On the same day that Prime Minister Edi Rama opened the OSCE South-Eastern Europe Media Forum in Tirana, six international media organizations called on his government to halt plans for the new Media and Information Agency.
The organizations—ARTICLE 19, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, European Federation of Journalists, Free Press Unlimited, International Press Institute, and OBC Transeuropa—also called on the EU to intervene and to raise their concerns “as a matter of priority in future accession talks.”
The letter notes that plans for the new agency, announced during the first session of the new parliament on September 18, would centralize control over the government’s public relations within a single entity.
Under new rules, spokespersons at ministries and government departments will be prohibited from talking to the media directly and public information or comment will have to be approved by the MIA’s director-general, who will be appointed directly by the Prime Minister and hold a status equal to that of a government minister.
The director-general will have the power to appoint and dismiss spokespersons in every ministry, as well as approve their public appearances or interviews. The MIA will also decide on journalists’ requests for interviews and organize the press conferences of the Prime Minister and other ministers. In addition, the MIA will conduct monitoring of both the press and social media to track public opinion of government activities.
The organizations noted that Albanian journalists work in a tough environment and experience difficulties in accessing information from government sources. This includes discriminating those working for independent media, denying accreditation, or banning them from asking questions during press conferences. Other issues include ignoring freedom of information requests and public officials being hostile when having questions asked in person.
“The result is that across all levels of government, journalists face significant barriers in posing questions or properly scrutinizing ministries. Against this backdrop, further solidification of government control over the flow of information by a single entity risks turning what is already a drip-feed of information to journalists into a desert.”
The organizations noted that the creation of this agency, potentially with Endri Fuga at the helm, mirrors that of the appointment of Ermela Krasniqi as the head of the Audiovisual Media Authority. This institution will be the supervisory body if the “anti-defamation package,” currently in parliament, is passed.
It continues that this agency ultimately risks being a powerful tool for any government current or future to control the flow of public information to the media and to influence what citizens read, hear and watch.
“The role of journalists is to act as a filter between government and citizens. Limiting their ability to do so by constraining opportunities to question officials and side-lining critical journalists severely limits the ability of the press to do its job and hold power to account.”
Finally, the organizations noted that “[w]ith the freedom of the media a cornerstone of Albania’s accession to the EU, it is vital that the EU mission in Tirana and the EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi immediately respond to this latest development and address the concerns raised by our organisations and others.”
They also added “[u]ntil greater safeguards can be established to ensure the MIA operates in a fair and transparent manner, we urge the government to cancel its establishment pending consultation with national and international journalist groups.”