Coronavirus Fight Causes Freedom Rollback in Eastern Europe
7 April, 2020

Stop thinking for yourself, rely only on official data, and don’t post information that can be considered ‘harmful’ even on your own personal Facebook page – these make up  just some of the requirements set by the governments of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Moldova for journalists.

READ MORE: Coronavirus in Russia, Georgia, and Turkmenistan

Armenia: Edit or Pay

Armenia adopted a very controversial law on April 1 that – with the help of a mobile application – allows for the tracking of citizens’ movement and surveilling their telephone conversation during a state of emergency. The opposition was vehemently against this law, but the government managed to wrap them around their little finger – or at the very least, that’s how a few Armenian MPs see it. Human rights advocates have sharply criticized the legal “innovations” offered in the law – with some calling the initiative “poorly thought out”, and some believing that this law provides a way for the authorities to hide the true state of things.

Armenia introduced a state of emergency on March 16. And the first thing it did as part of that was introduce media restrictions. Journalists in particular are banned from publishing “messages that could spread panic amongst the population.” Both journalists and their audiences are now alarmed by the scope of interpretations lurking behind this phrase.

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The authorities have also forced the press to only rely on official Armenian sources in any communications about coronavirus infections, which has already prevented journalists from, for example, being able to properly describe the spread of coronavirus in other countries.

The editor-in-chief of Armenian magazine Aravot has had to edit an interview with Russian political scientist Vladimir Solovey, who incautiously said that the Russian authorities are hiding the actual scope of the infection.

“After the piece was published, I got a call from the police. They required that I delete the article, or otherwise I’d have to pay a fine of 500,000 dram (approximately $1,000 – ed.),” said Aravot editor Anna Israelyan to JAMnews.

Similar statements have been heard from editors of other publications as well, some of which were in fact fined. The amount of fines grew in direct relation to worry and concern – dozens of Armenian publications have spoken out against the fines, saying that the media restrictions need to be immediately removed. The government’s initiatives have even drawn criticism from the leadership of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. At that point, the authorities agreed to weaken the restrictions – they removed the phrase “messages that could spread panic” and allowed Armenian media to accurately report on the spread of the pandemic in other countries by citing international media sources. But talking about the situation in Armenia requires keeping an eye on the government – they’ll still be able to issue disclaimers which press organizations are then obligated to publish within a two-hour time frame.

Moldova: Disinformation versus Censorship

On March 25, Moldova also attempted to introduce similar restrictions for their domestic press. The Moldovan Coordinating Committee for Broadcasting began to demand that journalists, writing about the spread of the virus, to only rely on “the most reliable and competent” institutions – meaning the Moldovan Ministry of Health and their Commission on Emergency Situations. In addition to this, journalists, editors, and television hosts have been required to keep their personal opinions to themselves, and rely only on “the facts” – but what’s important to remember is that the government retains the exclusive right to judge “facts.”

A woman and two police officers wearing face masks cross the main street of Chisinau, Moldova, 05 April 2020. Moldova's government called citizen to help control COVID19 spread and to not go out on the streets and in parks. Photo: EPA-EFE/DUMITRU DORU

Petru Macoveyi, executive director at the Moldovan Association of Independent Press said in an interview with ZdG that the implemented restrictions carry “a very clear element of censorship”, particularly because the authorities only present cherry-picked facts, and only those can be used in a journalist’s work.

“I think that we have to warn the European Commission about this, because Moldova has practically announced the repeal of several articles in the European Convention on Human Rights, particularly the article about freedom of expression,” said Macovei.

Political scientist Dionis Cenusa believes that the new imperatives could contain a kernel of usefulness, if they were aimed at combating the disinformation that’s flooded the country during the pandemic.

“The proposed measures are unproportional, and they can have an effect on the freedom of the mass media. We’re talking about the introduction of censorship for the press. These kinds of decisions are counter-productive, and they cannot help the fight against the virus,”  said Cenusa.

Medical personnel prepares medical equipment at the MoldExpo Center in Chisinau, Moldova, 01 April 2020. Authorities started arranging temporary places in a first sorting center for suspected patients with Covid-19 in the National Exhibition Center in Chisinau. Photo: EPA-EFE/DUMITRU DORU

Two days later, on March 27, thanks to pressure from the public and media NGOs, the restrictions were lifted – the public and NGOs noted that “the direction of this document seriously limits freedom of speech of broadcasting media providers.”

Azerbaijan: Isolating the Fifth Column

Azerbaijan is also starting to surveil its own people: and if everything goes according to the government's plans, then even going to the pharmacy or the store will require the government’s permission. 

On March 19, Azeri president Ilham Aliyev called oppositionists to his government, who refused to enter into a dialogue with the authorities, a “fifth column,” “traitors”, and “provocateurs,” and threatened to introduce a state of emergency in the country in order to isolate the opposition from the public.

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“Look at their social media posts,” said Aliyev, “They’re full of hate and provocation. They seem to want there to be disorder. They want there to be confusion. They want there to be panic. And after all that, they say that they live by the worries of the Azeri people. They’re the enemy, and we must openly say so.”

Soldiers line up at the MoldExpo Center in Chisinau, Moldova, 01 April 2020. Authorities started arranging temporary places in a first sor​ting center for suspected patients with coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the National Exhibition Center in Chisinau. EPA-EFE/DUMITRU DORU

Aliyev’s comments drew the attention of several European MPs, including Roger Gale, a co-rapporteur on Azerbaijan at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Gale called the president’s statement “shameful exploitation of the coronavirus pandemic to launch yet another crack-down on the country’s beleaguered political opposition.”

And co-rapporteur Stefan Schennach said that “The language used by President Aliyev to describe his country’s legitimate political opposition as a traitorous ‘fifth column’ is profoundly undemocratic. It is precisely in times of public emergency that political pluralism and responsibly exercised freedom of expression are most important, so as to allow open debate on policy and the free flow of information amongst the public.”

Even at the start of March, Azerbaijan’s prosecutor-general warned the press and social media users that publishing any non-government approved information about the coronavirus could lead to “harsh measures.” The press and social media users will soon have first-hand knowledge of what local bloggers have gone through.

Amina Mamedova, one of those local bloggers, was taken by the police after she wrote a post on her own Facebook page that the number of deaths from coronavirus in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku were “artificially lowered.”

“The cops read me the new law and told me that they’re limiting themselves to a warning for now, because I’m young and I’ll soon get married, and that my parents are good people,” Amina said to JAMnews.

The Azeri parliament introduced some amendments to the law “On Information, Information Protection, and Informatization,” on March 17. They forbid internet resources from sharing “false information that threatens to harm the lives, health and property of the population, massive violations of public safety and the activities of life support facilities, financial, transport, communication, industrial, energy and social infrastructure and the occurrence of other socially dangerous phenomena.”

The current situation has brought back memories of 2017, when the legislature introduced similar amendments.

“Normally, only the courts can decide what information is false and harmful. But this law allows for making this decision without a court and immediately apply blocking and other forms of consequences. This had a place here previously as well, where sources that weren’t false but had truthful information and that had strong influence on the public were seen as acting against the requirements of the law and were blocked. This amendment opens the door to interpretation. In the future, this will lead to a lot of bad acts that will not be subject to judicial control,” said Alesker Mamedli, an expert on information law, to the Turan news agency. 

Russia: Imprisonment for Fakes

The Russia parliament offered to toughen punishments for spreading fakes about the pandemic. Spreading “false information”, if it led to harm to a person's health, can result in fines from 700,000 to 1,500,00p rubles (approximately $9,000-19,000 – ed.) and correctional and forced labor or imprisonment of up to three years.

A woman with a protective face mask walks on the street in Moscow, Russia, on April 7. Photo: EPA-EFE/YURI KOCHETKOV

If someone dies because of this fake, then the person who shared this information – if the law is adopted – will risk imprisonment of up to five years. These kinds of punishments are also expected if the spreading of false information resulted in “grave” consequences.

READ MORE: “Technically It’s Not Lockdown but It Sort of Is” - Russian Journalist on Coronavirus Measures

Punishments are also being toughened for comparatively minor infractions. In the law on the public spreading of false information about conditions that present a threat to the life and security of citizens, the Russian parliament offered to add a point about fines ranging from 300,000 to 700,000 rubles (approximately $4,000 to $9,000 – ed.) Violators can also be sentenced to correctional labour or imprisonment of up to three years. 

/by Diana Petrishvili, republished with the permission of Russian Language News Exchange and Ziarul de Garda. Translated by Romeo Kokriatski