Journalists in protest against gov’t passing ‘anti-libel’ law

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times December 20, 2019 12:02

Journalists in protest against gov’t passing ‘anti-libel’ law

Story Highlights

  • In a joint statement, on behalf of some media organizations, the government was requested to withdraw the two bills submitted by it from the parliamentary procedure, stressing that "there can be no administrative regulation regime for online media, but such regimes are acceptable but not mandatory only for audiovisual media" and that “an administrative institution such as the AMA (Audiovisual Media Authority) cannot substitute courts for reviewing complaints against the content of a publication.”

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TIRANA, Dec. 17 – The Socialist majority approved on Wednesday its anti-libel draft law with 82 parliament votes in favor. 

Thirteen MPs voted against, five abstained and five of them did not vote.

Dozens of journalists, representatives of various media organizations, as well as representatives of civil society and political parties gathered in front of parliament on the same day to protest the so-called ‘anti-libel package.’ 

They wore black scarves in their mouths and slogans like “Don’t touch our word” and “Rama, you can’t shut our mouths.” 

In a joint statement, on behalf of some media organizations, the government was requested to withdraw  the two bills submitted by it from the parliamentary procedure, stressing that “there can be no administrative regulation regime for online media, but such regimes are acceptable but not mandatory only for audiovisual media” and that “an administrative institution such as the AMA (Audiovisual Media Authority) cannot substitute courts for reviewing complaints against the content of a publication.”

Journalists said the government is setting up censorship institutions and is trying to crack down on free speech. But the Socialists claim that they are trying to regulate the online media market and avoid fake news.

While the Socialist-majority was in parliament discussing the anti-libel package, reporters outside protesting in unison 

The head of the Union of Journalists Aleksander Cipa said that “with the new laws, the Rama government is setting up a censorship agency, so journalists are very concerned.”

For his part, Prime Minister Edi Rama, in a speech held in parliament, rejected any claim that the legal changes are intended to affect freedom of speech.

“This is a matter of restricting the liberty to slander by bringing charges that are criminal. But it cannot happen for someone to be criminally charged and not to be held accountable. They should take it on themselves, minimally, to remove an article that they cannot prove,” Rama said, adding that “there will be no shutting down of portals. Whoever says this is a liar and has not read the law. If there is one element that has not been part of the discussion at the outset, it is the right to close down every second any portal that features pedophilia, terrorism and a threat to national security.”

Rama in addition said that “the law is 100 percent in line with international standards. This is 100 percent confirmed in paper by the institution designated to follow this process, which is the OSCE.”

Ironizing journalists who were protesting in front of parliament, Rama said that “whether or not the organizations, the heroes who have gathered there, want it, this law will pass today and it will give a simple instrument to every individual coming out of the house who eats a muddy sludge the right to go and ask not to continue having it thrown at him.”

Meanwhile, journalist Mimoza Kociu says that “all journalists are united, as rarely as ever, in the face of the great danger posed by the government’s legal package.” 

Renowned crime chronicle journalist Klodiana Lala said that “the law will also censor journalists reporting news of corruption and criminality.” 

BIRN investigative network journalist Gjergj Erebara says that “Albanian organizations in protest are only demanding European and international standards of freedom of expression, which the government violates with current laws.” 

The representative of the Albanian Media Council Koloreto Cukali said the government is trying to silence journalists with a paradoxical law that either brings censorship or self-censorship. 

The head of the Shqiptare newspaper Erl Murati said that “the government’s anti-libel package is unnecessary because the laws for this already exist and continue to punish people for libel.” Researcher Elvin Luku said that “resolving this press conflict with the government is the self-regulation of the media community.”

The draft law of the government package, dubbed ‘anti-defamation’ or ‘anti-libel’, were drafted a year ago and for many months sparked widespread debate among the socialist majority and media representatives, including international institutions.

 

Int’l organizations say gov’t has not taken criticism into consideration 

Since last week, local media contacted media freedom experts about the impact this package might have on the media environment in Albania and the possibility of censorship of free speech by the government.

Various international organizations and Albanian journalists have long expressed concern about the strengthening of anti-libel laws, seeing it as an opportunity for the government to censor free speech and criticize it.

“Unfortunately I do not see any indication that the government has taken into consideration the concerns expressed by international organizations and it is very likely that the package will be approved. We will continue to monitor not only the legislative process in Albania but also the future impact of this law on the media environment in Albania, where journalists are already facing very serious challenges while covering controversial issues such as corruption and domestic politics,” said Gulnoza Said, program leader for Europe at the Committee to Protect Journalists based in New York.

IREX Vice President Alexander Dardeli says Albania is not alone in dealing with fake news and must look at the problem’s broader picture.

“It is not the time to rush and introduce censorship tools to control fake news and to control press freedom and freedom of speech. The best thing the Albanian government can do is to create an environment where the media has the ability to generate sustainable business income that serves as the fuel of business to create good ideas and good content. Without sustainable media there will be no good information,” he said. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists said that in many cases fake news is used as a pretext by governments to control the free flow of information and that this includes some countries with democratic traditions.

“Our principled position is that the government should not interfere with the way the media operates in the country,” Said said. 

She added that only when media is not economically sustainable it cannot operate in a natural way. 

“The classic Western world experience lies in the commitment of the courts to deal with libel, with the infringement of a person’s image and elements of this nature, not of agencies directly controlled by state administrative bodies, such as in Albania’s case,” Dardeli said. 

He added the government should reflect on and change the amendments it is trying to adopt now. 

“Good information is something that the Albanian government should promote, instead of focusing on preventing fake news. The battle with individual fake news will always lose. It should focus on good information and critical citizen skills to process information – invest in education, critical thinking, starting from children to young people,” he said. 

Although he has tried to improve the anti-libel package, Dardeli said the amendments being discussed now have not changed.

“In the first place, the Audiovisual Media Authority is gaining more power than it needs to control the press and the content that the press brings to the daily lives of Albanians. Also the Appeals Council under the AMA is being strengthened and in concrete terms it is given discretion and some degree of monopoly to deal with the quality of content published by the Albanian media. Whenever we have monopoly and discretion we have corruption and abuse of power. This is the basis, this is the foundation that the Albanian government must correct,” he concluded. 

Albania’s path to the European Union and to Western institutions, experts argue, as well as the country’s integration into these institutions will not come from attacking free press and freedom of speech.

 

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times December 20, 2019 12:02