, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić announced that an emergency decree about the centralisation of information during the coronavirus emergency, which forbids anyone outside government officials to provide news to the public, would be abolished.

On Wednesday, Lalić published a story titled ‘Vojvodina Clinical Center at breaking point: No protection for nurses.’

“On Saturday night, the nurses working at the so-called Corona centre rebelled and refused to enter patients’ rooms, because they had no protective equipment. A few hours later, a bit [of equipment] came,” an unnamed medical source told Nova.rs.

The hospital has denied the allegations and denounced the journalist to the local police, accusing Lalić of sowing panic and damaging the clinic’s reputation.

After her release, Lalić said she had “no regrets whatsoever” about publishing the story.

Prime Minister Brnabić said she was sorry the journalist had been detained but added that “spreading fake news in an emergency situation is a serious offence.”

Serbia is the hardest-hit country in the region: as of Wednesday (1 April), there were 1,060 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 28 deaths with 14,371 people tested.

Serbia ranks 90th in the media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, below Hungary (87) and Albania (82).

The arrest is an example that “democracy and freedoms in Serbia have come to an end, that institutions have become a means of dealing with journalists,” said the Independent Journalists’ Society of Vojvodina (NDNV) in a statement.

Concern has been rising across the continent that the emergency measures introduced by national governments may erode freedom of speech and the press.

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Hungary passed a law on Monday (30 March) that made spreading “false fact or true facts distorted in a way” that could harm defence measures punishable with up to five years of imprisonment.

“There are many similarities between the situation in Serbia and Hungary that can’t be neglected,” Dragan Đilas, opposition leader and former mayor of Belgrade, told EURACTIV in emailed comments.

Since Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić announced an open-ended state of emergency on March 15, borders were shut, a 12-hour police-enforced curfew imposed and people over 65 completely banned from leaving their homes.

“After its beginning, the state of emergency is followed with Vučić using of full power to impose new restrictions in the domestic arena, eradicating already weak human rights in Serbia and making daily media appearances with far-reaching consequences in both internal and foreign policies,” Đilas added.

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**Julija Simić of EURACTIV.rs contributed to this report.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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