Poor resilience to misinformation sparks concern amid COVID-19

Expression

According to the Media Literacy Index 2019, Albania has one of the “lowest resilience potential to deal with misinformation and its effects as they are trailing behind with problems in media freedom”. The low level of media literacy raises concerns especially after the declaration of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and misinformation surrounding the spread of the virus. In relation to this, the Tirana prosecutor's office has launched an investigation into the dissemination of false information in the media on the grounds that it is a criminal offence of "spreading false information that causes panic". This investigation could also be extended to the general public due to the sensitivity to the spread of COVID-19.

Yet, the moves to restrict information has sparked concern among Albanian civil society. On 12th March 2020, a group of media organisations condemned the Albanian government's handling of information related to the COVID-19 outbreak. They said the government has "monopolised information" by only releasing updates via social media live stream and through closed press conferences. Similarly, government websites and social media platforms are not updated in real time, leading to a lack of accurate information on the spread of the virus. This approach makes it challenging for journalists and media outlets to scrutinise the government's actions or seek answers and information to combat fake news. In a statement, the group of media organisations said: 

“The government has failed to communicate the situation day after day. If there are Albanians who still believe that “we won’t get the virus” this is a direct consequence of the government’s media communication strategy in recent weeks.”

Journalists have also condemned a text message sent to Albanian mobile users from the prime minister, where he advised people to protect themselves from the coronavirus and the media. Many onlookers have expressed concern that the COVID-19 crisis is being used as a pretext to target outlets and journalists with a track record of holding the government to account. This approach contradicts the numerous international bodies and international CSOs who have called upon states to respect the crucial role of media during the time of global crisis. 

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, authorities in Albania recently proposed worrying new legislation to regulate media in the country. After the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli visited Tirana, alongside a concerted campaign by both international and local media watchdogs, the Prime Minister, Edi Rama, postponed the adoption of media laws. Critics of the bill say that the new measures would have muzzled critical voices online and needed revision. However, others fear that without pressure from the international community, similar laws may be proposed again which seek to curtail media freedom in the country.

In a separate incident in February 2020, the Mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, was accused by the Board of Directors of RTV Ora and OraNews for “intimidating, threatening and blackmailing journalists, as well as smearing the station’s reputation”. Veliaj is alleged to have demanded that certain be journalists fired and links to critical articles be deleted. The Boards stated they have evidence of the mayor's actions and stated that it is a “shocking case of violation of media freedom and freedom of expression in Albania”.

While covering a story about the Salillari construction company, which carried out work despite COVID-19, a journalist from Ora News was attacked by an employee of the company. Journalists arrived on the scene to film employees of Salillari continuing their work despite the restrictions, when the cameraman was accosted by one of the construction workers who verbally abused them. As a response, the media company called on the authorities to react as “the threat to the journalist is unacceptable.” Footage of the confrontation can be seen below. 

Association

On 5th March 2020 the controversial Anti-Corruption Package was passed by the Albanian Parliament despite reactions from rights activists, journalists and members of civil society. This new legislation introduces provisions granting the government the power to intercept any citizens phone calls or communications without prior authorisation. Furthermore, the police are given the power to detain, restrict movement, seize assets, surveil, and tap without a court order, or a prosecutor’s authorisation. However, weeks after Parliament passed the package the President Meta refused to approve the law because it violates human rights. The bill was subsequently returned to the Albanian Parliament for further scrutiny.

Peaceful Assembly

As a result of the spread of COVID-19, on 9th March 2020 the Minister for Health and the government decided to close public activities, among including gatherings and rallies, in order to protect public health. Prior to this blanket ban, several protests took place without incident. Below are some examples: 

  • After a two-year struggle and protests, the government halted negotiations with a private investor regarding a project which would see the demolition of the National Theatre building which would be replaced with high rise flats. The director of the theatre said that this was just one battle in a bigger war, but it is an accomplishment that the protests have succeeded in protecting the city's heritage.
  • Activists held a protest in front in the Education Ministry in response to a rise in incidents of violence and sexual violence in schools. The protestors called on the ministry to take action to stop such incidents and to establish a mechanism to punish those who are found guilty of abuse by suspending their licences and banning them from practising as teachers.
  • Workers from the pumping station and electrical substation in Poçem town held a hunger strike in order to protest that they have not received their wages in 27 months. Six out of sixteen workers who supply the city of Ballsh with electricity and drinking water also participated in the strike, after months of protests that have been ignored. The strike could leave the area without electricity, thus showing the importance of these workers, who despite not being paid have continued to work and provide the community with utilities.
  • Thousands of Albanians have taken to the main boulevard of Tirana to protest the string of Constitutional violations that some say the government is using to consolidate power and execute a “coup d’etat”. There were around 1000 police officers that monitored the protest. It lasted for 90 minutes and there were no reported incidents of unrest or violence.