An international media freedom delegation that visited Tirana this week, have expressed their concern over a deterioration of press freedom and a failure to meet obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
They noted that the situation in Albania was one of the worst in the region and was deteriorating, leading to “particularly worrying concerns” that the current climate was paving the way for increased violence and threats to journalists. They criticised politicians in particular, stating that every side of the political spectrum was “engaging in a hostile rhetoric against the media”.
Speaking at a press conference today, Flutura Kusari, a lawyer from the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom detailed some of their findings, following meetings with journalists, editors-in-chief, representatives of civil society, embassies, and senior government officials.
Whilst Prime Minister Edi Rama received the delegation, Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj refused to meet with them.
Kusari was joined by representatives of the Committee to Protect Journalists, the European Federation of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, the International Press Institute, and the South East Europe Media Organisation.
The delegation found that recent physical attacks, smear campaigns, and other forms of threats and intimidation remained unresolved and that journalists rarely attained justice. They also noted a climate of self-censorship where journalists often avoid reporting on controversial, political, or corruption stories for fear of retribution.
They also called out the current regulatory environment for Albanian and foreign online media outlets, as well as the government’s proposal to make all news websites register, stating that they are “not in line with international human rights standards”.
According to the delegation, during a meeting with the Prime Minister, he stated that a new updated draft of the amended media legislation would be shortly made public. He stated that the power of the state to shutdown news portals will be eliminated, and fines will be made much lower than in the previous draft.
Whilst the delegation welcomed the news of a new draft, they noted concern over a lack of transparent regarding the consultation period and urged the government to engage with journalists and civil society.
Other concerns raised included the fact that libel and defamation are criminal offences and are used by politicians to silence journalists, often requesting disproportionate sums in damages. Rama reassured the delegation that he would not use criminal law against journalists but would continue to bring civil defamation cases against journalists in “extreme” cases.
Rama also committed to not calling journalists “trash bins” (kazan) in the future, after the organisations raised concerns with him over smear campaigns and use of derogatory and aggressive language towards the media. They pointed out that this type of behavior from political figures was then often reiterated on social media and through online harassment targeted at those journalists.
The government were also criticised for not holding press conferences, failing to be transparent, not upholding freedom of information obligations, and restricting access to independent journalists to bypass criticism and control the narrative. Rama disagreed with these criticisms and said “we don’t make any kind of selection […] We invite everyone and everyone is there.” He added that he was open to questions from all journalists and never denied anyone the right to cover his election campaigns.
The delegation also made a number of recommendations to improve human rights and media freedom in the country. These include:
– Eliminating any legislative provisions that would impose registration and state regulation of online media as well as giving regulators the power to suspend, block access to, or impose fines on them.
– Drafting media legislation in a transparent way through close consultation with journalists and other media stakeholders.
– All political figures should immediately stop smear campaigns and discrediting rhetoric used against journalists.
– Increasing the safety of journalists covering organised crime and corruption as well as investigating threats, smear campaigns, and attacks against journalists.
– Organising regular press conferences and allowing all journalists to ask questions as well as giving equal access to government and public information.
They also called on journalists to report threats and intimidation to the CoE, OSCE, and other freedom of expression NGOs. They reiterated the importance of solidarity between themselves, whilst ensuring respect of professional standards and ending self-censorship.