Pressures are mounting on the EU to intervene in Albania’s media freedom environment as the third public call for help has been made in just seven days.
A group of Albanian journalists, editors, lawyers and activists sent an open letter to various international institutions asking for their help in ensuring the Albanian government withdraws plans for a centralized media agency and the “anti-defamation package.”
Recipients include enlargement commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, Commission vice-presidents’ Vera Jourova, Margaritis Schinas and Dubravka Suica, Council of Europe human rights commissioner Dunja Mijatovic, the head of the OSCE Presence in Albania, and a number of international media organizations.
The letter draws attention to “the increasing state capture and control of the media and right to information in Albania’. It’s signed by representatives from the country’s leading independent media, including Exit.al, BIRN, Citizens Channel, Ora News, Politico.al, Euronews, and Faxnews.
It highlights the creation of the Media and Information Agency which will centralize all government communication, including from all ministries, through one central point. The agency will be headed by Endri Fuga, Prime Minister Edi Rama’s long-time communications chief. Asides from answering all requests for comment, information, and interviews, the agency will also disseminate information to the media.
This is already the case as Rama has his TV channel, ERTV, which sends pre-edited footage to all media while preventing most from covering in-person themselves. The agency will also monitor local and international media and “mass media” to gague public opinion on the government.
The letter states: “In simple terms, all information relating to the government, its officials, and its activities can only be sought through a single entity. Comments or information about hot topics or matters of specific areas of government will be further out of journalists’ reach…The centralization of all information and media communication by a government entity is both concerning and restricting.”
In terms of the “anti-defamation package”, the letter explains that if it becomes law, it will bring all online media under the direct control and supervision of the Audiovisual Media Authority. Albanian parliament recently appointed Armela Krasniqi, a long-term Rama and Socialist Party communications employee, into the role. Despite protests from the EU.
The AMA will have the power to fine, force retractions, impose penalties, and potentially block any website it deems is posting fake news or defamatory content. This leaves critical, independent media at the mercy of a state institution, essentially controlled by the Prime Minister.
The current draft, which does not meet international best practices of Venice Commission recommendations, was passed by parliament, vetoed by the President, but now only requires a simple majority vote in parliament to become law.
The signatories note that “When you consider the creation of MIA, the pending anti-defamation package, and the positioning of two partisan communications aid in the country’s top media and information roles, it creates a concerning situation.”
“Albania is at risk of falling even further away from EU membership. The European Commission has stated that media freedom is at the heart of the rule of law. The reality for us as journalists, members of civil society, jurists and concerned citizens is that media freedom is being taken out underneath us by stealth. At the same time, the EU and other international organizations look on,” they wrote.
They have called for the cessation of plans for the MIA and the dismissal of the “anti-defamation package” to be a condition for opening EU accession talks. Additionally, for media freedom and the rule of law to be made “cast-iron criterion for measuring Albania’s progress.”
“We plead with you to use what means at your disposal to raise the issue with the Albanian government and support the media community and civil society efforts in fighting for the freedom of the media and the public’s right to information, transparency and to hold their officials accountable. Without your support, the ability to do our work and provide transparent, factual information and hold power to account becomes even less possible,” they wrote.
Other organizations that put their names behind the call include the Centre for Development and Democratisation of Institutions, Citizens Stand Organisation, Diaspora for a Free Albania, AS@N Network, and the Albanian Media Council. Two media lawyers, Dorian Matlija and Irene Dule from Res Publica and representatives from Nisma Thurje political party, also signed the letter.
Earlier this week, six Western Balkan journalism organizations under the umbrella of SafeJournalists Network made a similar plea.
On the Media and Information Agency topic, Safe Journalists voiced concerns that this will close the door to journalists, primarily investigative or critical ones, hindering media freedom in Albania.
The letter asks the EU to react and require the government and parliament to adhere to international standards and principles of media freedom, including the Copenhagen criteria for freedom of expression. These are integral parts of the EU accession process.
They also asked the EU delegation in Tirana to condemn any attempt to bring changes that could cause setbacks and deterioration of media freedom in Albania.
“Albania must ensure that European standards of freedom of expression and media are upheld.”
Reporters Without Borders then issued a press release calling for media freedom in the Western Balkans, including Albania, to be high on the agenda ahead of Wednesday’s EU-Western Balkans Summit.
RSF noted that “none of these countries has made any significant progress regarding freedom of the media. All of them saw their scores worsen in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, except Bosnia and Herzegovina, which registered a very small improvement.”
It continued, “Support for investigative and professional journalism in the Balkans is an essential remedy to help the region combat two of its leading problems – corruption and the Covid-19 pandemic. The EU should undoubtedly be more ambitious in its use of the seduction it exerts over the Western Balkans to enable the region’s citizens to have access to more reliable news and information.”