Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic during a statement on the coronavirus epidemic in Belgrade on March 15, 2020
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic during a statement on the coronavirus epidemic in Belgrade on March 15, 2020 (OLIVER BUNIC / AFP)

Informing about the health situation is not easy at the moment in Serbia. A journalist was even arrested last week, just hours after publishing a report on the chaotic situation in a clinic in the north of the country. In her article, this journalist from the independent news site Nova, Ana Lalic, reported the concerns of the nursing staff: doctors and emergency doctors claimed that the institution was completely disorganized and lacked basic equipment to cope with the coronavirus epidemic. In the absence of protective masks, some nurses had even refused to work. Arrested at home, the journalist was placed in police custody for 48 hours, but under pressure from civil society, she was released the next day.

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Under the pretext of combating false information, the government has tried to impose a measure prohibiting all medical establishments and regional crisis cells from speaking directly to the media. All information on the country’s health situation was to be centralized with the Prime Minister, Ana Brnabic. But after the controversy over the journalist’s arrest, the head of the government turned around and announced the abolition of this measure. But, according to investigative journalist Milica Saric, the case is a warning signal sent to journalists: “This has consequences, not only for the journalist who is arrested, but also for everyone else. Authorities send message: ‘Watch what you tell, who you talk to and what you post’“To deal with the pandemic, the Serbian government instituted a state of emergency and restricted freedoms on March 15.

In the late 1990s, in the midst of the Kosovo war, the current Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, was the Information Minister of the ultra-nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic. Since coming to the top of power five years ago, Aleksandar Vučić regularly attacks independent journalists and he is himself accused of relaying false information. Under fire from critics for his handling of the pandemic, the Serbian president has found a new scapegoat these days: he accused the tens of thousands of Serbian emigrants returning to the country to be responsible for the spread of the virus . The pro-government media have relayed these accusations, citing the figure of 3% of people returned infected with the virus. An impossible figure to verify since the country does not have the capacity to massively test its population.