International Media Freedom Organisations Ask Government to Withdraw “Anti-Defamation Package”

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, Reporters Without Borders, Article 19 and the South East Europe Media Organisation  are the latest international organisations to criticise “anti-defamation package”, proposed by the Albanian government.

In an open letter released today, the media freedom watchdogs explained how they had raised their “grave concerns” regarding the legislation during their June 2019 meeting with Prime Minister Edi Rama. They called for amendments to the law “On Audio Visual Media” and “Electronic Communications” to be brought into line with international standards.

Unfortunately, they observed that the revised amendments that were approved by the Council of Ministers on 3 July “fall far short of the OSCE, Council of Europe, and international best practice”.

They go on to say how the OSCE, local journalists, and members of civil society have repeatedly expressed their serious concerns “that the package would be detrimental to freedom of expression”.

The orgnaisations repeated the stance taken by the Albanian Media Council and nine other Albanian human rights organisations last week, in asking the government to withdraw the bills and for parliament to not approve them.

In terms of law Nr/97/2013 relating to Audio Visual Media, the letter observed how the draft laws “seek to impose a regime” on online media, via the Audio Visual Media Authority (AMA). They add that such measures are “unprecedented in democratic states”. The fact that AMA board members would be appointed on the basis of political discretion, was another cause for concern.

Issues were also raised with the indirect imposition of registration of online media portals as a precondition to receive “fiscal benefits and other benefits of the kind”. The draft law also gives the AMA the power to oblige online portals to remove content, publish apologies, or insert pop-up notices in the case of what they deem to be a violation of dignity and privacy. This obligation is considered to be “overly broad and vaguely defined” leaving it open to abuse.

The organisations are concerned that these laws could result in the AMA becoming a “censorship body” due to their powers of being able to order the removal of content in a discretionary manner, without a court order.

“An administrative body, such as AMA, cannot and should not shoulder competencies to review defamation, which should be adjudicated by the courts through criminal and civil procedure,” the statement said.

Proposed administrative fines that vary from EUR 820 (under the Audio Visual Media law) up to EUR 820,000 (under the Electronic Communications law) were also criticised as they do not differentiate between private citizens and national broadcasters.

The letter concludes that “both proposed draft laws go against international best practices that aim at the self-regulation of online media and not its regulation by the state, through administrative censorship bodies. These draft bills also have not been drafted through a transparent procedure in consultation with all interested stakeholders”.

The media watchdogs asked the Albanian government to decriminalise defamation, instead of seeking to further regulate it, and also to engage in a “meaningful consultation process with journalists and civil society” in the next draft of the amendments.