An opposition supporter holds an EU flag outside the Parliament building during an anti-government protest, calling on Prime Minister Edi Rama to step down, in Tirana, Albania, June 8, 2019.

This story originated in VOA’s Albanian Service

TIRANA, ALBANIA – Press freedom advocates and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Albania are fighting a government-proposed defamation law that, critics say, would grant the country’s top media regulator too much power.

According to the latest version of the draft law, Albania’s Audiovisual Media Authority (AMA) could impose fines nearing $10,000 on online media outlets that are accused of damaging a person’s reputation or infringing on their privacy before the outlets can elect to have the case heard in a court of law.

In most countries, such adjudicatory powers — the review of evidence, argumentation and legal reasoning for determining rights and obligations of the parties involved — are typically restricted to the courts.

If passed into law, the bill would require that online publications deemed in violation of the law could have their cases heard in court only after paying the AMA-imposed fine.

For online publications with limited funding, such a law could decimate their finances, even if a court ultimately decides in their favor, especially in a country where administrative courts are extensively backlogged.

‘Fake news’ a major concern

Government officials who support the law say it would regulate a crowded online publication marketplace while fighting “fake news” — a term some Albanian government officials have used to describe factual reporting that is critical of their work.

While drafters of the law assure critics that its contents have been improved in ongoing parliamentary commission debates, media representatives and press freedom advocates disagree.

“The proposed defamation law establishes what I would call an AMA-court, which means an institution that issues verdicts without due process,” said Elvin Luku of the Tirana-based local media watchdog, Medialook.

“Such an act not only compromises the rights and fundamental principles of a free press, but, to a certain degree, strips a person penalized by the law of the right to send the case in a court of law,” said a statement issued by the Albanian Reporters Union.

Caka defends proposed law

Albanian Deputy Minister of Justice Fjoralba Caka defended the current draft of the law.

“Only when a web portal refuses to withdraw the material based on made-up facts, the individual has the right to go to AMA,” she said. “AMA gives 48 hours to the publication to submit its counterpoints.”

Harlem Désir, OSCE’s press freedom representative, wrote that while he appreciates the constructive cooperation apparent in “many improvements” made throughout successive drafts of the law, “further improvements to the law are still needed.”

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in 2015 suggested jail sentences of up to three years for “defamation against high officials,” a proposal he retracted in the face of public indignation.

Since that time, Rama has referred to journalists as “charlatans” and “public enemies.”

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