After months of internal wrangling and international pressure, Albania’s Socialist Prime Minister, Edi Rama, has postponed the adoption of media laws that would have muzzled the few online critical voices left.
The postponement had more to do with European Parliament President Sassoli’s recent visit to Tirana than with international and local media watchdog protests against the draconian laws. Many fear it is only a matter of time before the international community looks the other way, and Rama bulldozes the laws through parliament.
Rama has repeatedly called critical media outlets “garbage bins,” not hiding his deep distaste, and hinting at what he would like done with them. Many of the largest TV stations and newspapers have fallen in line and now rarely criticize him. Those few journalists that were critical of Rama are now often jobless, or have been forced to move to neighboring Kosovo.
This is what happened to Adi Krasta, a leading journalist and a host of a number of popular news shows. He was fired from his job and forced to move to Kosovo for speaking out against Rama’s rule.
Un-exposed, a hard-hitting TV talk show that featured Albania’s four leading journalists, was also shut down after criticizing Rama. A number of other TV talk shows, newspapers, and online platforms critical of Rama are under attack from the government. With little legal recourse, these shows are in the process of shutting down.
Rama’s governing Socialist Party has overwhelming control of the government, parliament and judiciary. The opposition walked out of parliament last year over the government’s failure to combat corruption. At the same time, the judiciary is in disarray. The government vetting process, introduced to screen out corrupt judges, is also being used to ensure future judges come from Rama’s pool of cronies. Consequently, Albania is currently without a functioning Constitutional Court, while many local and national courts remain understaffed.
Rama continues to argue that the proposed media laws are necessary to stop the spread of fake news and disinformation. He also argues that the laws comply with international press freedom standards. Local and international media watchdogs disagree. They warn that the laws will serve to protect the government from the few critical media outlets left in the country.
The proposed media laws would impose exorbitant fines for not announcing and presenting news in “a genuine, impartial, and objective way,” as interpreted by a government commission. They would range from $900 to $18,000. The average monthly wage in Albania is $463.
As Rama knows from firsthand experience, it is better to fine and tax critical voices out of existence than beat them up, or have them locked them up in the once infamous Spac Prison. Ironically, in 1997, Rama himself was brutally attacked by a gang of government goons for his critical writings against the then autocratic Prime Minister, Sali Berisha.
Concerned about the likely effect of these laws on freedom of expression in Albania, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, issued three legal reports between July 11 and December 9, 2019, urging Albania to review the laws and implement its recommendations. These include diminishing the fines and curbing the excessive authority of the media commission. Even the EU ambassador to Albania, Luigi Soreca, expressed concern that the laws “may lead to adverse effect[s] on freedom of expression”.
Despite the objections of the OSCE, which ironically Albania currently chairs, parliament approved the laws. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights then cautioned Tirana, noting that several provisions “are indeed not compatible with international and European human rights standards, which protect freedom of expression and freedom of the media”. Michael Gahler and David Lega, representatives for the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, also protested the proposed laws.
In response, President Ilir Meta vetoed the law by decree. Seemingly in support of the President’s veto, the Venice Commission, an advisory body to the Council of Europe, announced on January 20 that it was requesting a review of the media laws. Rama’s government refused to bow to pressure and sent the law back to parliament the very next day, to overrule the President’s veto. In the absence of a Constitutional Court, Rama is free to push through his laws without any roadblocks. “We will dismiss the [veto] decree of the President,” said Taulant Balla, head of the Socialist’s Party parliamentary group on Facebook on January 22.
On January 30, however, the day when parliament was scheduled to pass the laws despite the President’s veto, the Socialist Party voted to postpone a vote on the laws, declaring that it would “postpone the vote until after the Venice Commission issues its opinion”.
International pressure and the ever-present threat of not being invited to join the European Union, led to Rama putting a hold on the law, for now.
But, in the absence of critical media outlets in Albania, the international community needs to remain present and vocal against his attempt to silence his critics through unjust laws and bullying of journalists. General elections are scheduled in Albania for June 2021. For these elections to have any chance of being free and fair, a strong, independent, and critical press will be necessary.
It is commendable that both the center-right and Socialist parties of Albania have agreed to stop their government’s draconian push. Freedom of the press has always had strange bedfellows. We will remain vigilant, however. After all, liberty is always one generation away from extinction.
Pedro Pizano is the Northwestern-McCain Public Interest Legal Award Fellow at the McCain Institute for International Leadership. Albi Cela is the International Rule of Law and Security Program Fellow at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law of Arizona State University in Washington D.C. Albi holds a law degree from University College Beder in Tirana, Albania.
This story was originally published by BIRN’s English language website Balkan Insight.