Following the announcement that journalists would protest the “anti-defamation” package law set to be passed by Albanian Parliament on Thursday, Prime Minister Edi Rama has claimed that journalists are “writing what they fancy” and “haven’t read the bill.”
Rama made the extraordinary claims on Twitter where he also said that the bill had been drafted and elaborated with the OSCE and meets international press freedom and freedom of expression standards.
“The bill has been drafted and elaborated for a year, article by article, point by point with the OSCE and will go into session without any shortcomings in the freedom of expression standards […]”.
He added that journalists “haven’t read the bill or they want to offend the dignity of everyone on social portals and websites and make fun of the truth and public opinion, writing what they fancy and slandering them […]”. He then thanked journalists for using the logo of his personal TV channel “ERTV” on their publicity poster for the protest.
Unfortunately, Rama’s implied meaning that the bill is in line with OSCE recommendations, and direct statement that it meets international standards is false and could itself be construed as ‘fake news’.
In fact, the OSCE, as well as international media freedom organisations, Western governments, the Council of Europe and other similar bodies, recommend self-regulation as the appropriate means to uphold responsible journalism. This means that from the outset, the very idea of an additional law to state-regulated media goes against international standards.
Secondly, Albania provides both criminal and civil recourse for defamation meaning there is already adequate protection for those affected by violations by the media. In fact, the OSCE has said on several occasions over the years that criminal defamation laws in member states should be abolished and replaced with appropriate civil legislation.
This means that even prior to these two laws, Albania should have been looking to reduce the number of defamation laws it has in order to meet the best international standards, not add more.
While the OSCE has indeed worked with the Albanian government for a year on the new laws, the most recent legal reviews categorically state that there are still issues with the law that require attention to “clarify safeguards to freedom of expression and avoid any risk of undue restrictions or sanctions on electronic media providers.”
The body raised points such as “fiscal benefits”, including “political or other belief” as a form of hate speech, financial penalties, the lack of competency of AKEP, the use of vague language that could be used to abuse freedom of expression, and the lack of mention of judicial recourse, as all being problematic in the new laws. Harlem Desir, the Representative of Media Freedom made it clear that the law was not fit as-is and that it should be amended taking into account the consultations with civil society, journalists, and media actors.
The vast majority of these groups have called for the law to be dropped, therefore once again, the pressing of the draft law by Rama is against OSCE recommendations.
On 6 December, Rama gave a statement that he will increase the penalties and dole out “harsher punishments” for portals he deems to have published fake news. As the alarm was already raised over the fines in the draft law, any additional penalties are unlikely to meet international standards or approval.
Furthermore, the draft laws in their current state have been registered as having a “chilling effect on media freedom” by the Council of Europe. Two CoE rapporteurs that visited Albania in October called on the government to take into account all recommendations made by the OSCE to “dispel any concerns it would limit freedom of expression.”
A group of leading international media freedom organisations have also condemned the “highly problematic” bills and recommended that they withdraw them, something the government have also ignored.
Several international politicians including Swedish MEP David Lega and German politician Doris Pack have also criticised the law. Lega stated that it will compromise Albania’s OSCE Chairmanship and its EU membership negotiations.
If the Albanian Parliament approves the new media laws it will risk compromising Albania's OSCE Chairmanship. It will also complicate the EU membership negotiations.
The strong resistance from the Democratic Party is therefore very welcome. #Albania @EP_ForeignAff pic.twitter.com/KDscLkne6C
— David Lega (@DavidLega) December 16, 2019
Pack called the law “criminal” and said it threatens “the only lasting pillar of democracy which may stop Rama and his dictatorial acts.”
#EU #PACE #OSCE must stop the voting of the criminal media law in #Albania. Free Media is the only lasting pillar of democracy which may stop #rama and his dictatorial acts. Why these institutions are not acting?
— Doris Pack (@pack_doris) December 16, 2019
Dunja Mijatovic, the CoE Commissioner for Human Rights urged the Albanian government to review the current drafts and bring them in line with CoE standards.
— Commissioner for Human Rights (@CommissionerHR) December 17, 2019
She added in a Facebook post that “these laws are in need of urgent improvement” due to “several provisions are indeed not compatible with international and European human rights standards.”
It seems that Rama’s proposed law has little support outside his own party members, both locally and internationally.