The European Commission has said it will not require Albania to withdraw plans for a controversial law that would bring all online media under state supervision in order to open EU accession negotiations.
There have been four recent calls on the European Commission to intervenes. They came from six Western Balkan journalism organisations, a coalition of Albanian journalists and lawyers, Reporters Without Borders, and a group of other international media organisations.
Concerns include a proposed “anti-defamation package”, establishing a centralised Media and Information Agency, and long-time communication aides of Prime Minister Edi Rama being put into media supervisory roles.
Each group requested that the Commission act on the situation, noting that media freedom is a cornerstone of Albania’s accession process.
EC reaffirms commitment to freedom of expression
Responding to questions sent by Exit.al, partnering with EURACTIV.com, a Commission spokesperson said that “the European Union attaches the greatest importance to freedom of expression and media freedom. Respect of these rights is a key part of accession criteria, which is continuously assessed throughout the accession process”.
Asked if withdrawing the package from parliament would be a condition for accession talks, the spokesperson said: “The EU has strongly recommended that any possible changes to media law should be in line with Venice Commission opinion and European standards and would give rise to proper consultation with media organisations.”
But the spokesperson also clarified that amendments to the media law are not conditions for the first intergovernmental conference, which formally marks the start of accession talks.
Albania has been an EU candidate since 2014 but has yet to open membership talks.
Worsening media climate
The “anti-defamation package”, tabled in 2018, contains provisions that would bring all online media under the supervision of the state’s Albanian Audiovisual Authority (AMA).
AMA could levy significant fines, order retractions and corrective popups, and suspend access to sites it deems publish fake news or defamation.
Rama said it would curtail disinformation and fake news from a growing number of online media platforms. Media stakeholders said it would stifle criticism and investigations into government corruption.
The package was reviewed by the EU, Council of Europe, OSCE and the Venice Commission (VC). The VC made several recommendations, including removing vague language that could “have a chilling effect suppressing free discussion and political speech.”
The VC was clear that self-regulation was preferred but any state-appointed body must be independent and non-partisan. They suggested the government reconsider adopting the package as it “may do more harm than good to the freedom of expression”.
The latest version of the package, passed by parliament last December, failed to meet the VC recommendations. President Ilir Meta returned it to parliament – in which opposition deputies resigned their mandate in 2019 – earlier this year.
The package is still on parliament’s agenda and requires a simple majority, which the government have, for it to become law.
Swedish EU lawmaker David Lega was surprised to learn that the ‘anti-defamation package’ was still on the agenda.
“The EU has been crystal clear: the media law must be in line with Venice Commission recommendations before it could come into consideration,” he said on Twitter.
⁉️ Surprised to learn that the (heavily criticised) amendments to the #Albanian #MediaLaw are once again on the agenda of the 🇦🇱Parliament.
The EU has been crystal clear: the media law must be in line with Venice Commission recommendations before it could come into consideration!
— David Lega (@DavidLega) October 11, 2021
In June, parliament, once again without opposition, elected Armela Krasniqi, a former-Rama communications chief, as chair of AMA’s board. This was done despite calls from the EU to wait until a more balanced parliament commenced in September
The first decision of the Rama government, whose third mandate started in September, was to establish the Media and Information Agency (MIA). It would centralise all government communications, including ministries and ministers, through one entity, which would be headed by Endri Fuga, Rama’s long-time communications adviser.
The MIA would provide information on government activities and respond to questions from journalists. Additionally, it would monitor all media and social media for public opinion on the government.
Greece moves to limit online media
Tendencies to introduce some control over the media are increasingly common. Across the border in Greece, the conservative government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis has proposed amendments to the Civil Code, introducing fines and prison time for journalists found guilty of publishing “fake news”.
It was condemned by The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFFR), a pan-European mechanism that tracks media violations, who urged the Greek government to reconsider.
“We believe the draft law’s vague definition and punitive sanctions would undermine the freedom of the press and have a chilling effect at a time when independent journalism is already under pressure in Greece”, the MFFR said in a statement.
Meanwhile, in Albania, Rama sparked controversy at the OSCE South East Europe Media Conference in Tirana on Monday (11 October), when he called for greater regulation of online media and compared them to Nazi propaganda.
He added that counterattacks against media that criticise are dangerous because “you’re immediately labelled as going against freedom blah blah blah.”
Meanwhile, the European Commission spokesperson told exit that “the European Union is following this issue very closely. We urge the Albanian authorities to ensure the media’s direct and transparent access to governmental institutions and their activities as well as to non-partisan public information.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]