OSCE condemns Albanian initiative to register all its online new portals as the anti-defamation package sparks fierce public debates

Tirana, Albania | 19 Oct 2018 (Tirana Echo) – The OSCE has criticized Albania’s move to demand its online news portals to register with the country’s tax authorities, as a potentially restrictive act against media freedom.

OSCE Representative on Media Freedom Harlem Désir said Albania’s threat to close 44 news websites was seen by the organisation as a potentially restrictive move against the independent media.

“States should not impose mandatory registration to online media as a precondition for their work, which can have a very negative effect on media freedom. This practice, when applied, could seriously restrict public access to diverse sources of information, the plurality of voices, and erode the right of freedom of expression and information online” Désir said in a press release.

The statement follows an announcement by Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama, who earlier in the week said all online portals must be ‘officially legitimized’ by registering with the tax office as part of a wider ‘anti-defamation package’ which the government has pledged to approve in parliament.

Several journalists have openly defied Albania’s Electronic and Postal Communications Authority (AKEP), which is supposed to oversee the process of registration and closures. On Monday, AKEP published a list of 44 portals which risked closure if they do not register with the tax authorities and publish their tax number online, giving them a 72-hour deadline to do so.

Many media representatives have condemned the package as muddled and contradictory, while some have called the new measures anti-constitutional.

Some of the very few independent investigative media outlets, which are fully transparent, are on the list of threatened portals,” – said Vasilika Laçi, Programme Director at Civil Rights Defenders.

The focus has shifted towards BIRN Albania outlet Reporter.al which is also on the list. BIRN has said the threat was illegal and, as such, it would not abide by it. Furthermore, its representatives have questioned the new measures as anti-constitutional.

AKEP has threatened to violate the constitutional principle of preliminary censorship, it has broken the principle of neutrality of the online network and has broken its own institutional independence”, said Gjergj Erebara in an article for reporter.al.

However, Edi Rama’s socialists maintain online portals have to register with the tax authority as the situation of speculative allegations across the media in Albania is out of control. Many online portals randomly publish articles alleging corruption scandals and naming government officials as well as other public persons without appropriate proof.

Although Albania’s has some legal infrastructure to challenge such unfounded media speculations, Edi Rama wants to take it a step further by approximating the country’s legislation to that of other countries in the EU which boast tough anti-defamation laws.

According to a project called the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, co-funded by the European Commission, behind the majority of Albanian media there are owners who use it to defend their own interests in fields entirely disconnected from editorial scope.

While Albanian media seem vigorous and fairly diverse, media outlets often display a strong political bias, and their reporting is influenced by the economic or political interests of their owners.

Albania’s media outlets have often been labelled by critics as ‘punishing sticks’ in the hands of rogue businessmen who use them not to inform the public, but to pressure whoever is in power to deliver on other business interests.

However, on the last measures against online portals, the government has not explained how the list of portals was compiled or how AKEP verified their tax status before the publication of the list. The OSCE has emphasised that it had asked the government for a proper explanation about this.

On Thursday, after the 72-hour deadline expired, none of the “blacklisted” websites were blocked by AKEP. 

Freedom House classified Albania as “Partly Free” in its latest Freedom of the Press Report for 2017.

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