A bleak winter for freedom of expression

Expression

Despite criticism from the Council of Europe, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, international media freedom organisationsthe EU, local media and journalists organisations, on 13th December 2019 the ruling Socialist Party MPs in the Albanian Government, voted in favour of two controversial laws regulating online media. With the adoption of the Law on Audiovisual Media and the Law on Electronic Communications as proposed to the Parliament, the Albanian Media Authority and the Postal and Electronic Communications Authority would have had the power to instantly block websites if they were considered to have published fake news, defamatory content, hate speech or any content deemed to be a threat to the national interests or security. In the meantime, the bodies could also impose disproportionate fines and severe penalties for journalists with immediate effect, going against international standards and threatening freedom of expression and the freedom of the media. On 18th December 2019, both laws were adopted by Parliament.

As concerns continued, on 13th January 2020, President Ilir Meta returned the controversial media laws to Parliament for reconsideration. In particular, he highlighted that the new provisions have the potential to limit free speech

“The concerns of journalists are not being heard. There is a delicate balance between free speech and stopping hate speech. It should not be used to silence critics.” 

Meta also asked the Venice Commission for their opinion on the constitutionality of the law, after which the Albanian Government withdrew the vote from Parliament. The Venice Commission is expected to discuss the package in an accelerated procedure on 21st March 2020 and the Socialist Party will postpone the vote until after the Venice Commission has issued its opinion.

Threats to media freedom with the introduction of the new “anti-defamation” package, as well as the rise of aggressive behaviour and violent verbal attacks by political figures and representatives of the authorities against journalists, have led the Council of Europe to state that 2019 was the worst year for Albanian media freedom. The “anti-journalist rhetoric” used by both Prime Minister Edi Rama, and leader of the Democratic Party Lulzim Basha, has been condemned by both domestic and international observers. Recent examples include Prime Minister Rama calling journalists rubbish bins, “spies” and “public enemies”, and referring to the media as “captured and bought”. In addition, over the last two years, Rama and some Socialist Party high officials have filed an unprecedented 35 defamation lawsuits. While the majority of these cases are against opposition politicians, they have equally been levelled at journalists and civil society activists.

In a worrying incident, on 7th January 2020, Media Plus TV owner Kastriot Reçi was assassinated in Rrëshen (Mirditë) in unclear circumstances. Reçi was shot and killed by a sniper rifle bullet fired from around 150 metres away, after leaving a bar. The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom noted that the police statement failed to mention that Reçi is the owner of a local media company and requested an immediate, thorough and independent investigation. It is still unclear whether Reçi was assassinated as a result of his work as a journalist. 

Peaceful Assembly

On 18th December 2020, under the hashtag #MOSnaPREKfjalen (don’t censor my speech), the Albanian Media Council, along with media organisations and journalists, protested in front of the Albanian parliament in Tirana during a debate on adopting the "anti-defamation proposal" envisaging large fines to online media and increased authority for the state regulatory body. Fifteen journalists and NGOs called on the Parliament to reject the government proposal, saying that instead of dealing with false news and defamation, as the government claims, it is an attempt to capture online media and "a threat to free expression and free media in Albania".

Around 20 members of Resistenza Rinore, a student youth group, also protested outside Prime Minister Edi Rama’s office against the “anti-defamation package”. The group placed television sets on the ground, handcuffs on the screens and labels with the word “fine” emblazoned on them, in reference to the large financial penalties that can be imposed on journalists and online media portals. Protestors also tied black scarves across their mouths and carried placards with anti-censorship messages.

On 21st December 2020, Albanians massively protested against the “Mini Schengen” initiative between Balkan leaders – discussing the establishment of a free economic zone in the region – and in particular Serbia’s president Alexandar Vucic’s presence in Tirana. In two separate protests, protesters – Kosovo Albanians and representatives of the Albanian opposition – held banners denouncing Vucic’s denial of massacres committed by Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian regime in the 1990s. Some of the protesters clashed with the police. 

Protests of Albchrome miners in Bulziqe continued in 2020, taking place also in front of the PM’s office. Three miners were injured between the end of December and beginning of January. The SMBB union called on the state institutions to fully disclose the event and take necessary measures, while Albchrome reacted by confirming the incident and saying that the miners were not critically injured and that the incident was due to human error. The SMBB, which was formed in November, staged continuous protests and strikes against conditions in the mines, while demanding pay rises and a revision of labour rates.

After the Movement for University on 13th January 2020 announced the return of student protests, a week later, around 500 students protested in Tirana claiming that the government has not kept any of the promises it made during the 2018/2019 student protests. As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, 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. In January 2020, students boycotted lectures and gathered in front of the University, chanting against the government’s failure to implement the University Pact and calling for others to join the protests to demand that the government improves access to education.