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Albania: Press freedom organisations and journalist associations call for…

Albania: Press freedom organisations and journalist associations call for swift justice following deadly attack on Top Channel

Today, 27 March 2023, security guard Pal Kola, 60, was shot dead by unknown assailants on the premises of the leading national TV station Top Channel, where he was stationed in a booth outside the building​​.

Today, 27 March 2023, security guard Pal Kola, 60, was shot dead by unknown assailants on the premises of the leading national TV station Top Channel, where he was stationed in a booth outside the building​​. The heinous attack took place around one o’clock in the morning. State police have since established a dedicated investigative team and are working closely with the Prosecutor’s Office to actively pursue the perpetrators. A car suspected to have been used in the crime was found burned out a few kilometres away from the crime, together with two Kalashnikov rifles. 

 

The undersigned partners in the Media Freedom Rapid Response and the Safe Journalists Network are deeply saddened to learn about this shocking attack. Our thoughts are with Pal Kola’s family, friends and co-workers. We call on the police and prosecutorial services to conduct a prompt, effective, independent and transparent investigation to establish the motive and circumstances of the shooting. We will follow the case closely until all perpetrators and masterminds have been brought to justice. 

 

Our organisations welcome that the Professional Association of Journalists, President Bajram Begaj, Prime Minister Edi Rama and many other public figures from across the political spectrum have also denounced the attack and called for a decisive response from law enforcement. The killing of Kola is set against a background of unacceptable, frequent violence against media professionals in Albania. Mere weeks before the shooting, a crew from Top Channel’s investigative TV show Fiks Fare were threatened at gunpoint while filming a report about the illegal extraction of inert materials from a river bank outside Tirana. 

 

The recent cases of violence against journalists underscore the threats media professionals face in their work. Delays in efforts to hold those responsible accountable result in impunity. We also urge the authorities to take all necessary measures to prevent future attacks. We will continue to advocate for journalists’ and media workers’ safety and security, including through better implementation of international and regional standards developed within the Council of Europe, European Union and United Nations.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Safe Journalists Network

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

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Albania: MFRR and Safe Journalist Network condemn attack on…

Albania: MFRR and Safe Journalist Network condemn attack on journalist Elvis Hila and his wife

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) and the Safe Journalists Network today condemn the shocking physical attack on Albanian journalist Elvis Hila and his wife in Lezhë and urge state law enforcement authorities to swiftly detain the suspected perpetrators and ensure that all those responsible face justice.

The violent attack took place at around 4.40pm on Wednesday 25 January, one day after Hila had reported for shqiptarja.com and Report TV about a local court case in Lezhë in which a defendant had been sentenced to a year in prison for forgery of a court document.

 

Soon after publication, Hila said he received a phone call from an individual connected to the defendant who insulted and threatened him about the report. An hour later, another individual then called Hila and demanded that he meet him outside a bar in the city.

 

When the journalist arrived in the car with his wife, two men approached and insisted he get out of the vehicle to explain the article. During the incident that followed, the men allegedly punched and kicked Hila and punched his wife in the neck. Both required medical treatment following the assaults.

 

Speaking to media after being released from hospital, Hila publicly identified his alleged attackers and said the violence would not silence his reporting. Specialists for the Investigation of Crimes in Lezhë opened a criminal investigation and are currently searching for two male suspects.

 

Our organisations welcome the swift action by police and urge them to now conduct a thorough investigation to confirm the motive and quickly detain the alleged perpetrators. All those responsible for ordering, orchestrating and carrying out this serious attack must face justice.

 

We also welcome the swift condemnation of the attack by the country’s President, Bajram Begaj, and stress that vocal denunciation by political leaders in cases involving violence against the press should be the standard response in all such incidents, now and in the future.

 

This attack is a worrying indication of the continued threats that journalists in Albania reporting on the actions of organised crime groups continue to face. Hila was attacked simply for carrying out his public interest mission of covering the verdict of a court case.

 

As many of our organisations noted following a recent media freedom mission to Albania, while serious physical assaults such as this thankfully remain rare, cases of violence against journalists underscore the dangers and climate of distrust that journalists face due to their work.

 

Swift prosecution of those behind this attack by judicial authorities is vital for discouraging potential acts of violence against the media in the future and ensuring justice for the victims. Moving forward, our organisations will continue to closely monitor this case and hope to see positive developments in the coming days and weeks.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Safe Journalist Network

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

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Albania: Media must not face criminal prosecution for public…

Albania: Media must not face criminal prosecution for public interest reporting

The undersigned media freedom and journalist associations today express our shared concern over the blanket publication ban issued by Albanian prosecutorial authorities regarding a trove of hacked data, and stress that no journalist or media outlet should face criminal sanctions for publishing information in the public interest.

While our organisations recognise the sensitive nature of these leaks and urge all media in Albania to handle the material in a strictly ethical and responsible manner, it is vital that Albanian authorities proceed with caution and full consideration for journalistic freedoms protected under both domestic and international law.

 

On 19 September 2022, the Prosecutor’s Office of Tirana issued an “order” which banned all media in Albania from publishing data or information from a cache of files which had been hacked from Albanian servers and computer systems and then leaked online. The high-profile leaks followed a wave of damaging cyber-attacks on Albanian servers and computer systems in recent months by state-backed hackers in Iran, which has caused a diplomatic crisis and the severing of ties between the two countries.

 

The bulk of the hacked material contains classified police information and sensitive email correspondence, documents and memos between Albanian politicians, authorities and foreign ambassadors, including documents about suspected plans to assassinate foreign and domestic political figures, according to reports.

 

In response to the latest leaks, the Prosecutor’s Office of Tirana issued the order and warned that media that violate the ban would face criminal investigation under articles 103, 208 and 304 of the penal code. This included publication in audio-visual, print and online media, as well as social media. News websites that published data would subsequently be blocked.The information was first shared via a post on the Facebook account of the Albanian Police.

 

Our organisations recognise the severity of these cyber-attacks and the sensitive nature of the leaked data. In such circumstances, the media have a professional responsibility to handle and present this kind of material in an ethical manner, with full consideration given to citizens’ right to privacy and serious national security concerns.

 

However, regardless of the source of the material or the intent of those behind the attacks, journalists have a responsibility to assess the veracity and public interest nature of the leaked information, as well as the right of citizens to be informed about newsworthy matters.

 

The response by the Tirana Prosecutor’s Office to try and unilaterally limit all reporting on the leaked information, without proper consideration given to the public interest, therefore raises serious concerns about unjustified infringements on the freedom of the press, which is already under the spotlight in Albania.

 

Threats of criminal investigations and website blocking for media or journalists that violate the banning order will meanwhile have a censorious effect on reporting and could open the door to the criminalisation of legitimate journalistic activity. No journalist, editor or publisher in Albania should face prosecution for publishing accurate information on a matter of public interest.

 

Moreover, the role of the Audiovisual Media Authority (AMA) and the Electronic and Postal Communications Authority (AKEP) – two independent bodies – in monitoring the media ecosystem for potential violations on behalf of the Prosecutor’s Office also raises clear concerns.

 

Moving forward, our organisations urge investigatory and government authorities in Albania to avoid taking any further steps which undermine the exercise of responsible journalism or endanger the liberty of journalists publishing public interest material. We will continue to closely monitor the situation in the coming days and respond to further developments.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • Balkan Free Media Initiative
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Safe Journalists Network
  • Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

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Albania: Press freedom groups call for a fair trial…

Albania: Press freedom groups call for a fair trial in defamation lawsuit by former top prosecutor against Isa Myzyraj

The undersigned media freedom and freedom of expression organisations and journalist unions and associations are highly concerned by the defamation lawsuit filed against journalist Isa Myzyraj, who works for Ora News, by Elizabeta Imeraj.

Formerly Tirana’s top prosecutor, Imeraj was fired in April 2022 as part of the justice reform process for causing a loss of trust in the justice system and inability to justify or explain her assets. Following yesterday’s postponement of the case and ahead of the hearing now scheduled for 16 October, we call for a fair trial with full respect for all due process rights and in which the importance of free speech, press and public interest reporting is appropriately considered.

 

Imeraj is suing Myzyraj after he reported threats and intimidation he received for writing about Imeraj’s vetting process to international networks. In late March and early April 2022, Myzyraj commented on the developments around Imeraj’s vetting process carried out by the constitutionally-mandated International Monitoring Operation (IMO). The journalist had noticed that colleagues from other media outlets began self-censoring, while many mainstream media did not report the developments. At the same time, anonymously owned media outlets in Albania began publishing defamatory pieces attacking members of the IMO in what the EU’s Directorate-General for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement characterised as an “orchestrated smear campaign”. Myzyraj said his investigations found that at least three of these online outlets had links to Imeraj and published these allegations on Facebook and Twitter. Imeraj contests this statement and filed a lawsuit before the Elbasan District Court.

 

The defamation case is set against serious concerns about media freedom and threats to independent watchdog journalism in Albania, which plummeted to 103rd rank in RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index, last in the Balkans.

 

We will continue to monitor the case closely and stand in solidarity with Myzyraj.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  • SafeJournalists Network

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

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Albania: MFRR partners join an open letter to Prime…

Albania: MFRR partners join an open letter to Prime Minister Edi Rama

The partner organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today join an open letter to Prime Minister Edi Rama from international press freedom groups over decision to ban journalists from press conferences.

06 July 2022

Dear Edi Rama, Prime Minister of Albania,

Endri Fuga, Director General of the Media and Information Agency

Teresa Ribeiro, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media

Olivér Várhelyi, EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement

Alexis Hupin, Chargé d’affaires at EU Delegation to Albania, 

Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

Yuri Kim, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Albania

 

Dear Prime Minister Rama,

 

The undersigned media freedom and freedom of expression organisations are writing to protest against your recent decision to unilaterally ban journalists from attending government press conferences and demand they undergo “re-education” after they asked challenging questions about matters of public interest.

 

Our organisations are concerned that these arbitrary restrictions seriously affect the ability of the press to carry out its watchdog role and seek answers about challenging issues. They are also emblematic of deeper problems regarding access to information for journalists and the obstruction of free and independent journalism in Albania, which ranks 103rd in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, dropping annually by 20 places.

 

We note that during a joint press conference with Foreign Affairs Minister Olta Xhaçka on 1 July 2022, you responded to questions asked to the minister by journalist Klevin Muka of CNN affiliate A2 by telling him that he had violated the journalistic code of ethics and that he needed to undergo three months of “re-education” before he would be welcome at future press events.

 

In our assessment, the questions from Mr. Muka involved a legitimate matter of public interest on the recently established Code of Ethics of the Council of Ministers and potential conflicts of interest involving the minister in question, and therefore justified a response. Instead, he now faces an arbitrary three-month ban from press conferences, which will seriously affect his ability to properly carry out his professional duties.

 

Concerningly, we note this is not the first time a journalist has faced such a restriction. During a press conference outside the headquarters of the Socialist Party in March 2022, you told Syri.net TV journalist Ambrioza Meta that she required “re-education” and was barred from press conferences for 60 days, after she asked public interest questions about the arrest of a Socialist party MP and a corruption case linked to incinerators.

 

To our understanding, no formal administrative sanction exists in Albania which allows journalists to be unilaterally banned from attending government press conferences by individual politicians, even those holding executive office. It is our view therefore that the measures imposed on both Klevin Muka and Ambrioza Meta were arbitrary and unjustified.

 

In a democratic society, it is not the role of elected officials to personally impose disciplinary measures on individual journalists over what they consider to be alleged breaches of ethics. We therefore urge you to immediately reverse the restriction on Klevin Muka and to refrain from imposing such measures on all members of the press in the future.

 

Our organisations believe strongly in professionalism and integrity of the journalistic profession, for which there are important initiatives in Albania underway. However, adherence to journalistic ethics and standards should be observed and handled from within the journalistic community itself, rather than imposed by political forces.

 

More generally, we see these restrictions as illustrative of wider problems regarding access to information for journalists and media freedom in Albania, issues our organisations have repeatedly raised concerns about. We also note the protest organised by journalists in Tirana on 4 July 2022, which criticised the restriction as emblematic of broader efforts by political forces to dictate what questions can and cannot be asked by journalists at press conferences.

 

We hope to see this situation remedied as quickly as possible. Moving forward, our organisations will also continue to monitor the situation for media freedom in Albania and to push for measures which foster a better climate for independent and watchdog media. We look forward to seeing your response and welcome any opportunity for further discussion.

 

Signed:

Balkan Free Media Initiative 

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

International Press Institute (IPI)

OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

SafeJournalists Network

Lënda: Letër e hapur, Kryeministrit Edi Rama nga grupet ndërkombëtare për lirinë e shtypit për vendimin mbi ndalimin e gazetarëve nga konferencat për shtyp

 

Drejtuar: z. Edi Rama,

Kryeministër i Shqipërisë

 

Për djeni:

Endri Fuga, Drejtor i Përgjithshëm i Agjencisë së Medias dhe Informacionit

Teresa Ribeiro, Përfaqësues i OSBE-së për Lirinë e Medias

Olivér Várhelyi, Komisioner i BE-së për Fqinjësinë dhe Zgjerimin

Alexis Hupin, i Ngarkuari me Punë në Delegacionin e BE-së në Shqipëri,

Dunja Mijatovic, Komisionere e Këshillit të Evropës për të Drejtat e Njeriut

Yuri Kim, Ambasadore e SHBA-së në Republikën e Shqipërisë

 

I nderuar  Kryeministër Rama,

 

Organizatat e nënshkruara për lirinë e medias dhe lirinë e shprehjes po ju shkruajnë për të shprehur shqetësimin tonë për vendimin tuaj të fundit për të ndaluar në mënyrë të njëanshme pjesëmarrjen e gazetarëve në konferencat e shtypit të qeverisë dhe për të kërkuar që ata t’i nënshtrohen “riedukimit” pasi ata drejtuan pyetje sfiduese për çështje me interes publik.

 

Organizatat tona janë të shqetësuara se këto kufizime arbitrare ndikojnë seriozisht në aftësinë e shtypit për të kryer rolin e tyre mbikëqyrës dhe për të kërkuar përgjigje për çështje sfiduese. Ato janë gjithashtu emblematike e problemeve më të thella në lidhje me aksesin në informacion për gazetarët dhe pengimin e gazetarisë së lirë dhe të pavarur në Shqipëri, e cila renditet e 103-ta në Indeksin Botëror të Lirisë së Shtypit të RSF-së, duke rënë çdo vit me 20 vende.

 

Kemi vëmë re se gjatë një konference të përbashkët për shtyp me ministren e Jashtme Olta Xhaçka, më 1 korrik 2022, ju iu përgjigjët pyetjeve të gazetarit Klevin Muka të stacionit A2 degë CNN, duke i thënë se kishte shkelur kodin e etikës gazetareske dhe se ai duhej t’i nënshtrohej tre muajsh “riedukimit” përpara se të ishte i mirëpritur në konferencat e rradhës për shtyp.

 

Në vlerësimin tonë, pyetjet e zotit Muka përfshinin një çështje legjitime me interes publik mbi Kodin e Etikës të Këshillit të Ministrave të sapokrijuar dhe konflikte të mundshme interesi që përfshijnë ministren në fjalë, dhe për këtë arsye justifikonin një përgjigje. Në vend të kësaj, ai tani përballet me një ndalim arbitrar prej tre muajsh nga konferencat për shtyp, gjë që do të ndikojë seriozisht në aftësinë e tij për të kryer siç duhet detyrat e tij profesionale.

 

Me shqetësim, theksojmë se kjo nuk është hera e parë që një gazetar përballet me një kufizim të tillë. Gjatë një konference për shtyp jashtë selisë së Partisë Socialiste në mars 2022, ju i keni thënë gazetares së TV Syri.net, Ambrioza Meta se ajo kishte nevojë për “riedukim” dhe u ndalua nga konferencat për shtyp për 60 ditë, pasi ajo bëri pyetje me interes publik për arrestimin e një deputeti të Partisë Socialiste dhe një rast korrupsioni të lidhur me inceneratorët.

 

Në këndvështrimin tonë, në Shqipëri nuk ekziston asnjë sanksion administrativ zyrtar që lejon që gazetarët të ndalohen në mënyrë të njëanshme të marrin pjesë në konferencat e shtypit të qeverisë nga politikanë individualisht, apo edhe ata që mbajnë poste ekzekutive. Prandaj mendojmë se masat e vendosura si ndaj Klevin Mukës ashtu edhe ndaj Ambrioza Metës ishin arbitrare dhe të pajustifikuara.

 

Në një shoqëri demokratike, nuk është roli i zyrtarëve të zgjedhur që të vendosin personalisht masa disiplinore ndaj gazetarëve si individ mbi ato që ata konsiderojnë – me të drejtë ose jo – si shkelje të pretenduara të etikës. Ndaj ju bëjmë thirrje që të hiqni menjëherë kufizimin ndaj Klevin Mukës dhe të përmbaheni nga vendosja e masave të tilla ndaj të gjithë anëtarëve të shtypit në të ardhmen.

 

Organizatat tona besojnë fort në profesionalizmin dhe integritetin e profesionit të gazetarit, për të cilin janë duke u zhvilluar nisma të rëndësishme në Shqipëri. Megjithatë, respektimi i etikës dhe standardeve gazetareske duhet të respektohet dhe trajtohet nga brenda vetë komunitetit gazetaresk, në vend që të imponohet nga forcat politike.

 

Për më tepër, ne i shohim këto kufizime si ilustruese të problemeve më të gjera lidhje me aksesin në informacion për gazetarët dhe lirinë e medias në Shqipëri, çështje për të cilat organizatat tona kanë ngritur vazhdimisht shqetësime. Vëmë re gjithashtu protestën e organizuar nga gazetarët në Tiranë më 4 korrik 2022, e cila kritikoi kufizimin  emblematik të përpjekjeve më të gjera të forcave politike për të diktuar se çfarë pyetjesh mund dhe nuk mund të bëhen nga gazetarët në konferencat për shtyp.

 

Shpresojmë që kjo situatë të përmirësohet sa më shpejt që të jetë e mundur. Duke ecur përpara, organizatat tona do të vazhdojnë gjithashtu të monitorojnë situatën për lirinë e medias në Shqipëri dhe të nxisin masat që mbështesin një klimë më të mirë për mediat e pavarura dhe vëzhguese.

 

Ne mbetemi në pritje të përgjigjes tuaj dhe mirëpresim çdo mundësi për diskutim të mëtejshëm.

 

Nënshkruar:

Balkan Free Media Initiative 

Qendra Evropiane për Lirinë e Shtypit dhe Medias (ECPMF)

Federata Evropiane e Gazetarëve (EFJ)

Instituti Ndërkombëtar i Shtypit (IPI)

OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

Reporterët pa Kufij (RSF)

Rrjeti i Gazetarëve të Sigurt (SJN)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

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Albania: Private data breaches and intimidation of journalists must…

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.

09/05/2022

 

Sent electronically

 

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.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  • Safe Journalists Network

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Albanian ‘Ministry of Propaganda’: Where we are today?

Albanian ‘Ministry of Propaganda’: Where we are today?

New government Media and Information Agency (MIA) up and running. Lines of communication between the Albanian government and the media have long been tenuous. Whoever is in power picks and chooses the media they interact with and feeds them with information to report, whereas those who are out of favour or ask difficult questions often find themselves sidelined.

By IPI Contributor Alice Taylor

Whether journalists ask spokespersons for comment or file formal requests, information is hard to come by. Some portals report a response rate in the single digits, while those who do get a response often find key information withheld.

A 2021 report found that the Albanian Ministry of Health was the worst performing institution in the region in terms of answering freedom of information (FoI) requests. The institution also had the highest number of complaints filed with the Data Commissioner.

This is despite the fact that Albania has one of the world’s top 10 best FoI laws. The implementation of this law continues to face challenges and difficulties as public institutions remain silent, don’t answer requests, and classify increasing amounts of information.

In April, the Data Commissioner tabled changes to the law that would give him more power to demand information be made public. This came after a record 992 complaints against state institutions during 2021 for failing to provide requested information to media, civil society, and the public. With an increase in complaints of 39% on the year before, the commissioner found in favour of 700 of the complaints.

These facts and figures are just the tip of the iceberg but give an idea of the need for change in Albanian society. But a set of recent measures introduced by Prime Minister Edi Rama’s government have left the media community concerned.

Introduction to the Information and Media Agency

Following his reelection for a third mandate in April 2021, the first decision of Prime Minister Edi Rama’s new government was to create the Media and Information Agency (MIA), dubbed the ‘Ministry of Propaganda’ by critics.

The MIA functions as a public legal entity, under the prime minister, based in Tirana and funded from “the state budget, donations, and other legal sources”. According to the government, its mission is to ensure transparency regarding policies, activities, projects, events and other matters including acts of the Council of Ministers and any state institution.

Its sole responsibility is to inform and communicate with the public and the media and prepare government positions on issues of public interests. In addition, it creates press releases and media content to supplement the reams of pre-edited footage produced by Rama’s personal TV channel, which is currently sent to every newsroom. The MIA also monitors media and “means of mass communications” to assess opinions on the government.

The general director of the new agency is Endri Fuga, Rama’s long-time communications chief, who is accountable and answerable only to him. Fuga holds a position equal to that of Minister of State, a position at the same level of an elected MP but without accountability before parliament or the public. Each ministry and government department currently has its spokesperson, appointed by the minister. Requests for comment and information are addressed to that spokesperson, who then responds.

The new system is supposed to work similarly, except the MIA manages everything behind the scenes. All responses are coordinated centrally, and press materials are created and sent out from one location. Communication with the media or members of the public can only take place with the explicit authority of Fuga, who also has the power to hire and fire spokespersons.

‘German model’

The Albanian government has consistently claimed that the MIA was built “exactly” on the German model, following two visits to the country. Exit asked EURACTIV.de – a partner media in Germany – to explain how the German model works. They explained that Germany has a government agency that is the first stop for journalists to put forward media inquiries: the Federal Press Office. This entity organises three press conferences a week and journalists are invited to answer specific questions here and in federal press conferences.

In Germany, the responsibility for appointing spokespersons is down to each institution, whereas in Albania, it lies with Fuga. Furthermore, Albanian fact-checking site Faktoje.al reported that the agencies were not similar. “As far as I know, there is no such agency [the same structure as MIA] in Germany, I have never heard of it,” said Corrective.org, German fact-checking organisation. The website of the Federal Press Office also explains that the institution does not supervise the media in any way, something the Albanian MIA does.

For Koloreto Cukali, the head of the Albanian Media Council, it is clear that the similarities are negligible. “First, ‘based’ is the wrong term to adjudicate it. They got the idea from there and adopted it according to their ‘wish’. Second, our society, media and government are different and work substantially different from German,” he told Exit.

Albanian media lawyer Dorian Matlija was also quick to debunk the government’s claim. “It has a similar name but not similar functions. In Germany, the main objective is to coordinate between ministries…It is not obligatory for ministers, and no one is overlooking ministers. It is totally different,” he told Exit.

The situation has raised concerns amongst the country’s media community, particularly when combined with other legislative and institutional measures. In 2018, the government put forward an anti-defamation package to bring online media under state supervision, with media facing high fines for vague violations.

While the package has undergone several facelifts in the following years, the latest public draft is not in line with Venice Commission recommendations or EU standards. There have been multiple calls to drop the package, but it sits on the agenda of parliament, where it can be passed at any moment with a simple ruling party majority.

In addition, the Albanian Audiovisual Media Authority, which would take on the role of judge and jury as per the above package, is now headed by Armela Krasniqi, another long-time comms aid of Rama and the Socialist Party. She was voted into the role against the calls of the European Commission by parliament, which at the time did not feature an opposition.

When you put all the pieces of the puzzle together, it is not hard to come to the conclusion of total state capture of public interest information.

“If you combine intimidated media and no guarantee for free speech, with lack of access to information, confused journalists, and a centralised agency, you see the big picture. Everything is related to how the government wants to control the message from the government to the media and media to the public,” Matlija explains. “The government wants to create its own landscape and narrative.”

Where we are now

While the decision to set up the MIA agency was taken in September, it has been functional since January 2022. Described by Fuga as “a modest agency in terms of budget and assets”, it is currently funded entirely from the state budget.

The agency currently has a total of 69 employees spread across six directorates; the Directorate of Citizen Information, the Directorate of Media Information, the Directorate of Information of Institutions, the Directorate of Coordination of Ministries and Agencies, the Directorate of Production and Events and Directorate of Finances.

According to Deputy Secretary of the Council of Ministers Elira Kokona, the agency’s budget is in total EUR 1.93 million, including salaries, insurance contributions, capital expenditures and operating services.

Journalists needing information are not convinced that it is worth the money. The editor-in-chief of Faktoje, Viola Keta, said: “There has been a decrease in transparency since January 2022. In my opinion, there is a misuse of the law on the right to information.” She added that answers were not received within the legal deadline in more cases than before, meaning journalists had to take the matter to the Data Commissioner.

In a parliamentary hearing, Fuga said that the only thing that has changed is that “there is better coordination on issues that affect several ministries together”.

Keta said that since the MIA started, refusals to provide information appear more coordinated and are using the same response, namely, an article of the transparency law which provides no answer to the question.

Criticism

The Albanian government has been adamant that the purpose of the agency is to promote better transparency and communication with the media. Exit asked Cukali if he felt this was genuine.

“In Albania, the government is opaque and non-transparent; it has made a habit to keep successfully secret every decision and operation. Getting the information that is due by law is already a ‘hell’ for independent media or journalists. This institution will add another layer of opacity to the information flow,” he said.

Cukali explained that there are concerns of troll factories operated by the government, backed up with in-depth investigations, that could be pushed through the new agency. “There is fear that these troll factories will be included in the new “Ministry” and paid by the taxpayers,” he said.

But are these fears justified? Cukali and Matlija both agree that we will just have to wait and see, although hopes are not high.

What the government says

Exit reached out to Fuga to ask for figures on requests made and granted since January, what methods are used for media monitoring, if monitoring includes social media, and for a response to allegations from media that transparency has actually decreased since MIA was established.

Having previously taken issue with reports in multiple media, including Exit, that criticised his public claims in parliament the MIA was based on the German model, his response focussed predominantly on that.

Fuga replied by dismissing the claims made by some media, adding “the answer is no, we respond to everyone and our job is not to keep numbers, but to respond. As I am doing to you now, even though your question is baseless.”

Even when it comes to the functioning of the agency, it seems that transparency will remain hard to come by, let alone when it comes to getting answers on important documents or government actions.

This article is part of IPI’s reporting series “Media freedom in Europe in the shadow of Covid”, which comprises news and analysis from IPI’s network of correspondents throughout the EU. Articles do not necessarily reflect the views of IPI or MFRR. This reporting series is supported by funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and by the European Commission (DG Connect) as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response, a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

IPI as part of MFRR
Photo by Roshan Nebhrajani/Medill News Service Library

Albania: news outlets faced cyber attacks following reports about…

Albania: news outlets faced cyber attacks following reports about Mayor of Tirana

The partners in the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) are worried about developments in Albania this week. Cyber-attacks on news outlets believed to be in relation to their reporting on Tirana’s Mayor Erion Veliaj and the appointment of government loyalist Endri Fuga to lead the Media and Information Agency add to existing challenges for media freedom in the country.

DDoS cyber-attacks

In previous days starting on 24 January, several online media were targeted by distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) cyber-attacks, making it difficult to access their websites. RTV Ora, Lapsi.al, Doja.al, Syri.net, Maska.al, Gijotina.al, Faktor.al and SportEkspress were among the affected outlets. Although no concrete evidence has been presented yet, the outlets believe the attacks to be coordinated and connected to their reporting on an ongoing dispute involving Veliaj. He is accused of threatening board members of the Albanian Football Federation (FSHF) ahead of a vote for the head of the governing body. The targeted websites all published an audio recording related to the FSHF elections. On the tape, Veliaj is heard using slurs, coarse language and threats in an apparent attempt to influence the upcoming vote in favour of his preferred candidate. Veliaj has confirmed the authenticity of the recording but stated it should be considered in context. His spokesperson said it was just “boys’ talk”. Chairing the Federation is nominally a non-political position; however, most football teams in Albania are owned by local municipalities, whose mayors vote in the elections.

We call for a swift and effective investigation into these cyber-attacks. DDoS attacks constitute a significant threat to media freedom, as they prevent information from being disseminated resulting in direct censorship, and add financial pressures on the affected outlets.

Doubts about Media and Information Agency impartiality

In addition, we condemn the appointment of Fuga to head the newly established Media and Information Agency (MIA), which centralises control over the government’s public relations within a single entity. Yesterday, following a request for information by BIRN Albania, the government confirmed that Fuga was appointed as General Director of the new Agency by Order of the Prime Minister No. 96, dated 29 September 2021. Fuga was previously the spokesperson for Prime Minister Edi Rama. His appointment in the new role, which holds a status equal to that of a government minister and comes with wide-ranging powers, exacerbates existing doubts about the MIA’s independence and impartiality and fears that it may be instrumentalised to restrict journalists’ access to public information.

The decision to put the MIA into operation is a grave step backwards for government transparency in Albania. We reiterate our call for the establishment of greater safeguards to ensure the Agency functions fairly and transparently, even more so following the public confirmation of Fuga’s appointment as its General Director.

Signed by:

  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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The struggles of Albania’s 30-year-old media landscape

The struggles of Albania’s 30-year-old media landscape

Anti-defamation package and new information agency pose fresh challenges
Alice Taylor, IPI member & co-editor of exit.al

For almost 50 years, Albania was in the grips of a brutal Communist regime. After it fell in 1990, the first independent media began to navigate a complex social and democratic situation. Over the past 30 years, the sector has grown to include hundreds of online portals and tens of TV stations. Despite this, Albania is still struggling to break free from some constraints of its past, and its media environment is plagued with obstacles and pressures.

Last December, I conducted a poll amongst my peers and found that almost 100% said they’d experienced political pressure while performing their work. This included threats not to publish a story, demands to take down articles, and even threats against safety. While this is a reality for many journalists and can come from every side of the political spectrum, it’s exacerbated by the behaviour of Prime Minister Edi Rama.

An artist-turned-politician, Rama is creative with his insults and has publicly called journalists parasites, ignorant, trash, dogs, human rights abusers, and poison. During the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, his voice played on people’s mobiles before they made a phone call. He reminded them to wash their hands, wear masks, and protect themselves from the media.

He and his cabinet have also filed a concerning number of libel lawsuits against journalists- 34 lawsuits in just two years. Not only does this intimidate the plaintiff, but it also has a chilling impact on reporting from other journalists. But the government hasn’t stopped there.

In 2018, Rama announced the so-called “anti-defamation package” that would bring all online media under the control of a parliament-appointed board. This board could block, fine, close, and enforce corrections on any site that it believes publishes ‘defamation’ or ‘fake news.’ His reasoning for introducing the law was to combat fake news, though many think it will be weaponised to silence critics.

The package was widely condemned, and the Venice Commission issued an opinion on the draft, noting it would have a “chilling effect” and should essentially be scrapped.

While this law sits in parliament, the government changed provisions in the electoral code, allowing them to shut any TV station for 48 hours if they breached certain conditions during electoral periods. They also proposed increases to criminal defamation penalties, including fines of up to EUR 36,000 (the average Albanian salary is EUR 350 per month), and that punishments should be increased by half if people insult a politician, judge, or administration employee. This runs directly counter to long-standing European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence that public officials must accept a higher degree of criticism than ordinary citizens.

Tightening control

Just before the elections, in the absence of parliamentary opposition, the Socialist Party voted to install Armela Krasniqi, a former party communications aide, as the head of the agency that would supervise all online media. The EU delegation in Tirana, and various international organisations, including IPI, asked the parliament to wait until September when the opposition would be present, but they refused.

After Rama’s party secured a third mandate to rule in April 2021, their first decision was to create the Media and Information Agency, which would prevent individual ministries from communicating with the media. Instead, all communications, plus statements, information, and comments would come from a centralised agency, under the control of Rama’s right-hand communication aide Endri Fuga. This agency would also monitor local media and mass media to gauge public opinion of the government.

The news sparked outrage amongst local and international media stakeholders, who called on the EU to intervene. They asked for improvements in media freedom and for the withdrawal of the draft law and media agency to be conditions for continued EU accession talks. The EU refused.

Then in October, at the OSCE South Eastern Europe Media Freedom Conference, Rama compared the online media to “Nazis” and “paedophiles”, adding that regulating them was necessary, even if wanting to do so made him unpopular.

Concerns abound that through a series of stealthy legal and administrative changes, the government is moving to assume total control of the media. This, combined with an increasingly hostile environment which includes police violence against media workers, and impunity for attacks, causes journalists to worry.

All of these complexities take place in a country where independent journalists struggle to be heard. Most mainstream media is owned by a handful of wealthy businesspeople with political connections. With interests in construction, real estate, and private schools, they use their media to win favourable treatment from the government, including tenders and funding.

This means that the editorial line of the main media is controlled by a need to remain on the good side of the state. Fake news, propaganda, and smear campaigns are common. Simply put, the vast majority of Albanian media can be weaponized by political figures at a moment’s notice, vastly impacting the information that the general public receives.

Those journalists that do speak up are at risk of being targeted via smear campaigns. I was branded a Russian spy and had my residence permit revoked while six-months pregnant, all because I reported on corruption and anti-government protests. This is a common occurrence and more often than not, the targets are women.

To write about the intricacies of the Albanian media environment would take up many thousands of words. But amid all these issues, there is growing resistance. Solidarity, self-regulation, and possible EU accession all present hope for Albania’s journalists. Furthermore, a desire for change, fuelled by accountability and transparency creates a new generation of journalists who are not so easily controlled.

 

This is a guest post. Any views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of IPI, or other MFRR partners.

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Albania: MFRR urges government to scrap new Media and…

Albania: MFRR urges government to scrap new Media and Information Agency

The undersigned partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response today express serious concern over a new Media and Information Agency (MIA) established by the government of Prime Minister Edi Rama in Albania and urge the ruling Socialist Party to immediately cancel its establishment to ensure it will not be used to further solidify control over the flow of public information. We also urge the European Union to immediately engage with the Albanian government to raise these concerns as a matter of priority in future accession talks.

Plans for the new agency, announced during the first session of the new parliament on September 18, would centralise control over the government’s public relations within a single entity. Under new rules, spokespersons at ministries and government departments will be prohibited from talking to the media directly and public information or comment will have to be approved by the MIA’s director general, who will be appointed directly by the Prime Minister and hold a status equal to that of a government minister.

The director general will have the power to appoint and dismiss spokespersons in every ministry, as well as approve their public appearances or interviews. The MIA will also decide on journalists’ requests for interviews and organise the press conferences of the Prime Minister and other ministers. In addition, the MIA will conduct monitoring of both the press and social media to track public opinion of government activities.

The government has said the new agency, which will be financed from the state budget and unspecified “donations”, will increase transparency and unify messaging across different ministries. However, our organisations share the concerns expressed by various leading editors-in-chief, civil society groups and media unions in Albania that rather than improve journalists’ access to public information, the establishment of the MIA may result in the exact opposite.

Context is vital here. Journalists in Albania currently work in an extremely difficult climate for accessing information from government sources. The government communicates with journalists via WhatsApp groups instead of using official channels. Reporters working for independent media are regularly discriminated against when seeking information or comment from ministers. Journalists viewed as representing “opposition” outlets are denied accreditation or barred from asking questions at press conferences. Those who seek comment from officials in person sometimes face hostility and obstruction. Official Freedom of Information requests regularly go unanswered and appeals through the Information Commissioner can be lengthy, with rulings often ignored outright.

At the same time, the Prime Minister shuns press conferences and instead relies on his own TV station ERTV to create and distribute sound bites and pre-edited video clips to the press. Interviews are given to selected journalists, shielding the PM and other ministers from facing challenging questions. Under the Socialist Party, other state institutions have emulated this model and now send out pre-prepared news packages to private TV stations and newspapers. The result is that across all levels of government, journalists face significant barriers in posing questions or properly scrutinising ministries. Against this backdrop, further solidification of government control over the flow of information by a single entity risks turning what is already a drip feed of information to journalists into a desert.

The level of influence the government and the Prime Minister himself will wield over the agency is a key concern. Media reports have already suggested that Endri Fuga, a close ally of the PM who spearheaded his public relations for the last eight years, has already secured the role of director general. His appointment would mirror that of another key ally, Ermela Krasniqi, to head the country’s Audiovisual Media Authority (AMA). This selective placement of two loyalists to lead institutions overseeing the regulation of media raises serious questions over their independence and impartiality and violates international standards.

Meanwhile, the oversized ability of the director general to hire and fire spokespersons – previously the responsibility of individual ministries – also poses questions over accountability and transparency. We are concerned that the MIA’s bilateral agreement with the public broadcaster Albanian Radio-Television (RTSH), which has operated without a director general for more than seven months now, may open the door to increased influence over its coverage. Likewise, plans for the MIA to distribute its own content about government activities in the manner of a state press agency raises additional concern over political influence and lack of impartiality. Following major revelations about the collection of citizen’s data by political parties via state institutions, the notion of tax-payer money being used to fund the monitoring of the press and social media by a government agency also sets alarm bells ringing.

In the longer term, this agency ultimately risks being a powerful tool for any government current or future to control the flow of public information to the media and to influence what citizens read, hear and watch. The role of journalists is to act as a filter between government and citizens. Limiting their ability to do so by constraining opportunities to question officials and side-lining critical journalists severely limits the ability of the press to do its job and hold power to account.

With the freedom of the media a cornerstone of Albania’s accession to the EU, it is vital that the EU mission in Tirana and the EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi immediately respond to this latest development and address the concerns raised by our organisations and others. Until greater safeguards can be established to ensure the MIA operates in a fair and transparent manner, we urge the government to cancel its establishment pending consultation with national and international journalist groups.

Signed by:

  • Article 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT)