Harlem Désir, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media has highlighted a number of issues with the proposed media law that if not addressed could “have an impact on freedom of expression”.
Last year, Prime Minister Edi Rama attempted to introduce a draconian “anti-defamation package” that would enforce mandatory registration of all news websites, give a government controlled council the power to shut down websites without any court procedure, and impose heavy fines on those they deemed not to be compliant. The proposal was met with widespread condemnation from local and international press and human rights organisations, including the OSCE.
The government then redrafted the law and enlisted the help of the Office of the Representative in providing consultations and legal analysis of the proposed amendments. Désir noted that whilst he appreciates the constructive cooperation with the Albanian authorities, there are still improvements to be made.
“…some improvements in the draft laws should still be introduced. I hope that our recommendations will be taken into account and that modifications will be introduced during the parliamentary process to ensure better compliance of the future legislation with international standards on freedom of expression and media freedom,” said Desir.
Whilst it was observed that some improvements had been made on the previous draft, in particular ones that “better and more precisely define the object and scope of the law”, several issues still remain.
The OSCE called on Rama to modify article 132/1 that gives the AMA the power to compel news websites and blogs to publish an apology, remove content, or insert a pop up notice in the case of perceived violations of the law. Violations can include the very broad term of failing to “respect the privacy and dignity of citizens”, something that Désir said is problematic due to the broadness of its interpretation. This gives the AMA “extensive power” that can impact freedom of expression.
“The AMA or any administrative or regulatory body should not deal with matters of defamation, which must remain under the competencies of the courts,” Désir said.
The OSCE’s legal analysis also suggests new wording for paragraph 3 of article 132 which allows the government to block access to the internet in cases where an electronic media service “may abet” criminal offenses including child pornography, terrorism, or breaches of national security. Again this is considered too broad and the wording “may abet” could mean that the law is abused.
The review also raised concern over the powers granted to AKEP regarding new measures to protect public security, the country’s interests, fundamental rights, and any provision included in the Albanian legal system. These definitions again are “inconsistent with international standards of legal certainty” and do not include any provisions for the protection of the freedom of expression. In other words, this wording allows the government to impose fines of almost a million euros on any online media site, for anything that it claims violates any of those incredibly vague provisions.
Lastly, the issue of the “very high economic fines” in article 133 has caused concern for the Representative. Fines of around EUR 8000 are applicable under the proposed media law, but penalties totalling €820,000 apply under AKEP legislation.
“I hope that the legal analysis, that includes a number of recommendations, will be useful in further discussions. My Office will continue to be closely engaged in this process, which needs to be inclusive for all relevant stakeholders until its conclusion,” Désir concluded.
Consultation with journalists, members of civil society and other stakeholders was also recommended by the international media freedom delegation that visited Albania in June. They met with Rama and asked him to reconsider the media law, as well as to refrain from suing journalists and calling them “trashcans”.
Rama responded by continuing to harass local journalists and then announcing legal action against around 45 citizens and journalist Peter Tiede who published the electiongate wiretaps in German newspaper Bild.
More recently, the Albanian Media Council in conjunction with nine other local human rights and media organisations issued a statement calling the amended law “unconstitutional” and “worse than the last one”.