Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj has blocked British journalist Alice Elizabeth Taylor on Twitter. Taylor is a frequent contributor to Exit and has her own popular blog, The Balkanista.
The move seems an unusual one as the Mayor is an elected civil servant, paid for by taxes, who runs a number of social media accounts with the assistance of employees who are also paid by taxes. As such, he has a responsibility to field questions, criticisms, and commentary from members of the public, as well as journalists.
By blocking a journalist on social media, the move could be considered as an attack on media freedom and an attempt to censor critics. But this is not something new for Veliaj.
The journalist in question, Alice Taylor has written several articles about Veliaj over the past few months – calling him out on various matters.
In April of this year, she reported how Veliaj’s bodyguard and the police had harassed a member of the public (who also happened to be an off-duty journalist) when he tried to film him at a public event.
That month she also conducted a small investigation into his claims that he and a few volunteers had planted 25,000 trees in a single day. After analyzing the claims as well as speaking to several international experts, she found that this was not possible and that even 250 trees in the same timeframe could have been a challenge.
Then, in an article that was shared across multiple local news platforms, Taylor wrote how she had discovered an army of fake Facebook pages that posted supportive comments about Veliaj and Prime Minister Edi Rama. She found that the profiles were all set up in the last few months and used fake pictures of people from mainly America as profile photos.
In March, the journalist also reported that the mayor had slandered Kastriot Çipi, calling him a “thief” and “criminal” on live television. Veliaj was appearing on the popular “Opinion” show when Çipi questioned him on a number of inconsistencies in the Theater Demolition report. The Mayor became angry and resorted to verbally slurring the citizen. As a result, Taylor became the target of government-sponsored smear campaign, which has been denounced by international media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
The Twitter account of Mayor Veliaj is handled by civil servants from the communications department at the Municipality of Tirana, and is one of the main outlets of information about Veliaj’s actions as mayor. Like Prime Minister Edi Rama, Veliaj prefers interaction through social media over giving public account of his actions through legally mandated and protected forms such as press conferences.
The blocking of Taylor – or any Albanian or foreign journalist for that matter – is therefore a direct assault on the press freedom in the country, an abuse of public funds, and another sign of the worrying intransparency of the Socialist government.
It is not the first time journalists outlets have been blocked by public figures in Albania. In November 2017, the EU Delegation in Tirana had blocked Exit on Twitter during the EU–Western Balkans Media Days. After a public outcry, access was reinstated and a private apology issued.
Interestingly, in May 2018 courts in the US ruled that politicians are not allowed to block followers on social media as it is deemed unconstitutional.
“The suppression of critical commentary regarding elected officials is the quintessential form of viewpoint discrimination against which the First Amendment guards,” Judge James Cacheris wrote in a case involving a supervisor in Fairfax County, Va. The first amendment protects, among other things, the right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.