US Court Ruling Points to Possible Constitutional Violation for Mayor Veliaj

The US federal appeals court in New York has ruled that President Trump’s blocking of users on twitter violates free-speech protections of the First Amendment.

As Trump uses his Twitter account to conduct government business and to communicate matters related to his position, the court upheld the judgement that he is unable to bar citizens from accessing that information. A three-judge bench ruled unanimously in favour of the verdict.

Judge Barrington D.Parker wrote that an official who uses a social media platform to communicate with the electorate is not able to exclude people from “otherwise open dialogue”, even if that includes mocking or derogatory comments. If the account was a personal account, Trump would have the right to choose who communicates with him, but as it is official and used to communicate government matters, it is illegal to block critics over expression of their views.

Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj recently blocked British journalist Alice Taylor on Twitter. A journalist for Exit, founder of popular site The Balkanista, and frequent contributor on matters relating to media freedom for independent news site The Shift News, she found herself blocked after authoring critical articles about him.

Taylor interviewed Veliaj in early 2018, noting that she thought he was doing positive things for Tirana. As the months passed and she involved herself in more journalism in Albania she began to write more critically, notably regarding the National Theatre, his suspicious claims regarding tree planting, the treatment of Astir residents, slander against activists, and his treatment of journalists and media workers.

Following the publication of an article highlighting Veliaj’s attempt to censor Taylor, a number of other Twitter users came forward to say they had also been blocked by Veliaj. This number rose to around 20 individuals who claimed they had been blocked by the elected civil servant.

They include LGBTI and human rights news portal Historia Ime, researcher Taulant Muka, Elis Gjevori a journalist from TRT World, a number of citizens and a former opposition deputy who claims he had never interacted with Veliaj on Twitter but found himself blocked when he tried to visit his profile.

The Mayor of Tirana is elected by citizens and paid for with taxpayer money. In addition to this, the individuals responsible for his communications and social media management are also paid for by taxpayers money. Therefore as a civil servant he is expected to field questions, criticisms, and commentary from members of the public.

Veliaj does not give press conferences or take interviews from independent journalists, nor does he allow independent media to attend or film his engagements. By blocking citizens and journalists on Twitter he is restricting access to himself even more, a clear violation of his obligations as a civil servant.

The Albanian constitution contains similar clauses to the American constitution and also guarantees “fundamental human rights and freedoms” which include freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression. Under Article 10, the State is also required to “guarantee the freedom of expression in public life”- like in America, engaging with a civil servant via public forum would be covered by this provision.

Article 15 also obliges “organs of public power”, of which Veliaj most certainly is, “to respect the fundamental rights and freedoms” of citizens. Article 22 also states that “Freedom of expression is guaranteed” as well as “freedom of the press”.

Much like the situation with Trump in America, it would seem that Veliaj’s blocking of journalists and citizens on social media is unconstitutional and a violation of their fundamental human rights, as protected by Albanian law.