Luigi Soreca, the EU ambassador to Tirana, said on Thursday that the European Commission is examining the new laws proposed by Albania government that allow the imposition of punishing fines on online media if they damage people’s reputation or infringe their privacy.
“We are now examining very carefully this new draft adopted by the Council of Ministers that will go to parliament in September,” Soreca told Albanian Public Television.
Prime Minister Edi Rama’s office announced last week that it has approved an “anti-defamation package” which had been “consulted upon with the EU and OSCE”.
However, Soreca said the European Commission was aware of a previous draft but not the current one that has been approved by the government.
“The European Commission and the EU delegation [to Albania] have already shared with the government comments on the previous draft back in spring,” Soreca said.
“It is a very important law, and must be examined with care and we are doing so together with our international partners,” he added.
Albanian rights organisations and journalists have criticised both laws and the way in which Rama has been attempting to get them approved without proper consultation
They have also highlighted a discrepancy between what the laws say and what government officials have said is their aim.
The laws have been presented as an anti-defamation initiative, an attempt to fight ‘fake news’ or to protect children from online abuse, and empower the country’s Audiovisual Media Authority to impose fines of up to 8,300 euros on online media and oblige them to pay the fines before they can lodge a complaint in a court.
Elvin Luku, a media expert from MediaLook Center, questioned the validity of the government’s claims.
“How the government knows whether online media are the biggest producers of Fake News?” he asked.
“Does the government have any statistics or has conducted any study about that? From my observations, the traditional media are the true producers of fake News,” he added.
The Albanian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization, questioned the political independence of Audiovisual Media Authority, saying there were no guarantees in place that it will not be politically abused by the government.
“The formula for the election of members of the Authority creates a de facto composition of four members supporting the parliamentary majority and three supporting the opposition,” Erinda Skendaj from the Helsinki Committee wrote in a blog post.
“This formula doesn’t provide guarantees that this institution will be non-political, despite the fact that legally we are speaking of an independent institution,” she added.
Critics have also compared the proposed laws to legislation to curb media freedom approved in Russia last May.
Prime Minister Rama has a history of proposals intended to curb freedom of speech. In 2015, he personally proposed jail sentences of up to three years for “defamation against high officials”, but withdrew it following a domestic and international outcry.
Over the last three years, he had repeatedly insulted journalists, calling them “charlatans”, “trash bins”, “ignorant” or “public enemies”.