HomeBeyondWhat did the U.S. State Department and Reporters Without Borders find about freedom of expression in Albania?

What did the U.S. State Department and Reporters Without Borders find about freedom of expression in Albania?

On May 3rd, World Press Freedom Day, reports indicated a worsening situation for freedom of expression and journalist independence in Albania. The country dropped from 96th to 99th place among 180 countries in the media freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders. These findings are corroborated by the U.S. State Department, which highlighted conflicts of interest between business and politics, a weak legal framework, and violence against journalists. This situation underscores the challenges facing Albania, an EU candidate country that ranks last in Europe for press and media freedom. Here are the findings from both reports and their analysis by a legal expert.

Viola Keta

Recent reports from the U.S. State Department (DOS) and Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontiers) agree on the troubling state of media freedom in Albania.

Press and Media Freedom according to RSF

On World Press Freedom Day, RSF published indicators showing a decline in Albania’s media freedom index for 2024.

RSF emphasizes that press freedom and media independence are at risk due to conflicts of interest between the business and political worlds, a deficient legal framework, and partisan influence. Journalists are often victims of political actors and organized crime. The situation is detailed through six key aspects:

Media Climate The most influential private media outlets in Albania are owned by a few companies with political connections in important sectors such as construction. While there are hundreds of online media outlets, only a small number have a sustainable business model with transparent funding.

Political Context Journalists face political pressure, especially during elections. Politicians limit editorial independence by politicizing media oversight bodies and appointing leaders of public media. Critical journalists often become targets of attacks from both the government and the opposition. They struggle to access information from state institutions, which may be further restricted by new government communication centralization measures.

Legal Framework Although Albania’s Constitution and international legal commitments guarantee press freedom, the protection of source confidentiality is insufficient. This was evident in the 2023 seizure of investigative journalist Elton Qyno’s materials. Following a controversial prosecutor’s decision, media were banned from reporting on the consequences of a 2022 cyberattack on state institutions.

Economic Context A large portion of the Albanian media market is controlled by just four or five companies.  State funding is a major source of income for the media, but its opaque and discriminatory distribution raises concerns about concentrated influence.

Sociocultural Context Journalists investigating corruption are especially targeted. Female journalists, who constitute the majority of professionals in this field, face online threats and, in some cases, gender discrimination within newsrooms (although there has been some progress in this area).

Self-censorship is widespread; however, the media have established a platform for ethical self-regulation, the first of its kind in Albania.

Journalist Safety Reporters covering demonstrations and police operations are sometimes victims of police violence.  Organized crime poses one of the greatest threats to journalist safety. Although the police have recently taken steps to investigate attacks on journalists, the impunity for these crimes, combined with political efforts to discredit journalists, creates a climate that encourages further attacks.

Findings of the U.S. State Department on Freedom of Expression

A few days before the RSF report was published, the U.S. State Department’s findings on human rights highlighted in the first paragraph:

‘Key human rights issues include serious problems with the independence and integrity of the judiciary; corruption in government, law enforcement, and municipal institutions; and the lack of an independent media.’

Although the report notes that the government generally respects freedom of expression as provided in Albania’s Constitution, it emphasizes that defamation is considered a crime. Citing independent media organizations and professional journalists, the report highlights: ‘There are credible reports that key media representatives use their platforms to extort businesses by threatening negative coverage. Meanwhile, political pressure, corruption, and lack of funding have limited the independence of print media, and journalists are reportedly self-censoring.’

The lack of employment contracts for journalists has reduced their independence and affected the quality of reporting, the U.S. State Department notes, based on confirmation from the Union of Albanian Journalists that journalists at least eight television stations receive delayed salaries, with delays extending up to five months. Financial problems, according to the report, have driven journalists to seek other sources of income, which raises questions about the independence and integrity of their reporting.

Restrictions and Pressures:

DOS highlights that openly criticizing the government can lead to consequences. The report states “Politicians exploit the media to spread false news about their rivals and critics.

Threats and Violence:

The assault on journalist Elvis Hila from Report TV and his spouse in Lezha (January 2023) is cited in the report as one of the instances of threats and violence against journalists. Moreover, it recounts an incident labeled as a terrorist act by media outlet Top Channel and several organizations (March 2023), where unidentified individuals fired upon the national broadcaster’s premises, resulting in the death of a security guard.

Restrictions and (Self) Censorship:

Journalists often self-censor to avoid violence and threats or to preserve their jobs, according to DOS, citing the National Media Freedom Barometer for 2021. This source indicates that 45.5 percent of surveyed journalists admitted to being asked not to publish certain stories, while 45 percent confessed to practicing self-censorship.

Legal Framework:

Laws criminalizing defamation and slander are in effect, allowing individuals to bring criminal charges and seek financial compensation for defamation or the intentional dissemination of false information, reports DOS. It references civil society organizations which argue that the fines imposed are severe and impede freedom of expression. As of October 2023, out of 12 cases initiated against journalists, 8 were related to defamation, the report reveals.

Journalists’ Freedom under the Expert’s Scrutiny

The findings of two reports analyzed by Faktoje (DOS’s 2023 Human Rights Report and Reporters Without Borders’ 2024 Press Freedom Index) agree that the situation regarding journalists’ safety is alarming, and the legal framework concerning freedom of expression is flawed.

How does this situation translate into the language of a legal expert familiar with journalists’ issues and the legal framework in Albania?

Faktoje sought comments from lawyer Dorian Matlia, who emphasizes:

‘Journalists face various types of attacks; there are physical assaults, legal threats through lawsuits, and criminal accusations. Institutions sometimes go as far as breaching journalists’ source confidentiality. We’ve seen cases where journalists are physically attacked with no law enforcement investigation, or where they are sued for substantial sums in criminal cases, not just risking a fine but also a criminal record, which is highly damaging. Journalists are being used against each other to tarnish their reputations.

Initiative for the Decriminalization of Defamation

Currently, the Penal Code, which includes defamation, is on the brink of public consultation. Matlia emphasizes that this phase is crucial for freedom of expression and, primarily, for mitigating the position of journalists, as recommended by various international organizations.

Firstly, the proposal entails the complete decriminalization of defamation and insult, meaning these two offenses would be removed from the Penal Code.

Secondly, the Penal Code could specify definitively that assaults on journalists are considered attacks due to their duties. Thus, the prosecution would treat such cases more seriously than personal assaults.

Thirdly, there is a need for legal intervention to establish a mechanism to protect against abusive lawsuits. These frivolous lawsuits force journalists to spend time, nerves, money, and ultimately exhaust all these resources to avoid doing their jobs. These are known as “SLAPP” lawsuits. There is already a directive from the European Union that is mandatory for member states, as well as those aspiring to become members in the future. This requires an intervention in the civil procedure code.

Who defends journalists?

In situations where key international bodies reflect concerning data, especially regarding journalists’ safety, the question arises: who protects them? Matlia responds: ‘Journalists are often at the mercy of fate, particularly in choosing their own defense. They are not protected by media owners and lack the financial means to hire expensive lawyers. Primarily, their defense has been self-conducted or organized through non-profit organizations that offer this assistance for free. However, there is at least a growing awareness among judges who have received proper training from the Council of Europe, aimed at improving the quality of their decisions. So, there is a possibility to improve assistance for journalists, but we are still far from instilling self-assurance among journalists. Journalists themselves should be better organized within their professional associations, but this is not yet happening.’


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