Albania: Private data breaches and intimidation of journalists must be investigated
The partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), together with Safe Journalists Network and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), have written to Mr. Besnik Dervishi, Commissioner for the Right to Access to Information and Personal Data Protection of Albania, calling for a swift and thorough investigation into a recent private data breach and intimidation of at least two journalists in Albania.
Dear Mr. Besnik Dervishi, Commissioner for the Right to Access to Information and Personal Data Protection,
The undersigned media freedom and journalists’ organisations are writing to express our serious concern over the recent private data breaches and intimidation of at least two journalists in Albania linked to their reporting on the high-profile vetting process of the now dismissed Head of Tirana Prosecution Office, Elizabeta Imeraj.
Our organisations urge your office to conduct a swift and thorough investigation into the breach of personal data – which was then used to frighten and pressure one of the journalists – and for those involved to answer questions about their role in what appears to be coordinated intimidation of the press.
In late March and early April 2022, Albanian journalist Isa Myzyraj of Ora News faced intimidation from multiple individuals who demanded he stop commenting and reporting on the appeals process for the vetting of Imeraj, which was being carried out as part of a judicial reform project in Albania aimed at rooting out corrupt judges and prosecutors.
The pressure started after Myzyraj posted on social media that some of the online media with non-transparent ownership that had been publishing smear pieces attacking members of the International Monitoring Operation (IMO) – a constitutionally mandated body made up foreign judges and prosecutors which was supervising the vetting process – had links to Imeraj.
One of Myzyraj’s family members was approached by an individual with a deal for the journalist to stop covering the prosecutor. This was followed by a threatening phone call by another individual who said there would be consequences for him and his family if he continued. As the vetting continued, Myzyraj was then sent a message by another individual which contained a screenshot of the certificate of his family from the Civil Registry – a document only available to registered notaries in Albania. The messages contained threats against the journalist and were clearly aimed at intimidating him.
In late April, Edmond Hoxhaj, a journalist at the BIRN Network Albania and Reporter.al who had also been covering the vetting process, discovered a similar suspicious breach of his personal data on the e-Albania portal. Hoxhaj could see that a notary named Agron Bajri, who is the former husband of Elizabeta Imeraj, had generated their family certificate on April 14, 2022, without their authorisation. Unlike Myzyraj, Hoxhaj did not receive threats about his reporting linked to the certificate.
In the case of Mr. Hoxhaj, there appears to be clear evidence that the notary, Mr. Bajri, accessed their data without the family’s permission. As Commissioner for the Right to Access to Information and Personal Data Protection, we urge you to firmly establish the facts about this case. The MFRR partners will also write to Agron Bajri with a request to clarify his role in accessing the family certificates of both Mr. Myzyraj and Mr. Hoxhaj without their authorisation. We also welcome the investigation opened by the Tirana Prosecutor’s Office.
At the wider level, our organisations suspect these two cases are linked and are part of the same campaign of harassment against members of the IMO. Pressure and intimidation of journalists reporting on the vetting process of a prosecutor – a clear matter of public interest – are unacceptable and were clearly aimed at frustrating transparency and reporting the much-needed implementation of justice reform. These cases also point to a wider issue of threats to the safety of journalists who investigate the nexus between state authorities and corruption.
Effective investigations and definitive answers on these two cases are needed. Our organisations will continue to follow your investigation closely in the coming weeks and look forward to seeing thorough findings. We will also continue to closely monitor the wider challenges facing media freedom and threats to independent, watchdog journalism in Albania, which plummeted in 2022 to 103rd rank – the last in the Balkans – in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.