Unending protests unleash alarming violence as protesters spray buildings black

Peaceful Assembly

Opposition anti-government protests continued throughout the spring of 2019. Event organisers and political opposition claimed that Albanian citizens have never been more dissatisfied with the government in the nation's history. On 16th March 2019, the country saw its largest protest in Tirana where protesters symbolically surrounded the prime minister's office and then proceeded to parliament.  

But as tensions rose, clashes broke out between protesters and Albanian authorities. A group of protesters jumped over the metal barricade outside the parliament building in Tirana and started throwing stones at the police cordon. Soon after a group of protesters attempted to force their way into Albania's parliament building, prompting Albanian security forces to fire tear gas and water cannon to disperse the crowds. Questions were quickly asked of the Albanian authorities' use of excessive force. In particular, eye witnesses condemned the indiscriminate use of tear gas which injured several participants including a small child and an elderly woman. Several journalists were also caught up in the confrontation, with one reported to have fainted due to exposure to tear gas, and several others were later treated in hospital for injuries sustained during the clashes. Reports also noted that seventeen police officers were injured during the confrontation.

A day after the protest, police arrested 14 people for violence during the rally. Similarly, Albanian youth organised an additional silent and peaceful protest in solidarity with one of the children who was caught up in the clashes and suffered injuries from the tear gas. Albania's Prime Minister, Edi Rama referred to the protest as “political chaos” and once again rejected the protesters' demands for his resignation. Instead, he blamed the opposition political parties in Albania and accused them of being Russian agents

Despite the violence, the protests in Tirana continued in the following weeks. In a tense atmosphere, the assemblies took place at the same time as plenary Parliamentary sessions. After the clashes in mid-March 2019, Albanian security forces took additional security measures, by placing a metal fence in front of the building to stop protesters from storming the Parliament. 

On 28th March 2019, which marked the seventh anti-government protest in the course of 40 days, protesters sprayed the Ministry of Interior with black ink. Once again protests turned violent as protesters clashed with police. Despite the widespread unrest, Prime Minister Rama announced that local elections would take place on 30th July 2019, without the participation of all opposition parties, who earlier in February 2019 relinquished their places in parliament to protest corruption in Rama's ruling party. 

The third biggest protest, with over 200,000 thousands of citizens from all parts of Albania, took place on 13th April 2019 in Tirana. Unfortunately, once again the protest was marred by violence, which erupted after protesters threw molotov cocktails at police and Albanian security forces responded by using water cannons and tear gas to disperse the crowds. A car was torched as the protesters broke through the police line in another attempt to enter the parliament building. Some rumoured that Albanian security forces deliberately burnt the car to justify the use of tear gas, yet these reports are unconfirmed and subject to speculation. Dozens of people were reported to have been injured in the chaos. Footage from the protest can be viewed below. 

International organisations criticised the Albanian security forces for the use of disproportionate violence. In particular, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the targeting of journalists who were simply reporting on the protests. The organisation mentioned, Eliza Gjediku, a reporter for local TV station Tema TV, who was hospitalised after exposure to tear gas. The organisation also highlighted that several other journalists were also injured in the clashes. 

In a separate incident, on 8th April 2019, residents of the “Bregu i Lumit” area in Tirana protested against the government’s attempt to demolish their homes and build a new boulevard. During the protest, police used of tear gas to force residents out of their homes. The scenes of residents fleeing prompted President Ilir Meta to condemn the actions of the Albanian police as brutal and unprofessional.

Expression

Journalists in Albania face an increasingly dangerous environment when reporting on politically sensitive issues such as corruption. Journalists have been targeted in coordinated smear and disinformation campaigns, have lost their jobs, had live broadcasts stopped, and even been threatened with semi-automatic weapons. This is particularly true for journalists working on corruption scandals linked to the government. 

In one example, in March 2019 a journalist received a death threat during a live TV show. Basir Çollaku gained prominence for his work exposing the Albanian-Italian mafia cartel who were responsible for trafficking drugs, guns and weapons through Albania. The journalist also found a connection between the cartel and the ex-Minister of Interior Saimir Tahiri. During the phone-in TV show, the caller warned Çollaku that he must stop appearing on TV shows to talk about “drugs” otherwise he will “get a bullet behind his ear”. The journalist later contacted the police to investigate the incident. 

In an unrelated case, on 30th March 2019, Kastriot Çipi, a longstanding activist and advocate for the preservation of The National Theatre,  announced his intention to take legal action against the Mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, 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 the redevelopment of 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. Recently the Mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, made slanderous statements against Kastriot Çipi on national television against Çipi, calling him a “thief”, “defendant”, “criminal”. The incident has become emblematic of a situation in Albania where anyone who questions government decisions runs the risk of public vilification campaigns by officials. 

In another incident highlighting this trend, on 16th April 2019, the General Prosecutor Arta Marku’s bodyguards grabbed and pushed journalist Renaldo Salianji after he asked a question of the General Prosecutor. Prompted by the incident, a group of journalists gathered in front of the General Prosecutor's Office to protest against the violence towards journalists, saying they feel threatened or intimidated for simply doing their job. The journalists demanded that the brazen and unpunished threats against media workers need to stop. Footage of the confrontation between Salianji and the bodyguard can be viewed below.