In February 2017, the Maltese government attempted to crack down on freedom of speech and press freedom by introducing a Media Act that would require all “news websites” to register with the government or face a fine of €1000. The law would encompass “any web-based news service or other web-based service relating to news or current affairs that operates from Malta or in respect of which editorial decisions are taking in Malta.” The suggested law came at a time when the Maltese government was under fire for money laundering, allegations of corruption, and widespread abuse of power. Eight months later, the country’s leading investigative journalist was murdered.
Several days ago, Edi Rama went on a Twitter rant and announced to the Twitterverse that all media websites would need to be “legalised” by registering with the tax authorities as a part of an “anti-defamation” drive that would target online media.
This is nothing more than a declaration on war on free speech and an aggressive move towards eliminating the possibility of those that are not sponsored by the state, to have a say. Of course, Mr Rama is no stranger to hating the media, having made various moves to legalise censorship over the years. But it is not just the blatant authoritarianism that has really got my goat about this latest announcement, it is the fact that it is legally, logically, and practically flawed in almost every, single way.
AKEP stated that “in accordance with the legal and regulatory framework, informs all the subjects registered as online portals that they should publish their tax number on their contact page within 72 hours,” AKEP said in a statement. AKEP urges those persons who have a connection with the [44 listed] portals to get a tax number from the National Business Centre within 72 hours and to declare their tax number on their website.”
The statement made absolutely no mention of the applicable legislation that deems this to be necessary (spoiler: there isn’t any) and the list of offending websites that was drawn up includes NGOs, non-profits, non-domestic websites, and entities that are already registered in Albania. In the rush to clamp down on one of humanity’s most basic rights, it seems that someone forget to check the rule book, or any facts whatsoever.
BIRN Albania made the list of 44 portals required to register, yet they are an NGO, registered at the Tirana court and in full compliance with the applicable domestic tax code. Likewise, Opinion.al is a website that is already registered as a company and has its own tax identification number. Even more embarrassingly for the AKEP team is the inclusion of a Kosovo registered website, Insideri.com which does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Albanian government.
Editor at Insideri.com, Parim Olluri wrote in a Facebook comment:
We are a business registered in Kosovo. We do not need to be registered also in Albania. The Guardian, the New York Times, the BBC etc are not registered as businesses in every country in the world from where they can be read.
Of course he is totally right. Take my own website for example, it is registered in Malta and there is absolutely nothing that anyone can do to force me to register it in any way, in any country outside of that jurisdiction. What Mr Rama says regarding it and any attempts to shut it down would be illegal because quite simply, it is not his business. Of course he can try to block access to it, but I (or any other savvy internet user) will always be one step ahead.
The notion of making blog owners, individuals, and small-time media portals register in any way is utterly ludicrous. Are they going to start shutting down mommy-blogs and online travel journals? Food blogs and fashion bibles? Or is it just limited to those websites and individuals that dare to question propaganda, or those that call out what is fed to us by the mainstream media? I have a feeling it is the latter. If Mr Rama is so dead-set on stamping out fake news and outright lies, I can point him in the direction of a wide range of non-independent media outlets that are not on his list, that are full of false and misleading information.
This whole situation brings back bad memories for me – what followed the Maltese governments attempt at this sort of law, was the death of a journalist and the almost total erasure of human rights and freedoms within the country. So my question is, what exactly is about to go down here?
My advice to anyone with an Albanian registered website is to transfer the registration abroad instantly. My advice to any individual living within Albania who wants to circumvent any state censorship caused by AKEP ordering ISPs to block access to sites, is to get yourself a VPN sooner rather than later.