Corruption; Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Ashwath Hegde

Media freedom represents a crucial element of a democracy and it has an even bigger role during extraordinary circumstances, one of them being the COVID-19 pandemic. As more power is given to the executive branch, especially in the countries where state of emergency was declared, it is necessary for media to fulfill their role as the ones who oversee and monitor the authorities.

Due to public attention turned to coronavirus-related statistics and measures, there is a window open for cases of corruption to go unnoticed and this why the role of media as democratic procedure “watchdog” is even more important during the crisis.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) state that there is a clear correlation between suppression of media freedom in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and a country’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index. Considering the Western Balkan countries’ rankings – Bosnia and Herzegovina (58), Kosovo (70), Albania (84), North Macedonia (92), Serbia (93), and Montenegro (105) out of 180 countries, can this correlation be observed in the region and can we see differences in how did the media inform citizens during the pandemic?

According to the RSF, BiH made the biggest progress jumping five places. Kosovo and North Macedonia also showed improvement and Albania, Serbia and Montenegro failed to achieve positive results.

Althought the ranks are different among the WB6, the one thing common – centralized source of information about statistics or new measures introduced, distributed on daily press conferences, but what came as a surprise was the takeover of media space by politicians, pointed out the experts from Albania, BiH and Serbia European Western Balkans talked to.

Media reporting on COVID–19: Spreading panick in the times of war

Blerjana Bino, Co-Founder of Science and Innovation for Development Centre and the lecturer of New Media and Qualitative Research Methodologies and a member of BiEPAG, says that even though doctors are answering journalists’ questions in Albania, the Prime Minister Edi Rama communicates via ERTV, through Facebook text status or video the decisions of the government addressing the situation ranging from the shopping timetable for citizens to relief measures for business.

“Basically, the Prime Minister has monopolized not only the information (what we learn and think about the crisis), but also the framing (in what ways do we think about the crisis) and the mediums (how we receive the information). Media and human rights organizations have criticized the government of monopolizing information and hindering media freedom”, says Bino.

Edi Rama and Ursula von der Leyen; Photo: European Union

She adds that the primetime debates and other TV shows have attempted to analyze and debate the government’s measure, the impact of the crisis on various fields and also compare the situation with other countries.

“However, priority has been given to the so-called analysts and opinion-makers, who are not public health experts or doctors and who usually maintain a certain angle of the argument depending on their vested political interests”, highlights Bino, adding that journalists and experts who question or criticize the measures taken by the Government find themselves exposed to accusation of “spreading panic in a time of war”.

The “spreading panic” accusations were also seen in Serbia when Nova.rs journalist Ana Lalić was brought in for causing panic and disorder by publishing an article where she pointed out to the lack of protective equipment for medical workers in Clinical Centre of Vojvodina. The arrest happened in the timespan of two days while the Government’s issued and withdrawn, due to the public criticism, a Decree on centralized provision of information, according to which all information on the coronavirus epidemic could only come from the Republic Crisis Staff.

According to the impressions of Vesna Radojević, journalist at Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK), the Government of Serbia has tried on several occasions to prevent proper information regarding the pandemic, and they have succeeded to some extent.

“It is amazing that we have a press conference every day, and that journalists still cannot get answers to their questions. Institutions are increasingly not responding to requests, justifying that it is a state of emergency, that they cannot respond”, says Radojević.

She added that she considers all this an abuse.

“I remind you of the government’s Decree. They said then, practically all health workers and leaders of the municipality are forbidden to give statements to the media. If that is not a threat to media freedom, I don’t know what is”, Radojević points out.

Centralization of information

The Council of Europe published a toolkit for member states on respecting democracy, rule of law and human rights in the framework of the COVID-19 sanitary crisis saying that official communications cannot be the only information channel about the pandemic.

“This would lead to censorship and suppression of legitimate concerns. Journalists, media, medical professionals, civil society activists and public at large must be able to criticise the authorities and scrutinise their response to the crisis”, Council of Europe stated.

Executive Director of Center for Media Development and Analysis, part of Anti-Corruption Network of Civil Society Organizations ACCOUNT, Eldin Karić explains that there was an attempted to implemented a decree similar to the one in Serbia in BiH at the beginning of pandemic. Following the declaration of a state of emergency, measures were taken to prevent the media from informing the public about problems encountered by citizens, as well as irregularities and illegal activities of institutions.

“Following public reaction, those measures were withdrawn, but many media outlets have set up a system of self-censorship. It is difficult to understand the reason behind this, but there is unofficially an attempt to present it as a patriotic relationship during the state of emergency. Measures introduced during the state of emergency have reduced transparency and this has largely affected the freedom of the media”, says Karić.

He points out to the “unrealistic” situation in BiH where when it comes to the protective and medical equipment, politicians appear as saviours who managed to obtain necessary equipment through their “connections” and present it as their “political success”, use it as a political promotion.

The same situation is seen in Serbia, where President Vučić said at the beginning of pandemic that he must keep the exact number of respirators in Serbia a secret from other states in order to acquire as many respirators as possible for the citizens of Serbia. He also refused to answer to questions about where and from which funds did he buy them, saying he purchased them in the “grey-zone”. All of this was presented as his personal effort and dedication to keep the citizens of Serbia safe from the virus.

Prime Minister of Serbia Ana Brnabić, President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić and Ambassador of China to Serbia Chen Bo; Photo: Tanjug / Dragan Kujundžić

Transparency during corona

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that some states have used the outbreak of the new coronavirus as a pretext to restrict information and stifle criticism, including the arrest and intimidation of journalists. Bachelet said that statements by some political leaders are directed against journalists, which is unacceptable, since free media are always necessary, but now more than ever during a pandemic.

Transparency represents a quality of something being done in an open way without secrets and can be reflected in different contexts, one of them being media freedom and access to true and timely information. But, state of emergency, different measures, limited media freedom and urgent reactions can lead to the lack of transparency with possible cases of corruption passing under the radar.

Karić states that unfortunately, there are very few media outlets reporting on different misuse in BiH.

“All the leading media, as well as mainstream media are mainly concerned with the information that the government provides, without concrete checks and critical attitude towards these information. Authorities are only transparent to their convenience. Procurement mechanisms have been reduced, resulting in non-transparent resources spending and misuse”, says the Executive Director of Center for media development and analysis.

Flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina; Photo: Flickr/ Jennifer Boyer

He added that the information is very difficult or almost impossible to verify.

“All indications are that the authorities in BiH, at all levels, used this period to significantly reduce the level of democracy and it will be very difficult to regain the already low level of transparency and freedom of the media as it was before the pandemic”, explains Karić.

Vesna Radojević points out that she does not think that the situation during a pandemic and a state of emergency can be any better than a regular one.

“Both earlier and now, the stories of major corruption cases revealed by journalists of mostly investigative editorial offices never reach the mainstream media, except when those same media get involved in defending the authorities, resulting in blaming the journalists. We cannot say that the authorities are transparent during the pandemic, if we have secret procurements that are practically legalized, when the president talks about “suitcases of money used to buy respirators,” and the general “hijacking” of respirators on the market,” says Radojević.

When it comes to Montenegro, the Centre for Civic Education recently published a report Montenegro and the coronavirus – the state of the nation in the first six weeks, saying that communication of the National Coordination Body for the Suppression of Infectious Disease (NKT) with the public was good and that the Government had proactive approach since the beginning of the pandemic with information more transparent than usual.

However, among the first measures introduced due to the threat of coronavirus spreading was that media cannot follow the NKT press conferences directly, but digitally, with journalists asking questions through digital platform, which can lead to unequal treatment of journalists depending on their attitude towards the authorities.

“Also, the questions about donations were left unanswered. It remained insufficiently explained to the public exactly how much money was given by businessmen, especially certain businessmen who were directly invited by the Prime Minister, as well as who are businessmen who potentially gained profit in this situation. Reports on spending funds from NKT accounts, however, are being published periodically and collectively starting few weeks ago”, reads the report.

“War narrative justifies all”

The BiEPAG Report on the Western Balkans in the global pandemic argues that the COVID-19 crisis represents a critical juncture that has overshadowed other developments.

Bino says this holds true for Albania – for more than two months the “only game in town” is COVID-19.

“Journalists and media professionals claim that it has become very difficult to cover other topics, including major issues of public interest such as corruption. However, the media has covered the issues raised by the opposition in Albania. The opposition has focused on three main issues: criticising the Government for not taking measures earlier, asking for more testing for COVID-19 and demanding the cancellation of multi-million private-public partnerships and using the money to subsidies small business and support the health system in the country. Nonetheless, the Government is using successfully the narrative of “being at war with COVID19” and as such “the fight with this invisible enemy” justifies all,” explains Bino.

She adds that the transparency of the government is hindered during the pandemic: first, the crisis has demonstrated an increased role of the executive vis a vis other branches of government.

“For instance, the Parliament suspended its activities for about 6 weeks and only in late April started with online and remote working. The crisis with the President continues and the country has no Constitutional Court yet. What is more, the crisis has provided the Prime Minister with the opportunity to strengthen even more his personalization of power and dominating the public discourse regarding the crisis. What is more, the state of emergency is in place till the end of June 2020, therefore it is more difficult for civil society, media and other actors to hold the government accountable”, explains Bino.

Nonetheless, Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO), inter-governmental group set up within the auspices of the Council of Europe to monitor the measures its members take to tackle corruption, pointed out in their guidelines Corruption Risks and Useful Legal References in the context of COVID-19 that media have a particular role to play and a specific responsibility

“As emergency legislation shifts power towards the executive, the oversight role of the other branches of power (legislative, judiciary), institutions (ombudsman, anticorruption agencies and other specialised bodies dealing with corruption) and civil society (e.g. community-based responses, information sharing and tracking measures systems, establishment of hotlines for public reporting, etc.) is key”, reads the guidelines.

Problems with media during the pandemic were detected in all four countries, now categorized as hybrid regimes, by Freedom House Report “Nations in Transit”. According to the experts we talked to, citizens of these countries did receive necessary information about the number of infected, hospitalized and recovered patients, as well as those who passed away. Introduced measures were communicated as expected.

However, what is in common for most of the states are politicians trying to seize more power and attempts to centralize information. Topic related to corruption became even harder to investigate due to the institutions being unavailable for answers with the pandemic as an excuse, raising concerns that we will hear about corruption cases that went unnoticed during the pandemic in the upcoming months.

This article was published as part of the project “Civil society for good governance and anti-corruption in southeast Europe: Capacity building for monitoring, advocacy and awareness raising (SELDI)” funded by the European Union.