The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom today criticized the arrest of three journalists in Serbia in the space of a week and called on authorities to ensure the COVID-19 pandemic does not hamper the ability of the media to report freely.

On April 1, journalist Ana Lalić of online news portal Nova.rs was detained for “spreading panic and unrest” in an article she published about the lack of personal protective COVID-19 equipment available to medical staff at a health center in the city of Vojvodina.

Her story, published on Wednesday afternoon, quoted an anonymous doctor working in the center and saidseveral nurses had become infected due to equipment shortages and what was described as the chaoticconditions inside the clinic.

The Clinical Center of Vojvodina (KCV) denied the report and referred it to the police over what they claimedwas “inaccurate, unverified and malicious reporting”.

Later that night, police arrested Lalić at her home in Novi Sad on charges of “causing panic and disorder” and searched her apartment, confiscating her mobile phone and laptop.

She was due to be held in police custody for 48 hours but was released on the morning of April 2 after an outcry from her employer and local press freedom groups.

The charges have not been dropped and investigations are ongoing, Vladimir Radomirović, of the Journalists’ Association of Serbia (UNS), told IPI. “This is the second case of a journalist being arrested in a week” he added. “It’s very worrying.”

On March 26, a TV crew of the KTV station was arrested for allegedly failing to undergo mandatory disinfection while trying to enter an administrative building to conduct an interview.

According to UNS the journalist and cameraman were on an assignment to take a statement from Zrenjanin deputy mayor Saša Santovac about public auction for the rental of state-owned land that was going ahead despite the coronavirus lockdown.

After security were called, the TV crew was ejected from the building and later charged on suspicion of “failingto comply with health regulations during the epidemic. The pair were released the next day.

Danica Radić, the owner of the TV station, rejected claims the crew refused to be disinfected and said the state of emergency rules had been abused. Both journalists said they were wearing the protective mark and gloves at the time.

The second arrest came after new rules were approved by authorities in Belgrade which penalized anyone from local institutions releasing information to media about the coronavirus outbreak that was not authorizedby the central Crisis Staff in Belgrade.

Lalić claimed she reached out for comment from clinic officials and the provincial secretariat for health on the claims made in her article, but received no reply. Her article was published on the first day the new rules came into effect.

In the wake of Lalić’s arrest, the country’s prime minister Ana Brnabic, who leads the Crisis Staff, apologized and promised to withdraw the ruling.

“We welcome Brnabić’s decision and call on the authorities to fully respect the ruling”, Oliver Money-Kyrle, IPI Head of Europe Advocacy and Programmes said. “We also urge the government of Serbia to ensure that journalists are able to go about their work without fear of arrest. Accurate and updated reporting from journalists will be an essential ally of governments in tackling the pandemic.”

Visit IPI’s COVID-19 press freedom monitoring site