The text of the corrections and complaints will be scripted by the ethics commission and failure to comply will result in a fine of 6,598 euros.
If the online media outlets refuse to comply with the rulings of the ethics administrative body, they could also face fines from the Electronic Communication and Postal Authority that run to 825,000 euros and were originally drafted for big telecoms providers.
All the fines imposed by the ethics commission will have to be paid immediately, and only after being handed over by media outlets can they undergo a legal review by the courts.
The draft laws do not discriminate between the online publications of powerful media houses and personal blogs, and are expected to have a chilling effect on local journalists, increasing the already widespread practice of self-censorship.
To put the fines in perspective, one should consider that most Albanian journalists receive less income in a year than the proposed sanctions for a single story.
That’s why, in early June, a fact-finding mission comprising seven well-known international media freedom organisations described the proposed legislation as a “draconian regulation scheme” which runs contrary to best practices internationally.
The response in Albania to the proposed legislation has been mixed, with media outlets that toe the government line coming out in support, while those against have called it a stunt by a government mired in corruption scandals, accusations of ties to organised crime and violent streets protest by the opposition.
The proposed legislation comes against the backdrop of a climate of increased threats, verbal and physical attacks against journalists and an overall deterioration of press freedom in the country.
Despite the criticism and a few cosmetic changes, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has soldiered on, threatening to punish the kind of online media outlet that he routinely attacks as being ‘kazan’ – a Turkish word that translates as ‘trash-bin’.
Rama has claimed in parliament that the legislation he is proposing has been reviewed and agreed by the Office for Media Freedom of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE.
Although the OSCE appears to have provided legal opinion on the proposed media draft laws, it’s unclear if its recommendations have been reflected by the Albanian government in the proposed bills. BIRN has also learned that the European Commission has given its opinion on the proposed legislation; however, Brussels’ take on the proposed regulations have not been publicly articulated.
Rama and his cronies claim that online media in Albania have become a breeding ground for fake news; however, there is little evidence to support such a claim. Domestic media outlets are plagued by protocol news, spin and disinformation campaigns produced in-house by the government and political parties and disseminated mainly through television stations whose owners are mainly oligarchs tied to heavily-regulated industries and align their media’s editorial line with their political and economic interests.
There is little evidence that the government intends to rein in such publicly-funded propaganda, spin and disinformation campaigns, and it’s notable that the new proposed media bills will not sanction reports that ‘truthfully’ cite open sessions of parliament and those of other government institutions.
No country in Europe, outside Vladimir Putin’s Russia, uses administrative bodies to regulate the content of online media outlets and imposes similarly draconian fines. Moscow is not well known for its credentials on media freedom and it’s certainly not a candidate country banging on Brussels’s door for EU membership, as Albania is.
If the Albanian government is serious with its bid to open accession negotiations with the EU this autumn, it should desist in its attempts to approve legislation that curbs media freedom and freedom of expression.
Similarly, if Brussels remains committed to extend the rights and freedoms that are central to the EU to the Western Balkans, it must not turn a blind eye to such poorly-drafted legislation and the overall deterioration of media freedom in the region.