Serbian journalist arrested for reporting on difficult working conditions of medical staff in COVID-19 pandemic

Novi Sad; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

NOVI SAD – A journalist of Serbian Nova.rs portal Ana Lalić was arrested on Wednesday evening on charges of causing panic and unrest for reporting on the difficult situation in the Clinical Centre of Vojvodina (KCV). She was ordered a 48-hour arrest pending interrogation by a prosecutor, but was released on Thursday morning. Nevertheless, her laptop and mobile phone have been kept by the police. KCV denies the reports on the conditions of its workers.

According to Lalić, she was arrested by six police officers who thoroughly searched her apartment, and endured two rounds of hearing before she was released.

Yesterday, Lalić published a story on the Nova.rs portal titled “Clinical Centre of Vojvodina at the breaking point: No protection for nurses”. Lalić wrote that there was a “chronic shortage of basic equipment at the clinical centre where staff are working under chaotic conditions during the pandemic”.

“On Saturday night, nurses working at the so-called Corona Center rebelled and refused to enter patients’ rooms because there was no protective equipment. After a few hours, a small amount arrived”, an anonymous doctor told Lalić. The article stated that employees of the Emergency Center and KCV intensive care unit, including those in operating rooms, are entitled to only one protective mask per day.

Immediately after the news that her laptop and mobile phone have been kept by the police broke, the suspicions that the police is after Lalić’s unnamed sources were raised by the public.

Soon after the story was first published, KCV expressed “outrage over the inaccurate, unverified and malicious” reporting by Nova.rs about the operation of the institution and stated that it “informed the prosecution and the police about it” for disturbing the public and damaging its reputation.

After the arrest, The Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina (NDNV) demanded Lalić’s immediate release. According to their statement, the police and prosecutors did not react when “state officials threatened the population and journalists in a panic nor when the Crisis Staff sent out text messages saying that a Spanish or Italian scenario is looming but consider reports on whether medical staff is in danger to be a crime”. Lalić is a member of the NDNV board.

According to NDNV, the arrest is “the best example that the democracy and freedoms in Serbia are on their deathbed”.

The text messages referred to in the statement were sent by the Crisis Staff of the Government of Republic of Serbia to all MTS mobile network users on Tuesday night (MTS is majority-owned by the state company Telekom Serbia) reading: “The situation is dramatic. We are getting close to the Spanish and Italian scenario. Please stay at home. Crisis Staff for suppression of infectious disease COVID-19”.

European Federation of Journalists, as well as United Media Group, owner of Nova.rs, announced that they will notify the Council of Europe and other European authorities on Lalić’s arrest.

Government’s attempt to centralise the information on the pandemic

This was, however, not the first controversy related to the freedom of expression and information at the times of COVID-19 outbreak.

On 28 March, The Government decided to forbid anyone not in its Crisis Staff from issuing any information about the Coronavirus pandemic. “All information for the public will come from the Prime Minister or persons empowered by the Crisis Staff,” the Government stated in its decision, which was published in the Official Gazette on Tuesday. The Crisis Staff is headed by the Prime Minister Ana Brnabić.

The Government warned that any information about health care measures and any other information from “unauthorized persons” cannot be considered “correct and verified”, adding that anyone passing along that information could be held accountable under “regulations covering accountability and legal consequences for spreading disinformation during the state of emergency”.

In yet another twist, Prime Minister Brnabić said on Thursday (2 April) morning that her government would meet later in the day to revoke the decree banning anyone but the Crisis Staff from releasing information about the Coronavirus pandemic. Brnabić said that the decree was being withdrawn at the express request of President Aleksandar Vučić to “avoid casting a shadow on everything that has been done so far”. She said the decree was taken to provide verified information to the public.

President Vučić announced a state of national emergency on 15 March due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. This constitutional provision allows the Government to suspend some of the basic rights of citizens, including the freedom of speech and movement.

The experts have criticised the decision, stating that the existing legislature already gave the Government all means necessary to combat the virus without invoking such drastic measures. The constitutionality of the decision was challenged yesterday before the Constitutional Court by a group of lawyers.