The European Commission confirmed it would not require Albania to withdraw plans for a law that will bring all online media under state supervision to sit at the table for continued EU accession negotiations.
During the last 10 days, there have been four separate calls on the European Commission to intervene in the deteriorating media freedom environment in the Western Balkan country. They came from six Western Balkan journalism organisations, a coalition of Albanian journalists and lawyers, Reporters Without Borders, and a group of other international media organisations.
Concerns include a proposed “anti-defamation package”, establishing a centralised government media organisation called the Media and Information Agency, and long-time communication aids of Prime Minister Edi Rama being put into senior state media supervisory roles.
Each group requested that the EC act on the situation in Albnaia, noting that media freedom is a cornerstone of Albania’s accession process.
EC reaffirms commitment to freedom of expression
Responding to questions sent by Exit.al, partnering with EURACTIV.com, a spokesperson said that, “the European Union attaches the greatest importance to freedom of expression and media freedom. Respect of these rights is a key part of accession criteria, which is continuously assessed throughout the accession process.”
They said concerns had been actively raised at all levels regarding the ‘anti-defamation package’ and its impact on freedom of expression.
When asked if withdrawing the package from parliament would be a condition of further accession talks, they said, “The Commission notes that the Albanian authorities have reconsidered their adoption, and the Assembly did not revert to the matter. The EU has strongly recommended that any possible changes to media law should be in line with Venice Commission opinion and European standards and would give rise to proper consultation with media organisations.”
The spokesperson said that amendments to the media law are not conditions for the first intergovernmental conference, suggesting that calls for this to be the case would not be heeded.
A worsening media climate
Fears abound that Albania, which ranks 84 in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, faces state capture of all institutions and further state controls on media freedom and the right to access information.
The so-called “anti-defamation package” was first tabled in 2018. It contained provisions that would bring all online media under the direct supervision of the Albanian Audiovisual Authority (AMA), a state-appointed body.
AMA would have the power to levy significant fines, order retractions and corrective popups ex-judicially, and even potentially suspend access to sites it deems publish fake news, disinformation, or defamation.
Prime Minister Edi Rama said it was an attempt to curtail disinformation, make news, and defamation caused by a growing number of online media platforms. Civil society and media stakeholders said it was an excuse to stifle criticism and investigations into government corruption.
The package was reviewed by the EU, Council of Europe, and OSCE, before being presented to the Venice Commission in 2020. The Commission made several recommendations, including removing vague language that could “have a chilling effect suppressing free discussion and political speech.”
The Commission was also clear that self-regulation was the preferred way of dealing with online media and that any state-appointed body must be independent and non-partisan. In conclusion, they recommended the government reconsider adopting the package as it “may do more harm than good to the freedom of expression’ in Albania.
The last version of the package to be presented publicly failed to meet the recommendations of the Venice Commission. It was voted on in Parliament in December 20920, in the absence of opposition after their resigned their mandates in protest in 2019. After being passed by the Socialist Party majority, it passed to President Ilir Meta. He vetoed it and returned it to parliament earlier this year.
The package remains on the parliament’s agenda and requires a simple majority, which Rama’s Socialist Party have, for it to become law.
Swedish MEP David Lega spoke of his surprise to learn that the ‘anti-defamation package’ was still on the agenda of Parliament. He wrote on Twitter that “The EU has been crystal clear: the media law must be in line with Venice Commission recommendations before it could come into consideration.”
⁉️ Surprised to learn that the (heavily criticised) amendments to the #Albanian #MediaLaw are once again on the agenda of the 🇦🇱Parliament.
The EU has been crystal clear: the media law must be in line with Venice Commission recommendations before it could come into consideration!
— David Lega (@DavidLega) October 11, 2021
In June of this year, parliament, once again in the absence of an opposition, elected Armela Krasniqi, a Socialist Party and Rama communications employee, as chair of the board. This was done despite calls from the EU to wait until the new parliament commenced in September with opposition parties.
The establishment of the Media and Information Agency (MIA) was one of the first decisions taken by the Rama government, following the start of their third mandate in September 2021. It would centralise all government communications, including ministries, institutions, and ministers, through one single entity. This entity would be headed by Endri Fuga, Rama’s long-time communication chief.
Funded by taxpayers, the MIA would provide all information on government activities and respond to questions and requests for information. Additionally, it would monitor local and international media and social media to ascertain the public perception of the government.
Greece moves to limit online media
Across the border in Greece, the government has proposed amendments to the Civil Code, introducing fines and prison time for journalists found guilty of publishing “fake news’.
The provisions were proposed by the Ministry of Justice and would see perpetrators punished with at least six months in prison and, or a fine, for repeated offences.
It was condemned by The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFFR), a pan-European mechanism that tracks and monitors media violations across the continent. They urged the Greek government to reconsider.
“We believe the draft law’s vague definition and punitive sanctions would undermine the freedom of the press and have a chilling effect at a time when independent journalism is already under pressure in Greece”, the MFPR said in a statement.
Meanwhile, in Albania, Rama sparked controversy on Monday (11 October) when at the OSCE South East Europe Media Conference in Tirana, he called for greater regulation of online media and compared them to Nazi propaganda and paedophiles.
He added that as a politician, counterattacks against media that criticise are dangerous because “you’re immediately labelled as going against freedom blah blah blah.”
His comments are widely considered by media stakeholders in attendance to be a not-so-subtle confirmation of his intention to continue cracking down on Albania’s already weak media freedom environment.
#Albania: @RSF_inter denounces PM @ediramaal's attack on online media at an @OSCE conference, comparing them to Nazis, terrorists & pedophiles. All the more worrying as Parliament plans to discuss amendments to the media law, known as the anti-defamation package! pic.twitter.com/OFXYNXraUx
— RSF in English (@RSF_en) October 13, 2021
Reporters Without Borders condemned his words and called it “worrying” considering the pending anti-defamation package in parliament.
Meanwhile, the EC spokesperson told exit that “the European Union is following this issue very closely. We urge the Albanian authorities to ensure the media’s direct and transparent access to governmental institutions and their activities as well as to non-partisan public information.”