Two journalists were taken to the police station for questioning on Sunday night in Albania after they published information that was deemed “false” and that “caused panic”.
Aurel Rakipllari from Syri.net and Daniela Grica from Shekulli, both government-critical news portals, were detained and questioned by officers in Tirana and then released. The charges related to a Shekulli report that “A Greek seismographer says to stay away from your home as a major earthquake is expected at around 11:30 pm,” and a Syri.net report warning readers to “Get out of your houses/Powerful earthquake expected. Here is when.”
This story had no basis in facts as it is not possible to predict the time of an earthquake or its magnitude. The seismographer in question, Akis Tselentis had been interviewed extensively by local media over the last two days and he claimed that as Albania is in a zone of high seismic activity, the probability of major earthquakes is high. He did not give any indication that one was imminent, nor did he give specific dates or times.
The news was then spread across social media, igniting widespread panic in citizens. Thousands of families left their homes and congregated in open spaces including Skanderbeg Square, Nene Tereza Square, and football stadiums. People were spotted crying and panicking, thinking a large and destructive quake was imminent, many slept overnight in their cars.
Syri.net spoke out about the detention saying it is an attempt to silence free media.
“The news that advised citizens to stay outside due to the forecast of the Greek seismographer is being used as a justification by [Prime Minister Edi] Rama to close down the most critical portal against the government,” Syri said.
As per the Criminal Code, publishing information that is fake and creates panic in the population is a criminal offence. However, enforcing this law requires consideration of many other factors. These include other portals republishing, how it is disseminated, and the phenomenon of “Chinese Whispers” which is where a narrative is exaggerated and changed as it spreads verbally.
Fake news is a common occurrence in Albanian society and is often used by political parties and their respective media’s to influence public opinion. Outside of Albania, it is also widely used in politics and social matters and similar scares have occurred including the ‘Millenium bug’ prior to the year 2000, stories around alleged dangers of vaccines, false statements by politicians, Kerala floods, reports that the world is going to end. Legal action is rarely taken in these instances but it is recognised as a serious problem within society that needs to be controlled and eradicated.
Exit has reached out to international press freedom organisations for their professional opinion on the matter.