At a time when a free and vibrant media is more important than ever, governments in Europe are increasingly taking advantage of emergency legislation aimed at tackling the coronavirus to push through restrictions which seriously erode press freedom.

According to data collected by the International Press Institute (IPI), over the past few weeks an alarming number of European governments, especially in eastern and central Europe, have used the ongoing health crisis as a pretext to restrict the free flow of information and clamp down on independent media.

The most serious threats have so far been observed in states with authoritarian tendencies such as Hungary and Russia, where the pandemic has been exploited to grab more powers and tighten control over information.

Meanwhile, other governments with poor records on media freedom, such as Bulgaria and Romania, have also moved to introduce excessive criminal penalties for “fake news” about the virus, which risk misuse and interference with the media’s ability to inform the public.

Elsewhere, countries such as Serbia and Moldova have moved to control reporting, impose restrictions on journalist’s access to information, and even try to ban opinion articles.

While some of these measures may threaten press freedom unwittingly, others do so knowingly. Likewise, while some curbs on fundamental rights may be necessary to combat the pandemic, those limiting media freedom appear opportunistic and excessive.

Most worryingly for the press, while some of the restrictions due to the coronavirus will be temporary, others could be extended long after the health crisis has ended. All, however, are likely to shape the state of media freedom in Europe in the years to come.

The Orbán effect

Among the most serious threats to press freedom so far has come from inside the European Union itself: Hungary.

Last week, despite criticism from the Council of Europe, the OSCE as well as dozens of national and international human rights groups, the government passed legislation handing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán sweeping new emergency powers to rule by decree.

Orbán’s Fidesz party, which already had a firm grip on many of the country’s institutions, voted by a two-thirds majority to extend a national state of emergency, giving him powers to bypass parliament for an indefinite period.

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.

Despite assurances from the government, journalists and media freedom advocates fear the law’s language will be weaponized to silence what remains of the country’s independent press.

“It’s a tool to scare the media and deter us and make us more cautious about writing difficult or challenging stories that may challenge the government’s response to the coronavirus”, Hungarian journalist Daniel Renyi of the independent news website recently told IPI.

Hungary not alone

While the overreach of emergency measures in Hungary presents the most serious threat within the European Union, several other EU governments with poor records on media freedom have also expanded their powers under the pretext of tackling the pandemic.

In neighbouring Romania, the government has passed a number of emergency decrees that affect freedom of expression, sparking warnings from international bodies.

On March 16 the president of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, signed an emergency decree which, among other measures, gives authorities the power to remove report or close websites that spread “fake news” about the virus, with no opportunity to appeal.

Attila Biro of the RISE Romania journalism platform told IPI that the move meant the government would have the power to decide what news was “true” or “false”.

“This restriction can be used to efficiently control media and the public narrative”, he said. “It has nothing to do with public safety and will seriously restrict the ability of the media to do its job properly.”

In Bulgaria, a country where Europe’s top human rights commissioner recently warned about a deterioration of media freedom, 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.

That part of the emergency bill was vetoed by President Rumen Radev. However, the IMRO – Bulgarian National Movement party, a junior party in the ruling coalition, submitted another bill to parliament which, if passed, would hand greater regulatory powers to the country’s Broadcasting Council to suspend websites for distributing “internet misinformation”.

Unlike the first law, which would have only targeted “fake news” relating to the virus, the new bill would criminalize all forms of “false information” spread online. Under the draft bill – which for now appears unlikely to progress further through parliament – media owners found guilty could face a fine of up to €1,000 and three years in prison.

“The Bulgarian government is trying to further limit media freedom in Bulgaria by abusing the emergency situation”, Assen Yordanoff, director of the Bulgarian investigative news platform, told IPI. “We have concerns that this long-standing trend is aimed at completely silencing free and critical journalism in the country.”

Russia: strengthening its hand

Outside the EU, further east, in Russia, authorities have already begun to provide a clear example of what happens when such take-down powers are misused.

On March 19, the country’s media regulatory agency, Roskomnadzor, which has a history of censoring the independent press, demanded that more than 20 media outlets remove content it deemed “inaccurate, socially significant information” about the coronavirus from their websites.

Among them was radio station Echo of Moscow, which was pressured to remove the recording and transcript of an interview with a disease expert who criticized the government’s handling of the health crisis.

Similar take-down orders were issued to online news outlet Govorit Magadan, which Roskomnadzor said was disseminating news which “[created] a threat of massive disruption of public order and public safety” in an article about the death of a man from pneumonia.

To strengthen the government’s hand further, on March 31 Russian lawmakers approved fines up to €23,000 and prison terms of up to five years for anyone who spreads what is deemed to be false information about the coronavirus.

Media outlets will also be fined up to €117,000 if they publish disinformation about the outbreak, raising further concerns that the broadly defined law will be used to target media that criticize the government’s response to the outbreak.

Banning opinion

Other states in Europe have taken censorship attempts further still.

In Belarus, the editor of the news website Yezhednevnik, Sergey Satsouk, was arrested on March 25 on bribery charges soon after he published critical coverage of the government’s handling of the virus, sparking criticism that his arrest was retaliatory.

In Moldova meanwhile, the president of the government’s top media regulatory body took the unprecedented step of issuing an emergency decree ordering all media not to print or broadcast any “personal opinions” about COVID-19 during the state of emergency.

Instead, the body said, all reporting on the virus should convey only the official position of the Moldovan authorities – a suggestion met with immediate condemnation by the country’s media professionals and journalist association.

Rather than reversing the decree immediately, the Broadcasting Council president defended the order, saying outlets should only renounce “unapproved” opinions. The decree has since been reversed due to mounting pressure.

However, the country’s Security and Intelligence Service (SIS) also ordered 52 different websites allegedly disseminating fake news about the coronavirus to be blocked.

Access denied

Some European governments have also moved to restrict media access to “authorized” COVID-related information.

In Serbia, where President Aleksandar Vučić has implemented some of the toughest coronavirus-related restrictions in Europe, the government moved to centralize all information about the virus.

Among them was a decree which would penalize local institutions from releasing information to media about the coronavirus outbreak that was not “authorized” by authorities in Belgrade.

The directive, which has now been reversed by the prime minister, was partly responsible for the arrest last week of Serbian journalist Ana Lalić of online news portal, who wrote about conditions for staff dealing with COVID-19 in a city hospital.

In Romania, the emergency legislation included a provision doubling the amount of time state institutions have to answer Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. Since then, media have reported that local institutions have refused to provide information, citing the new rules.

In Bulgaria, a similar move to double FOI request deadlines was strongly criticized by press freedom groups. In Moldova meanwhile, the time given to authorities to respond has been tripled from 30 days to 90.

Elsewhere journalists are facing other blocks on access to officials. In Spain, several of the country’s leading media outlets have joined together to denounce what they call the “censorship” of journalists trying to ask questions during the prime minister’s press conferences.

Similar restrictions on the ability of media to question decision-makers over the government’s handling of the virus have been reported in the Czech Republic, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Slovenia.

Critical juncture

“The best way to combat disinformation is to let independent media do their job and to guarantee journalists’ access to decision-makers and information related to the crisis”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “Instead, governments across central and eastern Europe are hindering the press’s ability to inform the public about the virus and are equipping themselves with laws that can be used to quash scrutiny.”

Griffen warned that Europe sits at a criminal juncture and risks doing permanent damage to its democratic structure unless disproportionate measures affecting media freedom are rapidly rolled back, citing so-called “fake news” laws as a major concern.

In recent weeks, IPI has called on leaders within the European Union and Council of Europe to take action to ensure press freedom is guaranteed as states strive to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Unless we push back strongly against power grabs and measures that can be used to suppress the work of journalists, media freedom in Europe could emerge from this crisis in a much poorer state of health to how it entered”, Griffen said.