The blocking of news and information site Joqalbania.com has been reported by the Council of Europe (CoE) ‘Platform to protect the protection of journalists and safety of journalists’ as a state threat to media freedom.
Categorising it as “having a chilling effect on media freedom”, it was reported to the CoE by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom and the European Federation of Journalists.
The report reads:
“On 30 November 2019, the information website joqalbania.com was blocked by the Electronic and Postal Communications Authority (AKEP), Albania’s telecommunications regulator. AKEP did not issue an official statement regarding its action nor the legal grounds in support of such blocking. According to Reporter.Al: “the Albanian government appears to have ordered internet companies to block access to the website”.
The only contact made by the authorities with joqalbania.com came from the police who informed the two website executives, Erland Dalliu and Gentian Cengeli, that they were referred to the Prosecution Service. The referral was based on a complaint that joqalbania.com posts have spread panic amongst the population.
The posts shared by Dalliu and Cengeli on social media referred to the aftermath of the 6.4-magnitude pre-dawn earthquake that shook through the capital of Tirana and nearby Durres on 26 November 2019.
The Albanian government increasingly blames the media for stirring panic. Prime Minister Edi Rama appeared to have suggested that the citizens of central Albania “have been more appalled by media reports about the earthquake than by the earthquake itself.”
The website’s executives have since opened a new domain, joq-albania.com, which is accessible from all networks within the country. However, the original website remains blocked for domestic access, while the legality of this action is still under question.”
The same portal also registered a threat from Prime Minister Edi Rama for pressuring online portals and information channels, referring to it as “harassment and intimidation of journalists.”
It accuses Rama of “exploiting the emergency situation caused by the 26 November earthquake” to shut down websites and pressure journalists.
The report reads:
“The Albanian Media Council (AMC), an NGO comprised of journalists and media professionals, has accused Prime Minister Edi Rama of exploiting the emergency situation caused by the earthquake of 26 November 2019 and illegally shutting down online media by allegedly ordering the AKEP (Electronic and Postal Communications Authority) to block online news portals, including joqalbania.com.
On 1 December 2019, the AMC posted a “Declaration of Concern About the Government Attitude Towards Media”, stating that the authorities “cannot prohibit citizens or portals from denouncing the mismanagement of the situation (where it exists) and, furthermore, cannot block an entire portal for a single publication.”
According to Reporter.Al, Prime Minister Rama has “repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with the media” when faced with difficult questions on the government’s ability to effectively manage the aftermath of the earthquake. According to journalist Gjergj Erebara, Prime Minister Rama has used social media platforms on a number of occasions to put pressure on online portals, threatening closure.
He tweeted on 28 November 2019: “This is the final warning for portals and information channels that under the conditions and within the legal framework of an Emergency Situation, I will be obliged to forcibly intervene with their closure to end this dramatic phase, if they continue with fake news that spread panic!” Another video message was shared on Facebook on 3 December 2019 where Prime Minister Rama addressed the general public, asking them to avoid watching the news on television and implored not to follow the online portals stating that the “so-called sources of information” create a “foul-smell of gloom and insecurity and confusion”.
While the AMC appeals to the media to show restraint in reporting unverified news, it also calls for the Government “not to copycat the notorious Erdogan case that used the post-coup situation to attack, arrest, shut down and hit critical media; to silence independent opinions; and to install the dictatorship of thought.”