Heated debates over amendments to media legislation in which the critics and mass popular opinion referring to as “anti-defamation laws” are unfolding in Albania. Collective views of critics align with the voices of international organizations, and media at home and abroad that find these amendments in direct violation of the constitution, and are contrary to recommendations of the Venice Commission.
The amendments empower the regulatory Audiovisual Media Authority (AMA) to impose fines to the press, censor online media, and block access to foreign online media outlets without a court order. Freedom of speech is one of the most fundamental articles of democratic state constitutions around the world. The practice of limiting freedom of speech for the sake of security has time and again proven to be a very dangerous avenue for the development of a healthy society. A system of checks and balances relies on freedom of speech to function correctly. Limiting freedom of speech will, in turn, become a detriment to our national security and create a detrimental precedent for our country.
Journalist organizations such as Reporters Without Borders (RSF), OSCE, BIRN Albania, and other rights organizations in the country have lobbied to Parliament to reject the government’s plan to introduce the supervision of the online media, stating that such an idea undermines freedom of speech. The Parliament, during this weak point for Albanian democracy, is the government. There is no strong opposition, or perhaps some might say, no opposition at all; therefore, the open letters and claims shed light on the current situation but are unlikely to warrant a change in course. As such, without any significant intervention and consolidation of efforts, the laws were adopted.
Additionally, the proposed amendments to the media law hinder the countries’ EU commitment as they impede the freedoms of media. It conflicts the Stabilization and Association Agreement, the recommendations of the Council of Europe, and others (mentioned below). Furthermore, the government, in the new fifteen preconditions to accession set by the EU, is implored to amend the media law in line with the recommendations of the Venice Commission. The main issue here is the fact that the media laws go against or do not follow all the recommendations from the European Commission or the Venice Commission. The argument used against these laws or other initiatives taken by the government is that they have to be in line with EU standards, which is one of the prominent rhetorics in Albania these days – “as if the EU knows best and they are perfect.” To the “against the anti-deformation package” bandwagon, a controversial figure such as the President Ilir Meta has joined (blocking the laws) – perhaps in a desperate attempt to gain popularity for his political gains. If the President’s wife’s party Socialist Movement for Integration were still in coalition power, it is reasonable to assume he would have backed up the laws, judging by his track record as a politician.
Unpopular opinion: what if the government means to attack fake news?
The Prime Minister (PM) has stated several times that the package of laws approved by the Parliament is designed to protect citizens from defamation and unfounded online attacks. One unpopular opinion here would be that the government is aiming at combatting fake news, by imposing more requirements for online media at home, and strangely enough, for online media operating in the Albanian language abroad. For instance, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have third party Fact-checks in which one can report certain news if one deems them to be fake news. However, the languages to which the “Fact-check” platform operates do not include the Albanian language; therefore, the users of these platforms cannot efficiently report and combat fake news shared by online media in the Albanian language.
Perhaps the situation that was created by the earthquake that hit the country in November 2019, and several miss-informatory news posts regarding the earthquakes, might have given the government the perfect justification as to why the laws should be implemented. Given the substantial majority backing the PM in Parliament, it was not difficult to imagine that the package of amendments was to be approved without too many complications. Now one can wonder about what other bills will be signed into law given the current power disparity in the Parliament and the absence of a functioning constitutional court in the country?
Why should we care?
A delegation comprised of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), seeking to gather information regarding the challenges of the freedoms of expression and media freedom in Albania – came up to the conclusion that press freedom in Albania is deteriorating. This assessment is in line with the ﬁndings of other authoritative sources of information regarding global media freedom, which highlight deterioration across the board in the Balkan region. According to Freedom House’s annual Freedom Press report, the media in these countries is partly free.
Additionally, Kmezic (2020) argues that the abuse of the legal system for media control is a commonality in the western Balkans. Media control has become political plunder, as public and private media alike are continuously (miss)used to provoke popular mobilization, thus putting the authorities at a signiﬁcant advantage over their opponents. Top government officials use unpleasant vocabulary that belittles critical journalists and favors the ones that adhere to what it is preceded okay to report and write about.
The use of derogatory language towards the media and the press creates an unpleasant standard that somewhat makes it all right to call all the media outlets fake news and, at times, to assault them physically. The investigative journalists in Albania are walking into a minefield as at the time of the investigation are not aware whose toes they are stepping on, and what their retaliation is going to be.
Little care for transparency and plenty of red tape
What is concerning is the lack of transparency regarding the consultation to the bill (signed into law), which was introduced over the Christmas holiday period of 2019. The media and other interest groups were not given adequate consultation time to review and provide comments and concerns regarding the law on media regulation.
Access to information and government transparency in Albania is often mixed, as in paper, Albania’s Access to Information Law seems splendid, while the implementation remains insufficient. There are many instances in which the state authorities deny the investigative journalists’ data regarding sensitive topics that have to do with money, such as public contracts, bids, and concessions, creating with so much bureaucratic red tape. When the information is released it inherently becomes no longer relevant.
Under the new provisions of the amended laws, the journalists and the mass media, including the online media, will be thoroughly scrutinized, and perhaps more controlled and subject to fines. Now it seems that everyone with a digital profile, individuals or media companies, could be under scrutiny and government control (surveillance) for what they write and publish. This is outright censorship of free speech. The evident ambition is to put the entire population under some form of surveillance, this is what Orwell warned of, and this should not be accepted in a democracy. Such developments, for many people, may bring the bitter memories of when the big brother used to watch over everything, and every day seems like an Orwellian dystopia.
Despite escalating challenges, the media must continue to keep the public informed. The press should always be aggressive and not bow to political will. The independent media occupies the critical role of the watchdog and ensures that citizens stay informed about the actions of their government, creating a forum for debate and the open exchange of ideas. If the journalists, whistleblowers and the media are belittled, attacked, called fake-news (“kazan” in our case), and pressured from the strong arm of a small “elite”, will create a scenario that would decrease public trust, thus limiting the credibility of the evidence published by journalists on corruption or illegal activity of the government. It is up to the people to continue to fight and appreciate the fight of the media, and demand that it remains protected and free.
Reporters Without Borders. (2019, June 21). Albania: Preliminary findings of joint freedom of expression mission: Reporters without borders. Retrieved from https://rsf.org/en/news/albania-preliminary-findings-joint-freedom-expression-mission
Erebara, G. (2019, November 22). Albanian Parliament Urged to Reject Online Media Regulation. Retrieved from https://balkaninsight.com/2019/11/22/rights-organizations-against-albanias-censorship-laws/
EuronewsAlbania. (2020, January 21). “Ndryshoni Antishpifjen,” KE i kërkon qeverisë të fusë në ligj të gjitha rekomandimet. Retrieved from https://euronews.al/al/politike/2020/01/21/ndryshoni-antishpifjen-ke-i-kerkon-qeverise-te-fuse-ne-ligj-te-gjitha-rekomandimet
Freedom House. (2019). Media Freedom: A Downward Spiral. Retrieved from https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-and-media/2019/media-freedom-downward-spiral
Marko Kmezic (2020): Rule of law and democracy in the Western Balkans: addressing the gap between policies and practice, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, DOI: 10.1080/14683857.2019.1706257. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14683857.2019.1706257
 Please see the list of the third party fact-checkers by country and language https://www.facebook.com/help/publisher/182222309230722
 Further reading on media risks when covering organized crime, politics