Just days after establishing one-party rule through controversial and irregular “elections,” Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Council of Ministers has approved a draft law that will place significant restraints on the last remaining free media in the country.
The news was announced by Justice Minister Etilda Gjonaj in a press conference this evening.
The so-called “anti-defamation package” aims to formalise and regulate all online media through enforced registration. According to the law, every online media outlet must register as a taxable entity or a taxable person and declare that they provide e-publication services.
Each media outlet will then be bound to ensure that all articles are true, non-defamatory, and objective and must not be used for criminal purposes. Albania is one of the few countries in Europe where libel and defamation are still considered as criminal, as well as civil offences. Publications are also bound to ensure that articles should not violate the dignity and human rights of those that they mention, according to Minister Gjonaj.
If any of these requirements are violated, the owners of the portal will be fined and the portal can be closed down, according to early reports.
Rama first proposed the law in 2018 but the law received considerable criticism from local and international journalism organisations and media freedom NGOs. A group of Albanian civil rights groups stated that “in democratic countries the aim of the law is to protect the citizens from the government and not to protect government from the citizens.”
The law proposed at the time would give the state the power to sanction and shut down any online media portal they chose, at any time, without having to go through a court procedure. Upon receiving a complaint that a portal was not in compliance with the law, access to the site could be blocked immediately and owners would have to go through an appeals process to open, or allow local access.
The wording of the proposed law was very vague, stating that portals could be penalised for “offending public morals” or publishing “fake news.”
The European Federation of Journalists, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, PEN International and Reporters Without Borders, had called on the government to drop the initiative back in December. In a letter to Rama, they spoke of their “deepest concern” that the laws would “seriously impair free flow of information and will have a chilling effect” on the media in Albania.
A delegation of media freedom representatives from these organisations visited Tirana in June and met with Rama. They expressed their concerns over the deterioration of press freedom and an infringement on the human rights of Albanians in this regard. They also spoke to the Prime Minister about the proposed law and he assured them that the possibility of shutdowns would be eliminated and fines would be much lower than in the first raft. They also urged the government to ensure a “meaningful consultation process” including journalists and members of civil society takes place before the next draft was announced.
The OSCE also condemned the proposed law and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media had previously made it clear that “states should not impose mandatory registration to online media as a precondition for their work which can have a very negative effect on media freedom.”
The draft law is yet to be published and no information has been forthcoming about any consultation process, or how much of it has been amended from the previous draft. Strangely, the decision has not been published on the website of the Council of Ministers. The agenda of today shows no sign of the anti-defamation legal package.
The law will now have to be approved by parliamentary committee dealing with the media, and then the plenary session where it will be sure to pass due to the fact that the governing Socialist Party enjoy an absolute majority.