Tirana witnesses violent protests as anger spills onto the streets

Peaceful Assembly 

For over thirty-five days in early January 2019, despite the freezing temperatures, students protested in Tirana for better living and studying conditions. Classes were boycotted while students waited for Prime Minister Edi Rama to answer to their demands, including the full withdrawal of the 2015 Law on High Education. The controversial law has been widely criticised since inception for increasing the tuition fees of students who attend public universities. Rather than conceding to their demands, police surrounded the university faculties, forcibly evicted protesters and used violence to disperse gatherings. In response,Tirana university professors held a one-day strike in support of student protests and in opposition to government decisions which violate the autonomy of higher education.

On 16th February 2019, an estimated one hundred thousand protesters joined the anti-government protest in Tirana. The 5-hour protest escalated as protesters broke the police cordon and attacked the Government building, breaking windows and doors. Eye-witness reports noted that protesters threw smoke bombs, Molotov cocktails and other heavy objects at the building. In an attempt to quell the protests, over three thousand police officers and special forces used water cannon and tear gas to stop people from entering the building, and snipers were deployed to surrounding rooftops. Seventeen people were injured, including protesters, policemen and journalists from the national ABC TV covering the protest. The ferocity of the protest drew international attention to Albania. Albania's President Ilir Meta, the EU ambassadors, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other foreign diplomats in Tirana urged both protesters and the state to refrain from violence. Despite the extraordinary scenes of unrest, PM Rama openly stated that he would not consider resigning and there would be no unplanned parliamentary elections in Albania.

The wave of protests continued for several months. While some were peaceful, others turned violent with protesters throwing objects at the police and riot police using teargas to disperse protesters. The OSCE reacted by condemning the acts of violence during these assemblies. A statement by the organisation said: 

"Violence is not the answer to Albania's problems. We again condemn the political incitement of violence and call for restraint and responsibility. Protesting is a democratic act, but burning tyres, using various objects and breaking through the police cordon to attack a public institution, especially in the heart of democracy, is not." 

On 5th March 2019, Albanian media reported that Tirana was practically under police siege. While thousands of demonstrators surrounded the Parliament burning tyres in front of the building and shouting “Rama, leave!”, numerous police blocked pedestrians and citizens from walking freely around the area.

In response to the wave of unrest, the European Union (EU) High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security Federica Mogherini and EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Johannes Hahn called for a dialogue between the government and opposition political parties. Although they stressed that peaceful assemblies are a fundamental human right, they also condemned the acts of violence and the statements by political leaders which incited violence during protests. 

Amid these volatile and sustained protests, on 10th February 2019, a silent rally took place in support of Albania’s physically and emotionally violated girls and women in Tirana. The protest was a reaction to the shocking case of the group rape of an underage girl in Kavaja. The 13-year old was sexually abused by fellow students and minors in a Kavaja elementary school who then blackmailed the victim. The protests gathered hundreds of parents, university and high school students onto the streets in solidarity. No evidence was found of this protest being disrupted. 

In a positive development, after months of protesting against the construction of hydro power plants on the rivers in Albania (and the region), the newly appointed Albanian Minister of Energy and Infrastructure Belinda Baluku said that the construction of new hydropower plants will be stopped, and launched a comprehensive investigation and analysis. As previously reported in the CIVICUS Monitor, the plans drew widespread condemnation from civil society and spurred a number of protests in late 2018. 

Expression

Media freedom in Albania was recently in the spotlight after the publication of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) annual Press Freedom Index. Albania's 2019 rating in the international index fell 7 places from 75 in 2018 to 82 in 2019. RSF highlighted a variety of obstacles faced by Albanian media, stating that regulatory standards are manipulated in favour of the government and that the majority of media platforms are owned by a relatively small group of businesspeople with clear political agendas. 

It also recognised that 80% of journalists have no confidence in their professional future and those who continue to pursue their work are often targeted with abuse from Albanian public officials, including the Prime Minister himself. Previous slurs have seen Albania's Prime Minister, Edi Rama calling journalists “trash”, “poison” and “public enemies”. In a recent example, in early January 2019 Rama attacked Voice of America after an investigation into alleged political hiring in Albania's prison system. The prime minister accused the outlet of broadcasting “from the garbage bin” after the outlet published the exposé implicating MPs from his party in the corruption scandal.

As previously reported in the CIVICUS Monitor, threats and smears against journalists in Albania remain a serious concern. But these attacks are not exclusively reserved for Albanian journalists. In March 2019, a British journalist living in Tirana found herself in the crosshairs of government aggression. Alice Elizabeth Taylor, was subjected to a barrage of vicious written attacks after giving a statement to a Russian outlet regarding the ongoing protests in Albania. In a statement, the Council of Europe expanded on the specifics of the case: 

"Alice Taylor recently wrote about vote rigging, violence at protests and the government’s links to organised crime and money laundering. Asked to comment about the state of corruption in Albania and the current developments in the country, Alice Taylor said to Russia Today that allegations of corruption can easily be documented with evidence showing links between the current government, organised crime, money laundering and drug trafficking. In her statement, she also questioned the fairness of the 2017 elections which confirmed Edi Rama as Prime Minister for a second term."

The journalist was met with a torrent of misinformation from pro-government sources including accusations that Taylor's partner is on the payroll of the political opposition, that she is a paid agent of Russia and is working to undermine Albanian democracy. None of the allegations is true. In addition, the Albanian government also refused to renew her residency permit, which was broadly perceived as a retaliation for her remarks. 

In addition to this case, concerns over freedom of the press have been growing in the country following Edi Rama’s announcement of the “Anti-Slander Legislative Package”. The plans involve proposed changes to the laws regulating electronic communication and audio-visual media in the country. The draft will essentially bring every blog, news website and media platform under the control of the government as all media outlets will be forced to register with the authorities or face being shut down at the discretion of the government. The plans have been widely condemned by local and international journalists and media organisations. All media freedom groups have demanded the withdrawal of the proposed laws, which were harshly criticised as a threat to democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of expression.