Albania's Parliament approved a controversial set of government-proposed anti-defamation laws on Wednesday, which critics say grant the nation's top media regulator too much power.
The vote came immediately after last-minute changes had been introduced to allay concerns among journalists who say the new laws are designed to muzzle free speech and media.
Dozens of journalists and civil society groups protested outside of Parliament, as lawmakers continued debating draft laws of the so-called anti-defamation package, which drastically expands the role of Albania's Audiovisual Media Authority (AMA).
According to the new laws, AMA can create an administrative body with the power to fine and shutter online domestic and foreign media outlets — all without a court order.
'Are we all wrong?'
Outside the legislature dominated by Prime Minister Edi Rama's Socialist Party, local journalists assailed what they called a new censorship regime.
"Are we all wrong? I think we are all right and just simply don't want a prime minister as a managing editor," said Mimoza Koçiu of the Association of Professional Journalists.
Koçiu told VOA's Albanian Service that all of the reporters present were united in opposition.
Aleksandër Çipa, president of the Union of Albanian Journalists, said the proposed laws seek to impose a censorship agency in place.
Not only will the new laws censor reporting on crime, graft and corruption, said Tirana-based investigative reporter Klodiana Lala, they will exist outside Albania's judicial system.
"Fines will be applied by an institution that is not part of the justice system, but instead is (a) political-administrative body," she said.
Journalists target of harsh rhetoric
Inside of Parliament, Rama, widely known for his harsh rhetoric toward journalists, pushed back on the criticism, saying the new laws align with international standards by protecting citizens, government officials and legislators from defamatory "fake" news reports.
"We will approve it because it is the right thing to do, to guarantee the right of every person to defend themselves from those who slander," Rama said. "At the same time, never infringing on the freedom of those who want to inform," he said.
International media organizations have expressed concern the package does not meet international standards.
European Commission calls for changes
On Tuesday, a European Commission spokesperson urged Albanian authorities to introduce changes to the draft laws that would have ensured compliance with European standards of free speech.
"This draft does not take on board several recommendations made by the international actors, and thus still raises concerns," the spokesperson told VOA on Tuesday. "It is important that all those recommendations — reiterated today by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović — are taken into due account before final adoption of the law."
Rama tweeted a link Tuesday to a document outlining further changes to the proposed drafts of the laws, which have undergone multiple modifications since being introduced a year ago.
"The draft will be in the agenda tomorrow (Wednesday) to be approved, after a joint effort of almost a year with OSCE, and agreed upon 100 percent with the experts of the (OSCE media freedom) office, under the leadership of (OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media) Harlem Desir," he wrote.
Proposed changes to legislation
Desir had criticized multiple rounds of the draft laws, but after Rama's tweet, he published a series of his own proposed modifications, saying his office had been working with Rama on a host of last-minute improvements to the legislation.
He also said his office would closely monitor application of the law "which must, in no way, impede freedom of expression and media freedom."
"AMA should apply the law in a truly independent manner," he added.
Albania is set to assume the rotating presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in January. Bob Hand, senior adviser at the Helsinki Commission, which is the OSCE's partner organization in the United States, told VOA the new laws will compromise Albania's new international leadership role.
"My main concern is that it could potentially be problematic in Albania to have these laws. But it will also make it a little bit difficult for Albania to advocate greater freedom of expression in those OSCE countries that are already much more restricted than Albania is," he said.
Open letter to prime minister
This fall, the European Federation of Journalists issued an open letter to Rama explaining that passage of the defamation package would signal "a turn to the worst for Albania's press freedom climate," and that its ratification would violate OSCE-endorsed democratic guidelines of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The laws passed on Wednesday with 82 votes in favor, 13 against, and 5 abstaining. One of the abstainers was socialist Ditmir Bushati of Rama's party, who heads the Albanian delegation to OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly.
At a Helsinki Commission hearing last week on Albania's upcoming OSCE presidency, Bushati expressed hope that a rational solution would prevail. His vote on Wednesday indicates he found last-minute changes to the draft laws insufficient.
According to the new laws, AMA can levy hefty fines against online media outlets accused of damaging a person's reputation or infringing on their privacy before the outlets can elect to have the case heard in a court of law.
In most countries, such adjudicatory powers — the review of evidence, argumentation and legal reasoning for determining rights and obligations of the parties involved — are typically restricted to the courts.
Pay fines before day in court
The new law also says offenders can have their cases heard in court only after paying the AMA-imposed fine. Critics say this clause aims to decimate the finances of independent news outlets, whose limited funding would be likely to expire long before a court even hears the case.
Supporters of the law say it would regulate a crowded online publication marketplace while fighting "fake news" — a term some Albanian government officials have used to describe factual reporting that is critical of their work.
This story originated in VOA's Albanian Service.