Serbia to revoke coronavirus information control decree after criticism

FILE PHOTO: Serbia's Prime Minister Ana Brnabic attends the Munich Security Conference in Minsk, Belarus October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia’s government will revoke a decree giving it control over information on the coronavirus outbreak, following protests and the detention of a journalist for reporting a major hospital lacked protective gear and properly trained staff.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said the decree, enforced on Saturday, would be revoked on Thursday “so not a shadow could be cast on our work.”

The emergency measure, which said information about the coronavirus outbreak could only come from Brnabic or those authorized by her, had drawn criticism from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) watchdog and local media associations.

On Wednesday, police detained Ana Lalic, a journalist with private news portal, after she reported that staff at the hospital in the northern city of Novi Sad lacked protective gear and proper training.

Lalic was released on Thursday after questioning. The hospital, which denied the report, filed a lawsuit against her for defamation and upsetting the public.

Many hospitals in Serbia lacked basic safety gear at the start of the outbreak. The government has since bought equipment and aid has arrived from China and the European Union.

Serbia, a candidate for EU membership, has reported 1,060 cases of coronavirus and 28 deaths. Authorities have declared a state of emergency, closed borders and imposed a 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.

Serbia’s rights watchdogs and opposition parties have accused President Aleksandar Vucic and his ruling coalition of stifling media freedoms, attacks on journalists and political opponents, corruption and ties with organized crime.

Vucic and his allies, who face a national election this year, have denied the accusations.

Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; editing by John Stonestreet