At a public hearing on Monday in Tirana, changes to various laws that would govern the independence of the press have been announced. The new laws were threatened several months ago in one of Edi Rama’s standard rambling social media outbursts, but it seems that he intends to follow through on the draconian changes that are designed to limit the freedom of Albanian media.
The legislation is designed to target “biased” news that may “damage public morale” and “publications that can incite penal offences” as well as requiring all media portals to register and pay a fee. Failure to comply with the law will result in fines of up to €8,000 and the closure of websites.
The first draft of proposed changes will target the Telecommunication and Post Authority which is responsible for the supervision of the communications market. This previously neutral entity will now be responsible for keeping a register of online media and ensuring that “entrepreneurs respect their obligations towards national security, public safety, and other laws”.
Any website that is deemed to fall under the scope of the new law will have to display contact information and a physical address on the site whilst being at the mercy of closure at the request of the Tax Authority.
Other changes include amendments to the Albanian Audiovisual Media Authority (AMA) to essentially turn it into a body that will police the news and public morale. Under the proposed laws, anyone publishing a blog or news site must “respect the ethical and moral rules of the public”- a statement that is rather subjective to say the least.
A newly established body called The Complaints Council will be in charge of dishing out fines and closure orders, both of which will be implemented immediately, regardless of whether the website appeals or wants to send the matter before court.
Speaking during the public consultation, Gentian Sala, chairman of the AMA, said the law was prepared by the Prime Minister’s office in collaboration with Ministry of Justice with aim of “disciplining” the ever-growing online media in Albania.
Asked about his own stance, Sala said his institution could speak only after a board decision and since no board decision existed on the matter, he could not support or criticize the plans.
It is no secret that the Prime Minister wishes he could silence the independent media and he has referred to journalists as “charlatans”, “poison”, and “public enemies” in the recent past.
Earlier this year, Malta attempted to introduce a similar system but it was heavily criticised by the OSCE and instructed to remove mandatory registration. When the announcement was first made in October, the OSCE and RFS both condemned the governments decision, but it is not known how far they will pursue their convictions on the matter.
Not only is the proposal a threat to democracy, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression but it is considered as censorship and not provided for in the constitution. The decision of whether a story is illegal or not should rest with the courts, not a government mandated institution that is essentially an extension of Edi Rama’s right hand.
This announcement comes shortly after recent international criticism on the freedom and impartiality of the press in Albania, with its climate significantly deteriorating on a year-by-year basis.
“RSF condemns an Albanian government decision forcing certain online media to register with an official body within three days or be shut down,” RFS wrote on Twitter.
As a freelance journalist, blogger, and independent writer, I say to Mr Rama, bring it on.