Proposed legal changes put media freedom at risk

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times August 18, 2016 10:27

Proposed legal changes put media freedom at risk

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  • "The ‘improper influence’ term creates space for every kind of interpretation seeking the sentencing of journalists. A journalist can face charges even if a prosecutor describes reporting as inappropriate,” says the Union of Albanian Journalists and the Association of Albanian Professional Journalists.

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TIRANA, Aug. 18 – New legal changes that envisage prison time for journalists over “improper influence” on special prosecutors as part of a justice reform have sparked fierce reactions among associations of journalists who say the proposed changes are a blow to media freedom and democracy in the country.

In a reaction to the draft law which is being examined in Parliament following the approval of the constitutional changes last July, two associations of journalists say the “improper influence” term leaves room for journalists to face charges and prison time of up to three years.

“The ‘improper influence’ term creates space for every kind of interpretation seeking the sentencing of journalists. A journalist can face charges even if a prosecutor describes reporting as inappropriate,” says the Union of Albanian Journalists and the Association of Albanian Professional Journalists.

The draft law on the organization and functioning of institutions fighting corruption and organized crime envisages the establishment of a Special Prosecutor’s Office and a special investigation unit to investigate into corruption, organized crime and senior officials including the President, the Parliament Speaker, the Prime Minster and ministers, MPs, judges and prosecutors.

“Every king of improper influence on special prosecutors or their activity on concrete cases through public authority, the media or any other method or person influencing on the independence of prosecutors during the exercise of their duty is banned and punished by law,” says article 13 of the proposed draft law.

Journalists have called on Albanian MPs to immediately remove this regressive article from the draft law, describing it as an open threat to freedom of expression for a country aspiring to join the EU.

“The specification on the media is an open act of censorship and dangerous for democracy. It is a step backward when freedom of expression was considered agitprop,” they say.

Opposition Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha accused Prime Minister Edi Rama of behind the proposed article on journalists, warning the opposition would not allow its approval.

Last November, faced with a massive domestic and international backlash, Albania’s government withdrew a proposal to amend the country’s criminal code to make defamation against high officials a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison. The government later said criminalization of defamation was not targeted at the media but rather political representatives.

While the constitutional changes unanimously approved last July have already entered into force, the justice reform implementation requires the approval of seven organic laws, the first of which a law that will vet all current judges and prosecutors.

Earlier this week, President Bujar Nishani postponed drawing lots for the selection of members of the Justice Appointments Council, a body that will vets candidates for the Senior Justice Inspector post and members of the Constitutional Court, until a vetting law has been approved.

Last July, Albanian MPs unanimously approved a long-awaited justice reform that is expected to reform the country’s highly perceived corrupt judiciary and pave the way for the country to launch EU accession talks.

Albania made no progress in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders when it ranked 82nd out of 179 countries, lagging behind Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina among regional EU aspirant countries.

“Better implementation of legislation guaranteeing freedom of expression is needed. Defamation has been punishable by fines rather than imprisonment since 2012. Despite the freedom of information laws adopted in 1999 and 2014, access to state-held information continues to be limited and the broadcast media regulatory authority, the AMA, is politicized,” said the Paris-based international media watchdog.

Freedom House describes Albania’s media as partly free.

“The media are vigorous and fairly diverse. However, outlets often display a strong political bias, and their reporting is influenced by the economic or political interests of their owners,” the watchdog said in its 2015 report.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times August 18, 2016 10:27