Two year’s ago, the Socialist Party government headed by Prime Minister Edi Rama proposed changes to existing laws that would bring online media under the de facto control of the state.
While several drafts were created, fundamentally the amendments centred around creating an ex-judicial body that would review complaints against media. This body would then be able to impose fines, block access to the site, or force popups to appear if they felt the law had been violated. Furthermore, those found “guilty” by this body would have to pay up before being able to appeal against the decision or take the matter to court.
The law caused outrage and high levels of concern in the local and international journalistic community. The vague language of the law and the rights given to a non-judicial and unqualified politically appointed body led many to believe it would further restrict media freedom and could be used to silence critical journalists.
The Venice Commission was then called on to give its opinion on the draft. They didn’t hold back and essentially said the law should be scrapped. If however, the authorities were intent on implementing amendments, the Commission laid out a number of recommendations which, if implemented, would protect journalists and media from administrative abuse
The law is now undergoing its final edits and it has been included as one of the 15 conditions that Albania must fulfil before the date of the first intergovernmental conference can happen. With an election looming, Edi Rama and his government are desperate for the following things: to open accession talks during their term, to win the next election, and to prevent media from being critical, combatting propaganda, and unearthing scandals which could impact the former.
It seems that the Council of Europe, European Union, and OSCE (to some extent) have taken a hard line on the media law and they are unlikely to accept compromises. All have been clear that the law must reflect the Venice Commission findings. But Rama knows that implementing these opinions will make the law all but useless for his intended purposes- silencing critics.
So, he’s found another way. In the coming days, I believe we can expect to read a watered-down “anti-defamation package” which will tick enough of the requirements to keep the internationals happy, but which compliments something even worse.
In Albania, and contrary to international best practices, defamation is a criminal offence. Instead of removing the applicable provisions in the criminal code, the government are planning to tighten them even further to compensate for the concessions they’ve been forced to make with the “anti-defamation package”
One of the most concerning changes is a sharp increase the penalties in defamation cases and rewording of the offence to make it easier to find people guilty.
The fine is set to increase to EUR 36,000 for defamation and responsibility for the crime will go beyond journalists and include editors and directors of media outlets.
If someone dares to ‘defame’ a political body, administrative or judicial body, or a representative of one of those bodies, the punishment is increased by one half.
Prime Minister Edi Rama spoke on television last week and explained that “I wouldn’t mind if someone calls me a donkey, but if they call me a thief, that is a charge.”
But he doesn’t intend to stop there.
Further amendments to the criminal code suggest that the government is trying to outlaw humorous memes.
The draft states:
“Publication in any form, manner, or means of a montage made with the words or image of a person without his consent, if it is performed for the purpose of material or immaterial gain, or when it’s intended to damage the reputation of a person when the material does not clearly show that it’s a montage, or if it’s not explicitly mentioned as such, it constitutes a criminal contravention and is punishable by imprisonment of up to one year.”
This means that anyone creating or publishing a meme could face a prison sentence and a criminal record.
During his eight years of power, he has repeatedly tried to initiate changes in the law that would silence anyone critical of him. In 2015, he proposed changes to the criminal code that would introduce prison sentences for defamation against politicians. In 2016, the proposed changes to the Electronic Commerce Law which would order sites to “take down illegal content immediately” if someone claims their image has been defamed. Then in 2018, he suggested creating an administrative body that would have the power to takedown news and impose fines- the so-called “anti-defamation package”.
Rama has also been guilty of verbally attacking, slandering and defaming journalists. Some of the words he has used in the last two years include illiterate, human rights abusers, idiots, dogs, trash, and enemies. He hates the media and anyone that criticises him and he is intent on silencing all independent media and critical voices at this crucial time in his career.
With his plan for the “anti-defamation package” somewhat scuppered by the internationals, he has decided to make a series of tweaks to other parts of the law in order to exert the control he needs.