Editorial: Proposal to punish defamation with prison time is a threat to free media

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times November 13, 2015 11:02

An international journalist and media trainer with experience working in many corners of the globe recently visited our newsroom to learn about the state of the media in Albania. We spelled out a series of problems, and there are many, but one of the things we made clear was that there is no overt officially-sanctioned pressure on the free press. In layman’s terms: The government does not send you to jail when you write something it doesn’t like. To the international media expert, this was an extremely positive thing. It was what differentiates EU candidate, NATO member Albania from the other countries with serious media freedom violations where she had worked in the past.

Unfortunately, that is no longer guaranteed. Albania’s government proposed this week a change in the country’s penal code that would again make defamation against high officials a criminal offense punishable with up to three years in prison. The proposed clause was removed from the penal code in 2012 with a rare bipartisan blessing of the Socialists, then in opposition, and the Democrats, then in power.

The Socialist-led government’s desire to bring back prison time for critics that could be prosecuted for defamation in criminal courts is a step backward and a violation of the best OSCE and UN recommendations on how to deal with libel (media defamation) and  slander (public defamation).

Facing an immediate backlash by the media, the prime minister said the criminalization of defamation was not targeted at the media but rather politicians. But the language of the proposed changes does not specify that journalists are immune. A cabinet minister later told the media the proposal would be withdrawn to clarify the language.

The proposal must be withdrawn for good to prevent any harm to Albania’s standing in the Democratic world. The current civil laws are more than adequate.

Let’s be clear on another thing too: Albania does have a problem with defamation, unfounded accusations by politicians and bad journalism too. But in what is becoming a trend in this government, the proposed cure is worse than the sickness.

Albania currently has in place adequate legislation to punish defamation in a civil way — in line with the best international practices. If you mix the threat of prison with a justice system that is universally understood to have problems in its independence, the effect will be undue pressure and further self-censure among journalists, most of whom work for media outlets already toothless and subservient to political and economic interests.

Today, Albanian journalists face job insecurity, low wages and a distorted media market that puts the interests of politicians and media owners ahead of those of the public. The last thing Albanian journalists need in their jobs is the threat of prison to hang over their heads.

The prime minister has made it clear he does not like journalists much — or to put it better — he does not like critical journalists. As he put it this week, those who criticize the government are part of a “media swamp.”

This newspaper believes in true journalism that serves the public interests. It does not condone anyone who misuses the media to be libelous. But that does not mean that criminalizing libel and defamation is the right thing to do. It’s a slippery slope. And simply put, there is little trust in the government and in the justice system to be fair and not act arbitrarily.

Furthermore, it is disturbing to find out that the proposal for the legislative changes has been in parliament for three weeks without anyone in the public being aware about it. Such changes that impact free speech and free press need to be discussed in length in a public format with civil society actors and international experts before the legislative changes reach the voting in parliament stage. Albanians expect better. Albanians deserve better.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times November 13, 2015 11:02