From: Alice Taylor
Day 1 OSCE Media Development Forum: COVID-19 and the Draft Media Law

The two main topics on the agenda of Day 1 of the OSCE Media Development Forum were the draft media amendments and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like last year, EU ambassador Luigi Soreca delivered an opening speech during which he asked the government to engage in a proper consultation process with media workers and to ensure that the draft is in line with the Venice Commission recommendations. He lamented that the European Council found that there was no progress in the field of freedom of expression and that it should be a priority.

The new Head of Presence of the OSCE Vincenzo Del Monaco gave his first public speech in which he thanked Albania for its warm welcome. He steered clear of any strong comments directly to do with the media freedom climate in Albania, instead focussing on the global and regional situation

He did, however, offer the assistance of the OSCE in supporting “through the implementation of thematic projects that aim to improve the level of professionalism in reporting, to make more transparent the ownership of media, to support media to self-regulate, to raise awareness on the safety of women journalist, to improve the performance and professionalism of the public TV broadcaster.” He reassured those present that he would consider them as priorities.

At the end of his speech, he made a curious analogy- calling the internet a “fantastic ocean” and saying that he needed “a compass to guide” him. He said that that idea of a “compass” is a part of the wider notion of national resilience to disinformation and fake news. It’s not clear if he was referring to the media law as the “compass”.

“The idea of a compass is part of the wider notion of national resilience to disinformation and fake news. And I cannot pass here without pointing at the importance of media literacy and especially at the crucial role it has among the young generation. I am wondering whether the debate is – inter alia – about guaranteeing freedoms and in parallel empowering citizens to demand from the media information that is unbiased.”

Jurgen Heissel, the Director of the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media gave a short speech via video stream. He underscored the indispensable role media and journalists play in democratic societies, and particularly in times of crisis. He said they not only have an essential watchdog function, holding those in power accountable but they also have an important role in providing us with information on issues that directly affect our lives.

Turning his attention to COVID-10, he noted that “with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent measures to curb its spread, the media witnessed both a heightened public demand for information and an ever-more impeded access to reliable data retained by public authorities. Access to information for the media is of crucial importance in this time of health crisis in providing vital information to the public and in the fight against the spread of false information on the pandemic.”

He said that his office had enjoyed “constructive co-operation with the authorities” and had witnessed “genuine efforts” on their part to improve the legal environment for the media and free speech in the country. A comment in a slight contradiction with those of the other international organisations present. Prime Minister Edi Rama is currently the sitting Chairman of the OSCE.

Heissel said that they have been working extensively with the government on the media legislation. He made it clear that upcoming Albanian media legislation must respect the international standards and OSCE commitments on freedom of expression and that it doesn’t negatively impact media freedom in Albania.

“Our Office will, of course, continue to closely monitor these developments, along with other important media freedom related issues, and remains ready to engage with your authorities and the Albanian media community in further strengthening the media environment in the country.’

The Council of Europe head of Office Jutta Gutzkow was more critical in her comments. She took the opportunity to remind Albania of its various international obligations in terms of the freedoms of citizens and their rights. Then turning to the media climate in Albania, she noted the number of threats against journalists and media freedom that were registered on the CoE Portal.

In 2020 there were five media freedom alerts on the platform and a total of 21 in the last five years. These alerts include the machine-gun attack on Klodiana Lala’s home (unsolved), a bomb detonating at the home of a journalist in Lezhe, cases of police violence against journalists, the smear campaign against an Exit journalist, and the closing of two critical TV shows at the alleged behest of Rama.