The overwhelming message from international and local institutions and human rights organisations in Tirana today was that democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression are under threat in Albania.
Ombudsman Erinda Ballanca, speaking at the “Freedom Without Hate” conference organised between her office and the Council of Europe, stated that “2019 was not a good year for Albania- democracy has shrunk and unfortunately we did not advance in human rights.”
She questioned the state of democracy in the country, adding “are the government up to the job? How sound are the foundations of our institutions?”
Ballanca also spoke about the recently passed media law and expressed her concerns over its motives and implications.
President Ilir Meta, and representatives from the US Embassy, United Nations, the Council of Europe, Albanian Ombudsman and AMA- the regulatory body tasked with implementing the new law, were also vocal in their criticisms.
Meta took his turn in addressing the room, choosing to discuss the importance of free speech in a democracy, and reminding those in attendance that it is a constitutionally protected right. He drew attention to the worsening media freedom climate in Albania as well as the poor working conditions of journalists.
“The concerns of journalists are not being heard,” Meta said, “there is a delicate balance between free speech and stopping hate speech. It should not be used to silence critics.”
He also reminded the audience that it is important not to forget communism and the denial of rights that happened during that time. He said he believes that poverty, a lack of accountability, artificial political discourse, and hate speech perpetrated by politicians are some of the key reasons why people are leaving Albania.
The Head of the Council of Europe delegation in Albania, Jutta Gutzkow was clear in her message that the newly introduced media laws raise concerns and do not meet CoE and EU standards. She also took the opportunity to offer the Albanian authorities a chance to have a legal opinion from the human rights body on the new laws.
Brian Williams, the UN Representative to Albania stated that his organisation shares the concerns of the EU and CoE and promotes self-regulation, proportionality, and independent courts as a means of appropriate recourse.
“Allow me to confirm that the United Nations, as expressed by the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva and as presented to parliament some weeks ago, subscribes to the same concerns that have been expressed by other international human rights bodies,” he said.
He also spoke about hate speech directed against women and female journalists, calling it a form of violence. Noting that gender-based violence was not included as a form of hate speech in the criminal code, he called on the authorities to create a “meaningful deterrent” to those guilty of such offences.
The Charge d’Affaires Daniel Koski made a strong statement to the audience, urging them to never return to a place where freedom of speech is inhibited. He reiterated how important freedom of speech is in democracy and that only “dictators look to deny free speech.”
“Albania has woken from a communist nightmare, you must never go back to it,” he said.
Speaker of Parliament and member of the Socialist Party that passed the controversial media laws, Gramoz Ruci looked uncomfortable throughout, particularly at the comments relating to Communism and criticisms of the law.
In his speech, he claimed that press and media in Albania is very democratized but that “self-regulation cannot guarantee the protection of citizens’ rights, freedoms and dignity, without being fulfilled by state regulation.” He stated that “media is the fourth branch of government” adding that it has a “tendency to increase its influence and power in society.”
The British Embassy, who did not attend the event also confirmed via email to Exit that they do not support the law, stating “The UK Embassy is fully in line with the EU position and shares its concerns.”