The European Commission appears to have changed its approach to the 15 conditions Albania must meet to sit at the table of the first intergovernmental conference which would make the start of official accession negotiations. This change is in specific relation to the controversial “anti-defamation package” first tabled by the Albanian government in 2018.
Initially, the amendments and proposals would see all online media portals coming under the direct supervision of a state-appointed board who would have all the powers of a court, without being legal professionals. They would be able to block, close, enforce popups, and levy fines against media they believe have violated any vague provisions outlined in the amendments, mainly relating to fake news and defamation.
The draft was met with outrage from local media stakeholders, and international organizations. The draft then underwent several revisions but was still not fit for purpose. The Venice Commission then issued an opinion on it, stating amongst other things that “the draft amendments are not ready for adoption in their current form. The law suffers from vagueness and would likely have a ‘chilling effect’ suppressing free discussion and political speech in the Albanian sector of the Internet.”
It also stated that “The problems identified by the authorities may be serious, but the legal tools introduced in the draft amendments may do more harm than good to the freedom of the expression in Albania, insofar as the online media are concerned.”
Lastly, the Commission said the government should focus on self-regulation and ensuring the effectiveness of the existing judicial procedures for fake news, defamation, and hate speech. It noted that giving such power to the state-appointed AMA means it could be politicized and used for political gain.
The VC recommendations are clear, but they are not binding.
The draft was approved by Parliament and then sent to President Ilir Meta who vetoed it and returned it . It now sits on the agenda of Parliament and if it’s voted and approved a second time, it will enter into force without Presidential approval.
Then, in March 2020, the European Council published a report on the Enlargement and Stabilisation Process for Albania and North Macedonia. The document states that before the first intergovernmental conference, Albania must complete several tasks and reforms. This included “amending the media law in line with the recommendations of the Venice Commission” which is described as an “important priority”.
“[…] we see it as an opportunity to reflect the changes [in the laws] to the fact that the President returned the law to Parliament. And this is something we still hope they will make [the changes].”
Pisonero stressed that she supported the recommendations for promoting media self-regulation, guaranteeing judicial independence in reviewing complaints, and enhancing the transparency of media ownership.
Then Head of the EU Delegation Luigi Soreca told a media conference in Tirana:
“I encourage the Albanian authorities to use every opportunity to establish a dialogue with media actors. It’s time to launch the consultation with the media community on the draft media law, taking into account the expertise of local and international actors to ensure a positive impact on the package.”
He also said that the package does not meet the freedom of expression standards and was not compliant with EU standards.
Additionally, he tweeted on another occasion to say that any amendments to the draft law should be in line with the Venice Commission recommendations. He added it should be brought into light with all relevant EU and international standards.
Members of the European Parliament also spoke out about the law, including MEP David Lega who has reminded the Albanian government that they need to align their legislation with EU standards.
“The so-called ‘anti-defamation package’ in its initial form is an example of the opposite of that way of life…Media freedom and pluralism, and the freedom of expression should be worshipped.”
These are just some examples of the way Brussels and prominent EU politicians have spoken out on the media law.
But earlier this year, their attitude changed.
During a press conference in March, EU rapporteur for Albania Isabel Santos claimed that the defamation law was withdrawn.
When asked by Exit how Albania could have satisfied all conditions while the law was still on the Parliament’s agenda, she said:
“As for the defamation law, it was withdrawn. I was on the front line in that battle, I was very clear that this is a red line that should not be passed. The government has withdrawn it from parliament.”
She added, “we will keep a close eye on the situation and ensure any laws are in line with the Venice Commission.”
What Santos told the media is not true. The draft is still on the agenda and has not been formally or publicly withdrawn. She refused to answer any further questions on the topic when contacted by Exit.
A resolution passed in the European Parliament on March 25, noted that they “welcome the commitment of authorities to withdraw the proposed draft amendments to the media law, and fully implement the Venice Commission’s recommendations of 19 June 2020.”
To recap, initially the draft law was included amid the March 2020 conditions laid down by the European Commission. It clearly states that the media package must be brought in line with the Venice Commission’s recommendations as a priority.
Over the subsequent 12 months, EU leaders, politicians, and the Head of the EUD in Tirana were extremely vocal on the subject, all calling in unison for the same thing.
But by March 2021, the Rapporteur claimed that the law had been withdrawn from parliament without providing any information on how she came to this conclusion. Meanwhile, the law in question is very much still in parliament and could be passed at any time.
Then, Soreca published a video on social media stating that all conditions were set and met. Exit sent questions to the EUD regarding the status of the media law and how this condition could be considered as met, while no new draft has been presented and the old not-fit-for-purpose one remains in parliament.
They responded by providing a quote from the EC.
“The draft Media Law amendments were not among the list of conditions set by the Council in March 2020. As indicated by the Venice Commission adoption of amendments to the Media Law is not necessary, but if amendments were to be adopted, they should be in line with the Venice Commission opinion.”
Exit replied by quoting the exact passages of the conditions document from March 2020 as well as direct quotes from the Venice commission report which seem to quite clearly contradict this statement. No answer has been received at the time of writing.
In the space of one year, we have gone from having the full support of the Council of Europe, the European Union, Commission and Parliament, on making sure the VC recommendations have been implemented before the media condition can be considered as satisfied, to being gaslighted.
Let us not forget that for some months we were told there were no conditions. Now we are told there are conditions. We were told the media law was a part of them. Then we were told the condition was satisfied as the media law was withdrawn. When we questioned the truth of the statement that it had been withdrawn, we were then told that it was not a condition to begin with. We were also told any law must adhere to the Venice Commission recommendations, but one year later, suddenly these don’t matter, and no changes are necessary.
I am left with only one conclusion to make from this whole scenario: that our media freedom and the protection previously afforded to us has been sold our from underneath us, and we will be thrown to the wolves all in the name of ‘stabilization’ and ‘expansion’.