The OSCE has taken a step back following the Albanian ruling Socialist Party’s insistence to pass two media laws that are widely considered as infringing upon media freedom in the country.
Only a few days ago, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir presented the Albanian government with a number of recommendations on two draft laws that have been changed continuously by the government during the last months.
In what was a surprising twist of events for many journalists and members of civil society in Albania, today Mr Desir appeared to give some approval the government initiative to approve the said laws tomorrow in Parliament. In a series of tweets, he informed that “many improvements” were made in the latest version of drafts published by Rama. Mr Desir then focused on the work to be done after the approval of laws in Parliament tomorrow:
“Work will continue to reduce the level of fines, and on the adoption of a future sub-legal instrument, in order to guarantee that no disproportionate fines can be imposed on electronic publication service providers.”
Less than two hours earlier, the EU Delegation in Albania stated on behalf of the European Commission that the approved drafts did not include several recommendations made by international actors. It urged the government to take into due account recommendations by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, including “limiting the scope of regulation only to online audio-visual media services, promoting instead self-regulation, ensuring independent judicial review of media-related complaints and strengthening the transparency of media ownership in the country.”
Prime Minister Edi Rama reacted shortly after by stating that the drafts were “agreed 100 per cent with OSCE experts of the Vienna office under the leadership of Harlem Desir.”
Mr Rama’s tweet was followed by a stream of tweets by Mr Desir, who added that his office “will monitor closely the application of the law which must, in no way, impede freedom of expression and media freedom.”
The final draft law published on the Parliament’s website showed clear signs of very last-minute changes, including spelling mistakes, different text fonts and extensive use of the letter “w”, which does not exist in the Albanian alphabet but is usually used in drafts and later replaced with the letter “ë” throughout the whole document.
The European Commission’s urge for the Albanian government to work with CoE Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović, came after the latter had expressed her “deep concerns” earlier in the day that the Albanian Parliamentary committees had adopted two laws which “are in need of urgent improvement”. She added that “several provisions are indeed not compatible with international and European human rights standards which protect freedom of expression and freedom of the media.”
Ms Mijatović listed several concerns not considered in the latest drafts: “discretionary powers given to regulatory bodies, the possibility to impose excessive fines and to block media websites without a court order, as well as the introduction of state regulation of online media”. She added that “it is of the utmost importance to ensure that the Internet remains an open and public forum and that self-regulation by the media, including online media, prevails.”
She noted that state regulation and the regulation of media by a regulatory body was not in line with their standards, a point reiterated by many local and international media freedom organisations. In short, as long as AMA acts as a ‘court’, the law is not in line with best practices.
She urged the Parliament of Albania to review the drafts and bring them in line with the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights and Council of Europe.
Therefore, Mr Desir’s supportive statement appears to be in contrast to statements by the European Commission and CoE Commissioner for Human Rights. His office hopes the government will overcome issues related to fines when it drafts bylaws, and that it will not misuse the legislation.
The OSCE appears to take no issue with concerns raised by Ms Mijatović, which are clearly not reflected in the final draft law.
Its backing off from defending the media freedom comes only a few days after Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama assumed the OSCE Chairmanship for 2020, and began the annual lead of the international organization.
Albanian journalists and civil society are holding a protest on Wednesday morning, at 9.30, at the Parliament where Socialist MPs will be voting for the two laws which journalists say will infringe on the freedom of online media portals in the country.