Socialist Party Plans to Limit Internet Freedom

A few days ago in the Commission for Electoral Reform, the Socialist Party (PS) has proposed an amendment to the Electoral Code forcing all online media “portals” to register at the Media Monitoring Board before the 2017 elections. In case such website wouldn’t register within a set deadline, the government would have the right to close it during the electoral campaign. This would also imply website hosted on servers outside Albania.

It seems that the initiative of the PS has been motivated by the many recent attacks on Prime Minister Rama and his government by online media. In his Sunday monologues, the Prime Minister has often calls journalists working for such media outlets, “failed politicians who are full of hatred and who take revenge for their own failure from studio to studio, website to website, donning the mask of an analyst.”

Contrary to Rama’s declarations, the findings in the OSCE-ODIHR report about the 2015 elections have been clear about the role of online media in Albania, which it qualified as independent and the only positive aspect of the Albanian media landscape during the elections:

Despite the large number of media outlets, their affiliation with the main political parties, resulting from media owners’ business interests, causes direct interference in editorial autonomy, selfcensorship, and limits pluralism of viewpoints. In addition, the media’s dependence on revenue from public tenders and state advertising undermines the media’s responsibility to scrutinize those in power. The public service broadcaster, Albanian Radio and Television (RTSh), is widely considered to support the government, contributing to a lack of independent news on television. Further, the influence of political parties on the agenda set by the media leaves limited space for less politicized matters of public importance. However, there is no interference with Internet freedom, and online news increasingly contributes to pluralism, given its greater editorial autonomy and space for alternative views.

In the same line, the role of the Media Monitoring Board (MMB) and the Audiovisual Media Authority (AMA) are severely criticized:

Although the provisions cover all broadcasters with nationwide and regional coverage, the MMB lacked staff, equipment, and methodology to effectively monitor the high number of broadcasters or the tone of the coverage. […]

The broadcasting supervisory body, the Audiovisual Media Authority (AMA), does not conduct quantitative and qualitative content monitoring on the coverage of political actors between elections. Furthermore, the OSCE/ODIHR EOM media interlocutors criticized AMA’s lack of political independence.

Recently OSCE ambassador Bernd Borchardt urged the Albanian government to pass its recommendation in the field of media.

The main issue with the amendment proposed by the PS, however, is the fact that “online media portal” remains completely undefined. It is unclear at which point the personal opinion of a citizen expressed on “social media,” a “blog,” a “website,” or any other format, can be considered a “portal.”

Moreover, the fact that the government intends to extend its jurisdiction across websites formally hosted on foreign servers, theoretically implies every single media outlet worldwide covering any aspect of the Albanian elections, as the definition of “Albanian” media can no longer be grounded in territoriality.

Hence, the amendment opens the door to Turkey-style media “blackouts,” in which social media, news websites, and every other source of information in between can be called “portal” and subsequently blocked at the will of the government.