Serbian CSOs and media demand access to official COVID-19 information

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BELGRADE – On July 17, a group of 89 Serbian civil society organisations and media filed a complaint with the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection for incomplete response of the Institute of Public Health of Serbia “Dr Milan Jovanović Batut” in connection with health data of Serbian citizens.

Suspicions that Serbian authorities hid the real number of infected people and manipulated the official statistics ahead of the elections were confirmed by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) on June 22, when they published an article containing data from the official state information system, according to which the number of deaths and infections in Serbia from coronavirus is multiple times higher than what has been publicly announced.

BIRN also wrote that the number of newly infected people in the week leading up to the  elections was several times higher than announced, which has led to assumptions that the numbers were concealed so that as many people as possible would participate in election, which the European Western Balkans wrote about earlier.

“Timely and accurate information, along with simply keeping healthy, is of key importance in order to get all parties to behave responsibly, as well as for Serbia’s healthcare system”, reads the press release of the Coalition for Freedom of Access to Information.

At their initiative, on July 9, the same group sent a request to the Institute of Public Health of Serbia “Dr Milan Jovanovic Batut” for access to information of public importance regarding aggregate numerical data on the health of citizens of Serbia during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is stated in the press release that they requested data on the total number of tested people, individuals whose test results are positive or negative, individuals who were hospitalized, individuals undergoing home treatment, individuals who had to go to mandatory self-isolation, cured people, as well as people who died, since the establishment of the COVID-19 information system.

In the Institute’s response, which was received on July 13, for most of the requested information, the organizations were referred to publicly available data from the database https://covidl9.data.gov.rs/, from which it cannot be concluded unambiguously that this is exactly the data that was requested.

As the Institute did not act in accordance with the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance, the organizations filed a complaint to the Commissioner for the Protection of Personal Data and Information of Public Importance. In addition, as the Institute directed the organisations to the Office for Information Technology and eGovernment and the Ministry of Health, as data processors of the data that are presented to the public, the organizations sent requests for information to these public authorities as well.

Given that the requested information concerns the protection of the health of the population, the answer should have been submitted within the legal deadline of 48 hours.

“The Coalition for Freedom of Access to Information believes that the public must, and has a right to be familiar with both preventive measures and data on COVID-19 positive, hospitalized or cured persons, and even deceased persons during the epidemic. In that way, citizens become more aware of the seriousness of the existing situation and the necessity of conscientious action, and can make a greater contribution to preventing irreparable damage to human lives, but also to the entire healthcare system of the Republic of Serbia”, reads the press release.

It is added that access to all available data from the COVID-19 information system, except for personal data, would ensure that the population is adequately informed and would strengthen trust and support for the measures introduced by the Institute of Public Health of Serbia “Dr Milan Jovanović Batut”, other public health institutions and state bodies in order to combat the pandemic.

The Coalition for Freedom of Access to Information consists of: Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, CRTA, Open Society Foundation Serbia, Civic Initiatives, Youth Initiative for Human Rights, Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights (YUCOM), People’s Parliament Leskovac, Partners for Democratic Change Serbia, Praxis, Share Foundation, Toplica Center for Democracy and Human Rights, Transparency Serbia and Citizens’ Association “Sretenje”.

Dissatisfaction with crisis management and suspicions of manipulating official statistics of COVID-19 cases and deaths ahead of the June 21 parliamentary, provincial and local elections resulted in thousands of citizens gathering in front of the National Assembly in Belgrade on July 7 following the announcement of President Aleksandar Vučić that the new weekend-long curfew will be imposed due to rise in COVID-19 cases.

The protest was triggered by dramatic changes in Serbia’s policy on COVID-19 pandemic, with the government removing virtually all restrictions and sending messages that virus has weakened in the weeks prior to the 21 June election, followed by the proclamation that the situation is close to a calamity only two weeks later.