The Government of Albania keeps disregarding its international obligations and the repeated calls of the international community to refrain itself from any unlawful conduct under international law. In the past two and a half years we have witnessed several occasions in which the government lead by Prime Minister Edi Rama has repeatedly violated international human right standards and basic principles of international law.
One of the rights infringed the most by the Rama government is the right to freedom of speech. Criticism is Rama’s biggest fear and he has unleashed all his rage towards the free press and his critics. Addressing them as “trashcans”, was the least he did.
Since early 2018, journalists and press outlets have been under constant threat. The bullet spraying of Klodiana Lala’s parents’ house, the attack on Fatos Lubonja’s car, the repeated threats towards Agron Tufa, the firing of Adi Krasta and Ylli Rakipi, the refusal of residence permit to British journalist Alice Taylor, the shutdown of online press outlet JOQ, the desperate attempt to shut down Ora News Television, the SLAPP’s of Rama himself against journalists, the repeated call not to trust the media in the midst of a pandemic, and other countless episodes, are still fresh in the memories of Albanians.
But Rama’s attempt to muzzle the press once and for all backfired. The so-called “Anti-Defamation Package”, a draconian press law, after being subject to criticism by local and international watchdogs, was thrown in the trash by the Venice Commission (VC). In its opinion the VC expressed concern on the effect that the law in its current form would have on freedom of expression, especially because of the extended authority and lack of independence of the oversight media authority, AMA. It also noted that the law didn’t address defamation, hate speech, and sanctions were not subject to the principle of proportionality.
Rama who had constantly denied any claim that the draft law was not in compliance with international standards, was forced to swallow his own words, and declare that the suggestions of the VC would be addressed promptly.
However, his attitude towards the press has already had a negative impact on the level of freedom of speech in the country. Earlier in April, Reporters Without Borders, a leading non-profit on safeguarding press freedom, released the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Albania ranked 84th, marking a decline of two positions compared to 2019, and nine compared to 2018. While European Journalists Federation, in an international freedom of expression mission along with six other international media organizations, reported that the freedom of press in Albania is deteriorating.
On May 17, 2020, after two and a half years of resistance, the National Theater of Albania was demolished. The police entered the theater at 4:30 am, forcefully removing the activists that were inside. The demolition started while people were still inside the building. The following hours of the protest were brutal. Actors, activists, and journalists were dragged, beaten, and illegally detained. In a single day the government violated the right to enjoy cultural life, the right to freedom of assembly, and the right to freedom of speech and press. Not to mention the excessive use of force by the police towards peaceful protesters, which is strictly prohibited under policing and human right international standards.
The same occurred on June 24, when peaceful protesters were forcefully dispersed by the police, despite having notified in advance for the protest and respecting social distancing measures. Several protesters were detained and subsequently charged for allegedly having organized an unlawful protest. Again, this amounts to further violation of freedom of assembly and expression, and excessive use of force by the police.
The latest episode of the government acting in complete disregard of international norms occurred only a couple of days ago, when the immigration authorities decided to reject the asylum request of Selami Simsek, a Turkish citizen, alleged by the Turkish government to be a member of the Gulen Movement. His compatriot Harun Celik, faced the same fate back in January 1st 2020, despite his crying plea for asylum, moments before he was sent to the airport and put on a plane to Istanbul. Upon arrival Turkish media hailed his deportation from Albania as a success of the state intelligence agency, MIT, raising questions on the involvement of the Albanian government in his deportation. The fate of Mr. Celik remains unknown.
The Council of Europe and the United Nations expressed their concern that once arriving in Turkey Mr. Simsek could face torture, and inhuman and degrading treatment, and reminded the government of Albania’s international obligations on asylum seekers and human rights. Rather than listening to his western allies, Rama decided to satisfy his warm relations with Turkish autocrat President, Recep Tayip Erdogan.
The actions of the Albanian government do nothing more than harm the European future of Albania. On a time when the rule of law in Albania is more fragile than ever, the press needs the freedom it deserves, the civil society should feel safe to protest without fearing police brutality, and foreign citizens whose life is risked if sent back to their home country, should not fear that a country aspiring to be part of the EU, will deport them.
It is time we start climbing up the ladder of human rights and democracy indexes instead of counting positions lost. Whether the government likes it or not, we will keep speaking our mind, because we know our rights. We have been left nothing else other than our vigilance and desire to see a prosperous Albania, where the rule of law prevails, and where people enjoy their constitutional rights.
Albi Cela is the International Rule of Law and Security Program Fellow at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, a program held in cooperation with the McCain Institute for International Leadership in Washington, D.C. Albi is the founder of Rule of Law Albania, a platform which promotes rule of law, good governance, and democracy in Albania and beyond. The platform features a podcast, and a blog.