In 2020, Albania fell another two places in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, ranking at number 84. The previous year included smear campaigns against journalists, the closure of critical TV shows, attacks with tear gas, obstruction from filming and reporting, and the so-called “Anti-defamation package”. Many didn’t think it could get worse, but 2020 has seen a worrying increase in police brutality, more legal threats against reporters, and the state using their power to silence and intimidate.
Exit News brings you a roundup of the threats against media freedom in Albania during 2020.
Police brutality and arbitrary arrests
2020 was not a good year for the relationship between journalists and the police. 2019 saw journalists being gassed and assaulted during the Opposition-led anti-government protests, but this year saw a continuation and exacerbation of the situation.
In December, a 25-year-old man, Klodian Rasha was shot and killed by a policeman. The murder sparked six days of protests in Tirana and other cities in the country. During the protests, four on-duty journalists were arrested, detained, and reportedly mistreated. Xhoi Malesia, an anchor at Ora News said he was arrested, beaten, and made to sign a statement he didn’t write as a condition of release. Editor-in-Chief of Koha Jone was arrested while reporting on police brutality against young protestors. He was handcuffed, detained, and reported being hit on the head and back. His mobile was seized and the footage he had filmed was deleted. He also reported having to sign a statement he did not write, admitting to participating in an illegal gathering.
Durres Lajm editor Shefqet Duka was detained for three hours. He said he did not experience violence but saw it being inflicted on others. Also detained was Syri.net journalist Aldo Mustafa who said he was physically attacked by a police officer and prevented from filming the protests.
Other journalists and photojournalists reported injury from teargas, pepper spray, and water cannons. Some also had damaged equipment.
Then, some days after the protests, journalist Ergys Mertiri was detained along with three Alliance for the National Theatre activists. He was kept in the police station for around four hours with no charge filed against him. Mertiri reported his mobile was seized and footage showing police violence was deleted.
In May, following the demolition of the National Theatre, Editor of Politiko.al Alfred Lela was violently arrested while reporting on the protests. The police claimed he “wasn’t on duty” at the time. He was released without charge. But reported he was assaulted and verbally insulted by the police.
Exit New’s illustrator Diversanti was in the Theatre at the time the demolition started and was removed and arrested with force, by special forces who stormed the building. He was released without charge but reported the use of violence and excessive force by officers carrying semi-automatic weapons.
In April, Exit News was targeted by a “highly sophisticated” cyber attack. An unknown hacker accessed the site via the WordPress dashboard and attempted to delete all the content on the server. This equated to five years’ worth of articles in English, Albanian, and Italian. Exit’s webmaster said he had not seen anything like this kind of attack before. Thankfully, Exit was able to regain control of the site and prevent any damage from being done. The IPI condemned the attack as a “brazen attempt to delete content” due to the outlets reporting.
Also in 2020, the Facebook site of media JOQ Albania was closed by Facebook. It’s suspected that this was due to mass reporting of the site, or the involvement of a third party. So far, these suspicions are unconfirmed. JOQ had millions of followers on Facebook at the time the page was closed.
In January, Acromax threatened to sue Alice Taylor and Exit.al for an investigation she conducted into their work.
She published an article that included details of a conversation she had with owner Aldor Nini. In that conversation, he admitted that the Socialist Party were clients and even sent examples of work they had done for them. This included removing content from social media channels such as Facebook and YouTube. He later claimed they were no longer clients and threatened a lawsuit in Germany and Albania against her and the portal. The lawsuit never materialised.
Later in the year, Exit’s investigation went international when it was picked up by German portal Netzpolitik who said Acromax has a “chilling impact on media freedom in Albania.”
At the end of November, BIRN Albania was sued by businessman Mirel Mertiri in relation to articles they published about the incinerator deal. He claims the article contains insulting allusions and labels that have damaged his reputation. He added that all the claims are unfounded as long as there is no decision by the authorities on whether to charge him or not. BIRN stands by the article and said they are ready to fight the matter in court.
The Albanian government has been accused of favouring a group of related companies, which have so far won three concession contracts for the construction of incinerators, all without competition. To date, the incinerators are either not functioning or even built yet are benefiting from millions of government funding every month.
The Albtek Energy company that is also involved in the incinerator scandal sued investigative journalist Artan Rama for defamation. In the lawsuit filed by the Albtek company, the claims and allusions made in the article are unfounded. They took particular umbrage with the suggestion that the company won contracts and misused taxpayers’ money through favoritism from the Rama government. Rama said he intends to fight the lawsuit.
Lack of information
2020 was also a difficult year for getting information from the government. Just one Exit journalist sent some 50 requests for comment, five freedom of information requests, and various other requests for information or clarification to the government and ministries, and received no response. This made reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic even harder, particularly for the English site.
Faktoje sent some 510 requests for information between January and September 2020 but only received 210 responses. BIRN reported less than half of their requests were answered properly.
New regarding the pandemic was given mainly via Facebook live stream by Prime Minister Edi Rama and there was little opportunity to ask questions or seek clarification.
On one occasion, Exit journalist Alice Taylor contacted Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj to ask about claims he had plagiarized the work of artist Clet Abraham. He responded to her question by saying “you are not a journalist, you are a troll who embarrassed the profession, sometimes serving Russia and other times fascists.” He refused to provide any other response and blocked her on social media and WhatsApp.
In February, journalist Ylli Rakipi and lawyer Dorian Matlija accused Prime Minister Edi Rama of pressuring judges. Rama had sued Rakipi for defamation by Rakipi claimed that Rama’s public statements about winning all lawsuits put the courts under pressure to rule in favour of Rama.
In August, Ora News published messages that it claims were from the Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj and owner of Ora News Ylli Ndroqi. In the published messages, Veliaj insulted the journalist Beti Numa and tried to change the content of the news.
Speaking about Numa, Veliaj allegedly wrote: “I never expected even on the worst day that would allow a beast to enter between us.” He also referred to journalists as “idiots” and accused them of copying news from the Democratic Party in an attempt to discredit him. Screenshots also showed the Mayor forwarding articles from Ora that were critical of the Municipality and him, questioning their publication. These included content relating to the demolition of the National Theatre.
In February, Ora News journalist Sonila Musaj filed staking and sexual harassment charges against Tirana Municipality employee Auren Borici who ‘hugged’ her while she was trying to ask questions to Veliaj. She said it was unacceptable and sexist behavior that prevented her from doing her work.
By the start of 2020, Prime Minister Edi Rama and his Socialist Party had filed around 35 lawsuits against politicians, journalists, and citizens for “defamation”.
Rama and Vodafone
During the height of the pandemic, Prime Minister Edi Rama recorded a message telling citizens how they could protect themselves against COVID-19. This was then broadcast by Vodafone prior to any outgoing calls. In the recording, Rama called on people to “protect themselves against the media”. The government provided no legal justification for using a private company to disseminate state messages.
In October, a bomb was set off outside the home of journalist Elidon Ndreka. Ndreka, a journalist with News24 and living in Lezhe said he does not know who could be behind the attack. He claims to have no conflicts with anyone and the only reason he can think of for the attack is his work as a journalist. To date, no one has been arrested for the attack.
In January, the car of journalist Fatos Lubonja was vandalised with a stone after he left it outside his home in Tirana. Lubonja declared that the attack was deliberate and linked to his work.
“I came back from Italy at 1 pm for dinner and found my car damaged badly behind broken windows, which seemed deliberate as there was no theft. It was an act of vandalism, an act of hatred by someone.”
In March, during the COVID-19 lockdown, an employee of contractor Salillari threatened Ora News journalist Elio Laze while he was filming them working in breach of lockdown rules. The employee of Salillari, one of the government’s favoured construction companies, responded by being verbally and physically aggressive with the journalist and threatening him.
Seizure of Ora News
In August, Albanian special forces and police descended upon the premises of RTV Ora. They were acting on the orders of SPAK to had ordered the sequestration of 26 assets belonging to Ndroqi due to his alleged involvement in drug trafficking. Ora News is now being administered by the state.
Ndroqi claims he is legitimate and that the action against him is due to court cases he has initiated against Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj and his station’s critical stance against the government. The Albanian Media Council called it a “de facto attack on free speech” and said that the heavy-handed methods used could send a chilling message to other critical media.
The AMC noted that the decision to seize the two TV channels has enabled the government to appoint its own administrators, thus de facto bringing their editorial line, too, “under seizure”.
During 2020, the saga of the so-called “anti-defamation package” continued. At the time of writing, a final draft is due to be published that is supposed to include the recommendations of the Venice Commission. The Albanian government came under immense international pressure to scale back the provisions in the package as in previous drafts it would have a “chilling impact on media freedom”. The law seeks to bring all online media under the control of a government-appointed panel that would have the power to impose large fines, block, and place other sanctions on media it claims have violated the law. Bringing the law in line with the Venice Commission recommendations is one of the 15 conditions for setting the date for the first Intergovernmental Conference with the EU.
But while this was going on, proposed changes to the defamation law were leaked to the media. These include increased financial penalties and prison sentences for defamation, provisions to make it easier to convict people of criminal defamation, and provisions that could see ‘memes’ and satirical content become illegal. The provisions also included heftier penalties for ‘crimes’ against politicians.
Albanian journalist Sonila Meco has been subjected to a torrent of online abuse and harassment after certain media portals accused her of disrespecting the country’s doctors in a social media postThe attack has been reported as a violation of media freedom by the Mapping Media Freedom platform.
Gazeta Tema then published an article picturing Meco with the headline “Sonila Meco has attacked medics for not speaking up and demanding that the Albanians stuck at the border be admitted inside the country even though they might be carriers of the coronavirus.”
As a result of the article, she received a flood of insults and harassment online. Comments included threats of sexual violence against her. Deputy Prime Minister of Albania, Erion Brace then made the situation worse by posting on social media and criticising Meco for her post resulting in further attacks against her.