Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic has warned governments against using the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to introduce disproportionate restrictions to press freedom.
“In the past weeks, parliaments, governments and local authorities have adopted legislation, decrees or decisions that clearly risk hampering the work of journalists and media actors and restricting the public’s right to receive information,” Mijatovic said in a statement in defense of journalists and media rights.
The commissioner denounced a number of government for restricting the work of journalists.
In Hungary and Russia journalists risk prison terms of up to five years for spreading “false information”; in Azerbaijan, online news outlets must prevent the dissemination of “harmful information”; in Romania, the government gave itself the power to remove content and block websites when they deem “false information” was published; in Bosnia and Herzegovina news legislative proposals and restrictions have limited the freedom of expression of journalists; in Armenia, some newspapers and websites had to delete some information due to strict rules regarding publication of information related to epidemic.
In the Czech Republic, Serbia and Italy, journalists have reported they were prevented from attending press conferences, were into given information by the government, and were not allowed to document the operations of law enforcement officials.
In Turkey, several journalists were detained in reprisal for their reporting on COVID-19. In Slovenia, a journalist who filed an information request about the measures adopted by the government to face the pandemic has been the target of a smear campaign by media close to the government.
Commissioner for Human Rights Dinja Mijatovic has reminded governments that measures to combat disinformation must never prevent journalists and media actors from carrying out their work.
She called on countries with restrictions that violate journalists’ rights to repeal them immediately.
Concerns regarding journalists’ work during the pandemic have also been raised in Albania.
A group of Albanian media and human rights organizations have accused the Albanian government for monopolizing information on the epidemic by releasing updates via social media and closed press conferences.
Three weeks ago, Prime Minister Edi Rama sent a voice message to mobile phones giving advice to people, telling them: “protect yourself from the media”. The move was seen as yet another direct attack on the media and journalists.
Two weeks ago, Rama shared a clip of Algerian police beating people in the streets. He claimed it was the Spanish authorities attempting to keep people off the streets during the Coronavirus. Rama threatened to order the Albanian police and army to act in a similar way when dealing with people who break the government-imposed curfew.