Hydroplants drive protests as journalists express concern over media freedoms

Peaceful Assembly

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, concerns over environmental issues have driven protests in Albania over the past few months. On 10th September 2018, environmental activists together with local NGOs and Albanian citizens in Tirana protested against the building of the Kalivaç hydropower plant on the Vjosa river. The decision by Albanian authorities to build the plant was met with criticism as the plans will endanger the last untouched rivers in Europe. A week later, local residents were joined by other activists to protest against the construction of another hydropower plant on the Valbona river. The construction of hydropower plants has been an issue across the Balkans, with an estimated 2,800 hydropower plants being built in Albania, Slovenia, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia. As a result, a regional environmental movement has emerged. The Balkan Rivers Tour, comprised of associations and activists from across the Balkans, mobilised as one of the largest river conservation movements in Europe. In an effort to unite activists and associations, a song titled “Blessed be the Free River” was produced to raise awareness of this issue and show solidarity. There are no reports of any of these protests being disrupted or turning violent. The song, "Blessed be the Free River" can be seen in the video below: 

In a separate development, the State’s decisions to demolish buildings has led to a number of protests. Since July 2018, citizens have staged protests in the capital, Tirana against the government's decision to demolish the historic National Theatre. The daily protests started after the government announced to redevelop the area through a public-private partnership. The plans were controversially legitimised through a Special Law adopted in June to avoid legal tender and privatisation procedures. The move caused outrage. As news about the Special Law spread, The Alliance for Protection of the Theatre was created to save the historic building. The movement quickly gained momentum and was later joined by national public figures, historians, academics and journalists. Despite pleas from major organisations and institutions, petitions and public hearings, the state insisted that the old theatre was unsafe and had little cultural value. Parliament adopted the decision that a new National Theatre will be built and while the exact demolition date is unknown, some Alliance members have vowed to block the path of demolition crews with their bodies if necessary.

Protests over the demolition of buildings has driven a number of protests in Albania lately. In November 2018, residents living in the Astir area of Tirana mobilised against proposals to demolish their homes. The Great Ring construction project, will see a new ring road built around Tirana causing local resident's homes to be demolished. As a result, the locals mobilised to ensure the government guarantee compensation for their properties. The protests drew support from political parties and continued throughout November. Some turned violent. On 22nd November 2018, residents clashed with riot police outside of the Parliament building in Tirana. The clashes left twelve police officers wounded as protesters tried to break through a police cordon. Despite tensions, Albanian authorities showed no sign of reversing their plans. 

In December 2018, students across Albania protested against a hike in tuition fees. The rising cost of higher education, has long driven unrest by Albania's student population. While the average wage in Albania is approximately €350 Euros per month, the tuition fees can go up to €2000 Euros per year. The implication of high costs of education means that many students are unable to afford university, or pushed into dire economic situations while studying. On 11th December 2018, students blocked a main highway in Tirana demanding that the government listen to their concerns. In response to the student's repeated protests, Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama reshuffled his cabinet in late December 2018. One of those to lose their post was education minister Lindita Nikolla. Despite this, protests have continued into early 2019, with students demanding that further action be taken by the government to reform education policy. In particular, protesters have called for the government to scrap Albania's Law on Higher Education which enables private institutions to draw on public funds. Students claim this has created a two-tier system in Albania, where public institutions and their students lack adequate funding. There are no reports of the protests turning violent. 

Expression

In October 2018, Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama ordered websites to be 'legalised' by registering with the tax authorities as part of an 'anti-defamation package'. The shift towards tighter regulation, came in light of accusations of two MPs allegedly protecting an accused rapist which circulated online. In response, Rama claimed Albania needed stronger regulation of online content, to stem the dissemination of unverified information. The move drew sharp condemnation from freedom of speech groups. While many agree that online media in Albania may need regulation, the order was largely viewed as a threat to independent online content. By ordering all web pages be registered with the government, some feared Rama's actions may close anonymous online spaces for dissent. The actions were also criticised for contravening international best practice standards on online content regulation which safeguard anonymous online content, as recommended by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

Soon after the announcement, Albania’s Electronic and Postal Communications Authority gave 44 websites a 72-hour deadline to register with tax officials or be shut down. The communication also failed to stipulate which law this action was sanctioned under. One those included on the government list, was the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network's (BIRN) Albania page. The targeting of a prominent anti-corruption CSO such as BIRN, stoked fears that Albanian authorities may seek to stifle and regulate critical online content. The move was also heavily criticised by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In a statement, a representative for the OSCE said: 

“States should not impose mandatory registration to online media as a precondition for their work, which can have a very negative effect on media freedom. This practice, when applied, could seriously restrict public access to diverse sources of information, the plurality of voices, and erode the right of freedom of expression and information online.”

In early, January 2019, fears were escalated after two draft laws emerged which created a registry of online publications and empower a new “Complaints Council”. Civil society groups mounted a fightback against the drafts. They stated that the plans are indicative of not only a constriction of media freedoms, but part of a broader trend of towards democratic backsliding in Albania. 

The laws come at a time when journalist have been subject to serious threats in Albania. On 3rd September 2018, a journalist covering an explosion in a bar was held at gunpoint in the northwestern Albanian town of Lac. Julian Shota, a reporter for TV channel Report TV, went to investigate the mysterious explosion and was threatened by the owner of the bar. After ordering the journalist to leave, the situation escalated after the owner threatened Shota with a pistol. The journalist left quickly unharmed. Despite an investigation, no arrests were made in connection with the incident. 

Earlier in 2018, another investigative journalist was targeted in Tirana. In August 2018, Albanian crime reporter Klodiana Lala's family home was peppered with bullets. Many viewed the incident as a warning to the journalist to stop her investigations. Given her work exposing criminal activity in Albania, Lala stated that there was no alternative but to believe the attack was related to her work. The brazen attack saw unknown assailants firing automatic rifles at the journalist's family home. In response, the journalist issued a statement, saying:

"Dear friends! I am writing on my behalf and my family’s. We are good, none of us has been injured. However, we are shocked by the event. While letting the institutions do their job, I assure you that I and my family do not have any personal conflict. I suspect that the attack comes as a result of my work as a journalist..."

An investigation into the incident was opened.