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In Quake-Rattled Albania, Journalists Detained on Fake News Charges After Falsely Warning of Aftershocks

Damaged cars outside the Faculty of Geology building after an earthquake in Tirana, Sept. 21, 2019. Albania's government and news reports say an earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 5.8 shook in the country's west and injured at least two people.

Two Albanian journalists were taken into custody early Monday for an alleged hoax in "publishing the fake news, and causing panic among the citizens” about seismic activity, according to police.

Albanian reporters Aurel Rakipllari of and Daniela Grica of Gazeta Shekulli were questioned in relation to false warnings that a magnitude-6 aftershock was predicted to shake the nation's capital near midnight on Sunday, authorities said.

The headline on the original story called for people to leave their homes as soon as possible, triggering a massive panic as residents took to the darkened streets of a city already beset by Saturday's magnitude-5.8 quake that damaged nearly 1,000 buildings and injured at least 105.

Fearing another massive quake, many parked their cars along the highway to bed down for the night, while others went to a soccer stadium with small suitcases or sat outside cafes for a late-night coffee.

Shortly after the panic started, authorities called for calm, saying the reports were fake.

Albanian Defense Minister Olta Xhaçka appeared in a press conference with a local seismology expert warning that "anyone who has spread this fake news has committed a serious criminal offense which is punishable by the criminal code."

"We will not leave any stone unturned until we find out the author of this news, who is going to pay with jail," he said.

Police set up a special investigative group to reveal the source of the hoax, which they called a "malicious" act that deliberately aimed to "create fear and panic among citizens."

On Facebook, Prime Minister Edi Rama said that "any news spread to sow panic about an upcoming earthquake … should be rejected by the logic and punished by the law.", a firebrand opposition media outlet that published the misleading report, said the arrest of its journalist is a political act, aimed at restricting the press.

“The news that advised citizens to stay outside due to the forecast of the Greek seismographer is being used as a justification by (Prime Minister Edi) Rama to close down the most critical portal against the government,” the news outlet said in an official statement.

Critics of, however, say the news organization deliberately published false information to make Rama's government look ill-prepared and disorganized in the wake of an actual disaster.

Akis Tselentis, a Greek seismographer, has been interviewed extensively by the Albanian media over the last few days. He says Albania is situated in an active seismic zone, and the probability of major earthquakes remains high.

Some news media outlets, however, may have misinterpreted his comments warning of additional quakes.

After Saturday afternoon’s earthquake, which measured 5.8 according to Albania’s Institute of Geosciences, Energy, Water and Environment, and 5.6 according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and the European-Mediterranean Seismological Center, some 350 after-tremors — including two severe shocks — have been recorded.

On Monday, Albania's Ministry of Education closed elementary and high schools as a precaution.

This story originated in VOA's Albanian Service. Some information is from AP.