TIRANA, ALBANIA - Press freedom in Albania was already in decline before two consecutive crises — a deadly earthquake in November 2019 and now the COVID-19 pandemic — further eroded journalists’ rights in the country.
A group of leading press freedom advocates and Albanian journalists have locked horns with lawmakers over a group of government-proposed anti-defamation laws that, critics say, would grant the country's top media regulator too much power.
"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," said an open letter to Albania's Parliament posted by the European Federation of Journalists in December.
"They would also introduce state regulation of online media, which is contrary to international best practice guidelines on self-regulation," the federation added.
The anti-libel initiatives "are nothing more than an effort from political institutions to exert control on the media and its role,” says Aleksandër Çipa, president of the Union of Albanian Journalists.
Government officials dismiss these concerns. They say the media environment has greatly improved since Prime Minister Edi Rama's ruling Socialists came to power seven years ago.
“Never has this majority approved laws or amendments such as the so called anti-defamation package without consulting [and finding agreement] with the international organizations, and I mean the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe,” Alfred Peza, a Socialist Party public relations secretary, told VOA Albanian.
But the OSCE has never fully endorsed the current version of the law, which is still being reviewed by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, a group of independent constitutional law experts. The commission's opinion, which was expected in March, has been delayed by circumstances resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
Peza said legislators would make a final decision only after the commission had weighed in.
"If needed, we will reflect, of course,” he said.
Meanwhile, Albanian journalists say the twin crises of last year’s deadly earthquake and the COVID-19 pandemic have only made reporting more challenging.
They accuse Tirana officials of withholding information.
“They use the public relations machine. They communicate directly through their social media and therefore do not need the media as an intermediary with the public," said Lutfi Dervishi, a Tirana-based media analyst and journalism professor.
"There is an erosion of providing official information, a right sanctioned by a very good law but that is not respected.”
Aleksandra Bogdani of the Balkans Investigative Reporting Network said the current government blockage was reminiscent of what transpired after last year's natural disaster.
“After the earthquake, we saw the prime minister comparing reporters to barking dogs and telling the public not to trust them,” she told VOA.
Now, she added, official "information has been quarantined."
“It is difficult if not impossible to confirm with independent sources," said Bogdani. "Information comes from one source only: the government.”
COVID-19 has also taken a financial toll on journalists. Tirana-based freelancer Ben Andoni said reporters aren't receiving regular pay, but that this is impossible to prove because the widespread informality that pervades much of Albania's economic sectors now includes media outlets as well.
“Authorities are happy with this media chaos, because it becomes easier for them to handle our community,” he said.
Çipa of the Albanian journalists union said the organization has called for renewed discussion of how to safeguard media, especially during times of crisis.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranked Albania 84th out of 180 countries in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, a two-place backslide from 2019.
This story originated in VOA's Albanian service.