Media freedom organisations have united under the umbrella of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) and made their first contribution to the urgent debate on Corona-virus. It is urgent because there is a state of emergency to safeguard public health. But some governments are abusing this situation in order to stifle critical questions and pursue their own political agendas.
At a top-level online meeting the newly launched MFRR presented its findings on this critical issue to Věra Jourová, who is the Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency.
The briefing of the Media Freedom Rapid Response
In the comprehensive documents provided, results drawn from the network of grass roots activists, non-governmental organisations and journalists’ trade unions showed a worrying picture. In Hungary, Serbia, Spain and Romania, new decrees and their interpretation by police and local authorities are having a serious impact on press and media freedom. The Media Freedom Rapid Response Co-ordinator Nik Williams commented:
“States across the European continent are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that have profound repercussions for media freedom and the safety and security of journalists and media workers. We thank Věra Jourová, the Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency for speaking to us – the members of the Media Freedom Rapid Response.”
With the briefing, we aim to alert and inform European institutions so that press and media freedom and the rule of law are high on the agenda during the response to the global COVID-19 crisis.
EU Member States
- On March 30, the Hungarian parliament passed legislation handing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán sweeping new emergency powers to indefinitely rule by decree. The new law also criminalizes the spreading of “false” or “distorted” information which undermines the authorities’ fight against COVID-19 with fines and up to five years in prison. The law was strongly criticized by press freedom groups, who said it represents a step toward total information control and the further suppression of press freedom in the country.
- In Bulgaria, the government used the state of emergency decree to try to amend the penal code and introduce prison sentences for spreading what it deemed “fake news” about the outbreak with up to three years in prison or a fine of up to €5,000. While that part of the decree was vetoed by the President, another bill was submitted to parliament by a party in the ruling coalition on April 19 which, if passed, would hand authorities greater powers to suspend websites for disseminating “internet misinformation” – widening the scope of the law far beyond the immediate health crisis.
- The government also doubled the amount of time for public bodies to respond to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from 30 to 60 days.
- Police forces have been given the power to obtain mobile data on those flouting lockdown measures without prior judicial authorization, raising privacy and surveillance concerns.
- On March 16 the president of Romania signed an emergency decree which, among other measures, gives authorities the power to remove reports or close websites that spread “fake news” about the virus, with no opportunity to appeal.
- The emergency legislation also doubled the amount of time to respond to FOI requests from 30 to 60 days. Since then, media have reported that local institutions have refused to provide information, citing the new rules.
- On March 23, a journalist and a cameraman working for the Livorno edition of Italian regional newspaper Il Tirreno (The Tyrrhenian) were insulted and threatened with a metal rod while reporting on life under coronavirus measures.
- On March 25, a photojournalist working for Italian newspaper La Stampa was surrounded by a crowd, harassed and had his SD card stolen while documenting a protest over coronavirus restrictions at a local market in Turin.
- La Repubblica journalist Salvo Palazzolo has faced persistent threats after writing an article on April 8 about the mafia using the coronavirus crisis to increase his influence in certain districts of Palermo.
- On April 2, the spokesman of Russia’s Defence Ministry, Major General Igor Konashenkov, sparked a press freedom row after he publicly criticized Italian newspaper La Stampa and issued a veiled threat against its reporter over an article about coronavirus aid, leading to condemnation from Italian journalists and authorities.
- Slovenian investigative journalist Blaž Zgaga has been targeted by a hate campaign fuelled by the government and a pro-government TV station for submitting an official Freedom of Information Request to the authorities in Ljubljana about the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
- The Spanish government faced strong criticism from several hundred journalists and several of the country’s leading newspapers over the system for media to ask questions during press conferences. The outlets denounced what they argued was a restrictive questioning format, in which submissions were written in advance and pre-selected by the government. A new system was introduced which allowed questions to ministers in a live communication and without intermediaries.
- Croatian journalist Živana Šušak Živković from the Dalmatinski portal was assaulted and injured by a group of worshippers while reporting on an Easter Mass near the city of Split that was being held illegally despite the COVID-19 lockdown.
- The German government has also introduced controversial measures which have given authorities permission to analyse aggregated and anonymized location data in order to track the spread of COVID-19, raising concerns among rights groups about privacy and surveillance issues.
EU Candidate Countries
- On March 20, journalists Mustafa Ahmet Oktay and Eren Sarıkaya from Bartın-based Halk Newspaper and Pusula Newspaper were taken into custody over a report published about the spread of COVID-19.
- On March 25, journalist Tugay Can was accused of “creating fear and panic amongst the public” over coronavirus news coverage.
- On March 31, Kurdish journalist, writer and activist Nurcan Baysal was summoned by the police to testify for sharing prisoners’ letters and two articles on the pandemic.
- On March 31, Oktay Candemir, a local journalist for Van Haberdar, was called to testify for his social media posts on the spread of COVID-19 in the region.
- On March 31, a police investigation was opened against Mezopotamya News Agency correspondent Ahmet Kanbal, who was accused of “inciting hatred and enmity” in a news report about coronavirus safety measures in a hospital.
- On April 3, Hakan Aygun, a veteran Turkish journalist who used to lead the staunchly anti-Erdogan television channel Halk TV, was arrested for inciting hatred with a social media post that demeaned President Erdogan’s campaign to raise funds for victims of coronavirus.
- Radio and Television High Council (RTÜK) issued broadcast bans to Fox TV for three nights on prime-time news over anchor Fatih Portakal’s critical comments while reporting the state’s Covid 19 policies. Fox TV was also fined 3 % of its advertisement revenue.
- On April 13, the parliament passed legislation allowing for the early release of up to 90,000 prisoners in a law that excluded those convicted of terrorism related crimes that have been used to imprison up to 50 journalists for their critical journalism. It also excludes those on pre-trial detention who are not convicted of any crime.
- In Serbia, the government initially issued a decree penalizing local institutions from releasing information to media about the coronavirus outbreak that was not “authorized” by authorities in Belgrade. The directive, which was later reversed, was partly responsible for the arrest on April 1 of Serbian journalist Ana Lalić of online news portal Nova.rs, who wrote about conditions for staff dealing with COVID-19 in a city hospital.
- Since her release, Lalić has received several serious threats, calls for prosecution from pro-government media, and been targeted in an online smear campaign branding her an enemy of the state.
- On March 26, a TV crew of the KTV station was also arrested for allegedly failing to undergo mandatory disinfection while trying to enter an administrative building to conduct an interview about a land sale being conducted during the COVID-19 lockdown.
- Journalists have also been barred from attending the country’s daily COVID-19-related press conferences by the government. Media are only able to submit questions via email, rather than video call, with no follow up questions permitted. Other journalists have criticized the lack of access to information from ministers and health officials.
- FOI deadlines have also been suspended during the state of emergency.
- On March 23, Albanian Prime Minister sent citizens an intrusive voice message through Vodafone advising people to wash their hands against coronavirus and “protect themselves from the media”.
- On March 23, Ora News journalist Elio Laze was threatened aggressively by a private construction company worker for filming work in violation of the country’s COVID-19 curfew.
Potential Candidate Countries
Bosnia and Herzegovina
- On March 19, the government of Bosnia’s predominantly Serb-populated entity, Republika Srpska, introduced fines and other punitive measures for spreading “fake news” in the media and on social networks.
- The Association of BH Journalists has also criticized what it says is a restrictive system for journalists asking questions to ministers and health bodies.
During the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis, the need for the free flow of independent news is more essential than ever. Independent media is playing a central role in ensuring citizens have access to reliable, accurate and updated news about the pandemic. Moreover, in a period when our citizens’ fundamental rights are being suspended, journalists are also acting as a key watchdog in maintaining public scrutiny and debate on the adequacy of government measures.
Unfortunately, at the same time, some governments in both EU member states and candidate countries have opportunistically taken advantage of emergency coronavirus legislation to push through restrictions which erode press freedom. While some of these measures have threatened press freedom unintentionally, others have been implemented knowingly. Likewise, while some curbs on fundamental rights may be necessary to combat the pandemic, those limiting media freedom are excessive.
Most concerning, while some of the restrictions due to the coronavirus will be temporary, others risk being extended long after the health crisis is over. If European institutions do not push back against these threats strongly, media freedom in Europe could emerge from COVID-19 in a very different state of health to that it entered in.
Ms Jourova thanked the Media Freedom Rapid Response team for their research and commitment and encouraged them to engage with the wider public and local media outlets
This briefing was produced by the International Press Institute as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), supported by the European Commission, which tracks, monitors and responds to threats to journalists and violations of press and media freedom across Europe. It is an alliance of seven media freedom organisations, funded by the European Commission.
- ARTICLE 19
- Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
- European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
- European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
- Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
- Index on Censorship
- International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
- Reporters Without Borders (RSF)