KLEMENTINA CENKOLLARI

European Commission progress report on October 19th, 2021 observes that Albania has not made progress regarding freedom of expression within the reporting period.

The two laws ‘On Audiovisual Media’ and ‘On Electronic Communications’ were severely criticized by international organizations and their revision was defined as a condition for Albania to progress on the path of integration. However, till now such laws have remained in the drawers of the Assembly.

The parliament adopted the package  on December 2019, regardless of continuous protests of the Albanian journalist community and open public criticism of the European Commission and Council of Europe. The socialist government has protected the so-called ‘anti-defamation’ package with the argument of inhibiting online media defamation and insults.

The President, Mr. Ilir Meta, returned the law for parliamentary reconsideration, considering it unconstitutional in some respects, while praising several others, such as that of the creation of an online media administrative register.

Although the left-wing majority expressed the overturn of decree, it took a step back by withdrawing from international pressure and agreed on waiting the Venice Commission to declare the law as inappropriate.

Following the Council of Europe concerns and unfavourable opinion of the Venice Commission  , representatives from the ruling majority publicly committed to ensure that any new legislation on media would be in line with the Venice Commission recommendations and submitted to consultation with media organisations. The joint working group with members of the Media Commission and Law Commission, guaranteed that the whole process would be consulted  with the EU and the Council of Europe.

‘The government reconsidered the matter and the Assembly did not revert to the issue. ‘The parliament and government resulting from the 25 April elections must uphold the commitment to ensure that any possible changes to the media law would be in line with the Venice Commission Opinion and submitted to proper consultations’ stated the progress report.

The Albanian Parliament, through its official response to Faktoje, confirmed that no new draft on the anti-defamation package has been submitted to the Assembly up to now.

Faktoje’s verification show that the decree of the President, Mr. Ilir Meta, is currently in the Assembly for reconsideration of legal amendments. It is even included in the Agenda of the Assembly  for February 2022. However, the Assembly explains that reflecting the decree of the President Meta for law reconsideration is a normal procedure, as it is carried out automatically. Such initiative concern which continue to remain in the Assembly is that future draft amendments shall be made within the framework of Article 86 of the Assembly Rules of Procedures, which states that Parliament, when reconsidering a law returned by the President, shall amend only those concerns raised by the president.

The Prime Minister’s Office didn’t answer the questions whether the government has initiated a new legal package and whether it is consulting with media actors or international institutions on possible interventions.

The latest position of Prime Minister Edi Rama concerning this issue was in October last year, where he clearly said media self-regulation was not a solution.

A representative of the majority, who refused to be identified, told ‘Faktoje’ that work has been done to review the draft in line with the Opinion of the Venice Commission, however with the termination of legislature, the process was not completed.

‘When the process resumes, it must be agreed upon as per the Venice Commission recommendations and put out for public consultation before approval’ said the representative.

On the other hand, the Member of Parliament, Mrs. Ina Zhupa, told ‘Faktoje’ that the Democratic Party supports the abolition of the anti-defamation package.

We support the complete abolition of the anti-defamation package and as one of the 15 conditions that Albania must meet toward the EU Integration. Such package would turn AMA into a censorship agency, or a court, and AKEP into an institution implementing AMA’s decisions. The Media Commission should have had in its own agenda the President’s decree repealing the law, whereas parliament has not yet included it in the commission’s agenda, suspending it accordingly. We would have voted for such a decree repealing the anti-defamation package. ‘We are committed to defending freedom of expression’ – she said.

Besides the Media Commission, the OSCE also urged on avoiding any risk of media restrictions and pressure.

 

The Office of the Representative for Freedom of the Media was asked by ‘Faktoje’ if Albanian authorities have called for amendments of the legal package.  This institution avoided an exhaustive response, however underlined the importance that any legislative process needs to be conducted in a transparent and inclusive manner, involving all relevant stakeholders.

‘The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Mrs. Teresa Ribeiro, supports the recommendations of the Venice Commission on this legislative package. During her recent visit, the authorities reconfirmed their willingness to adopt these laws in line with the recommendations. ‘She wants to emphasize that every legislative process must be conducted in a transparent manner, involving all actors, media organizations and journalists’ – was stated in the Representative Press Office response.

The EU Embassy in Tirana told ‘Faktoje’ that expects the parliament and the government commitment ensuring any possible amendment of this draft-law to be done in line with the opinion of the Venice Commission and subject to appropriate consultation with all stakeholders, including the media community. ‘Media freedom is a key priority for the EU. That’s why the EU Delegation has closely followed such matter with all the involved stakeholders and will continue to do so. On 23 February 2022, during the Stabilization and Association Parliamentary Commission, the Members of the European Parliament and the Head of Delegation Mr. Ambassador Luigi Soreca emphasized the importance of such an issue and the importance of adhering to EU standards in this regard’, stated the EU delegation in our country.

Opinion of the Venice Commission, but also earlier the OSCE reactions raised concerns over the extension of AMA powers exercising editorial control over the online media publications content.

Elvin Luku, Head of the ‘Media Look’ Centre says that the AMA itself considered impossible the monitoring of such sector.

‘The Venice Commission fundamentally abolished the anti-defamation draft-laws after proposing ‘self-regulation’ rather than administrative regulation. Such a fact is in line with almost 1-year positions held by non-profit organizations for media freedom and human rights, including Albanian MediaLook Centre being against online media market control through the Audiovisual Media Authority’ – emphasizes Luku.

He also confirms of being aware of no other roundtables or consultations following the government repealing, although the proposals and positions of interest groups are already in the Audiovisual Media Authority and the Parliamentary Media Commission.

‘We, as the Albanian MediaLook Centre, have not been contacted for new consultations’ – confirms Elvin Luku.

The Executive Director of the Albanian Media Council, Mr. Koloreto Cukali, confirmed that no request for consultation has been addressed for legislative amendments regarding the anti-defamation package.

‘The prime minister has publicly stated that he will not get back to the initiative. Foreign officials have also stated that the Prime Minister has made such promise in various bilateral meetings with EU, CoE or OSCE officials. Yet, it stands as atavism in the drawers of the Assembly. To my knowledge and even legally, such initiative has ‘expired’ and it is simply absurd why they are keeping it ‘actual’. ‘We have not been consulted about anything and we are not informed of any possible change’ – Cukali stated for ‘Faktoje’.

The Albanian Helsinki Committee (AHC), in cooperation with Embassy of Netherlands in Tirana, organized in March last year the Regional Media Conference, which brought together some of the best regional experts and journalists discussing challenges faced by media sector in the Western Balkans, including media self-regulation.

The Director of the Albanian Helsinki Committee, Mrs. Erida Skëndaj, observes that such ad-hoc regulation by law of fake or defamatory news bears premises of increasing censorship and self-censorship in our media.

‘All the challenges and difficulties that media faces, including cases of professionalism in the first line of an educational, but even disciplinary, process (media literacy), must be faced by the journalists themselves finding the right self-regulatory mechanisms’ highlighted Mrs. Skëndaj for ‘Faktoje’.

She emphasises that the point with which she does not share the same position with the Venice Commission is the tolerance left to the state reviewing the law, by listing the following reasons:

‘The political and media context of these 31 years of transition and the risk bearing by such context for media freedom, if the law (even if improved) would be implemented. Venice has not sufficiently analysed such context in its own opinion. The Venice Commission states that the principle of Audiovisual Media Authority (under whose umbrella the structure handling complaints is created) being ‘independent’ is already provided for in the existing law (Article 6). Venice draws attention to its earlier opinion on Hungarian media legislation, recommending for (anti-defamation package), Albanian context, that the membership of the media and civil society not directly linked with main political forces could be a step ahead increasing the independence of this body. However, how effectively feasible is such recommendation in the Albanian context where political polarization is considered high and consequently would create objective difficulties in the election of members by the media and civil society in the composition of this body?’ – argues Skëndaj.

Law or media self-regulation?

Media organizations and civil society representatives expressed against legislative packages drafted by the government while promoting media self-regulation.

‘I personally disagree on such a law regulating online media section due to the current situation being of our country, where the majority has extensive control over many institutions, where such a majority has AMA board according to the composition formula despite the names being chosen and with a justice system that is under the vetting pressure. Any interference by the political class would negatively affect the media climate in the country. ‘On the other hand, this does not mean that online media businesses should avoid tax liabilities and increase ‘illegal’ employment of journalists; these are a complete two different things’ – says Elvin Luku, Head of ‘Media Look’ Centre

‘Our suggestion is ruining that project and not getting back to it as a bad dream’ – insists Koloreto Cukali, Executive Director of the Albanian Media Council.

Albania needs to trigger initiatives of the community of journalists itself for media self-regulation and, in this regard, there is a need for support of international organizations and experts on media freedom identifying the best standards/practices acceptable in the political, social and economic context of our country’ – underlines Mr. Erida Skëndaj, Executive Director of AHC.

‘We support the proposals of journalists’ associations for self-regulatory policies. ‘Such package was actually a factual imposition of censorship’, emphasizes the Democratic Party MP, Mrs. Ina Zhupa.

The Office of the Representative for Freedom of the Media, Mr. Teresa Ribeiro, in her response to ‘Faktoje’ warned to closely keep monitoring any legislative interference, along with other issues important to the media and that is ready to provide support to the authorities in strengthening media environment in Albania, in line with the mandate of the Representative for Media Freedom’.