A group of leading press freedom advocates issued an open letter to Albania's Parliament on Monday urging lawmakers to vote down a group of government-proposed anti-defamation laws that, critics say, would grant the country's top media regulator too much power.
The letter was issued less than two days before Albanian lawmakers are set to hold final hearings on the draft laws, which are scheduled for a Dec. 19 vote.
"Should the draft laws enter into force, they would introduce mandatory registration requirements for online media and create an administrative body with the power to fine, shut down online media, and block foreign online media — all without a court order," says the letter, which was posted online by the European Federation of Journalists. "They would also introduce state regulation of online media, which is contrary to international best practice guidelines on self-regulation."
The letter also warns Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama that the so-called "defamation package" signals "a turn to the worst for Albania's press freedom climate," and that its ratification would violate the European Convention on Human Rights and other democratic guidelines endorsed by the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe).
Albania is set to assume the presidency of the OSCE in January.
Also Monday, OSCE's Representative on Freedom of the Media published its latest legal analysis of the draft laws, calling for further improvements to safeguard "freedom of expression and avoid any risk of undue restrictions or sanctions on electronic media providers."
"Should these laws be passed, it would be particularly problematic for Albania to assume (presidency of the OSCE)," the letter states.
According to the latest version of the drafts laws, Albania's Audiovisual Media Authority (AMA) could impose fines nearing $10,000 on online media outlets that are 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.
If passed, the bill would require that online publications deemed in violation of the law could have their cases heard in court only after paying the AMA-imposed fine.
For online publications with limited funding, such a law could decimate their finances, even if a court ultimately decides in their favor, especially in a country where administrative courts are extensively backlogged.
Government officials who support 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.
While drafters of the law assure critics that its contents have been improved in ongoing parliamentary commission debates, international and local press freedom advocates disagree.
"The proposed defamation law establishes what I would call an AMA court, which means an institution that issues verdicts without due process," Elvin Luku of the Tirana-based local media watchdog, Medialook, told VOA in August.
The Tirana-based Albanian Reporters Union issued a statement this fall saying the legislative package "not only compromises the rights and fundamental principles of a free press, but, to a certain degree, strips a person penalized by the law of the right to send the case to a court of law."
In 2015, Rama suggested jail sentences of up to three years for "defamation against high officials," a proposal he retracted in the face of public indignation.
Since that time, he has referred to journalists as "charlatans" and "public enemies."
Monday's letter was signed by the European Center for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), ARTICLE 19, the European Federation of Journalists, the South East Europe Media Organization, the International Press Institute (IPI), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Mimoza Pacari contributed to this report from Albania.