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Courting controversy at the outset of his third term, Albanian PM Edi Rama has set up a new state agency for media and information, or MIA. Skeptics decry it as a "propaganda ministry."
Albanian PM Rama (r) welcomed President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen (l) to the capital Tirana, September 28, 2021. The country's new stance on press freedom could put it at odds with the EU.
"MIA's objective is to increase the transparency and information capacity for the public and media, as well as to inform the Council of Ministers on the issues presented in the daily news," reads an official statement issued to Deutsche Welle by the Albanian prime minister's press office explaining Albania's new Agency for Media and Information.
Ermal Hasimja, an expert in political and communication sciences, believes the government is still acting within the law with its latest initiative, yet he still sees room for skepticism. "We all fear this agency will be used as a means of reinforcing the government's ability to put pressure on the media. What's more, when it comes to political communication, it will really increase the government's monitoring and control capabilities. Yet nothing has fundamentally changed: the government is simply giving its ongoing efforts to monitor and control the media a more institutional framework," Hasimja told DW.
For journalist Lindita Cela of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) — an investigative network — news of the creation of such an agency remains worrying. "This is not because its main mission is to convey government propaganda to the public but because I find the government's arrogant use of Albanian taxpayers' money to establish a massive control structure very problematic," Cela told DW.
The agency is the latest in a long line of initiatives by the Rama administration aimed at restricting journalistic freedoms. In 2021, Albania ranked 83rd in the Reporters Without Borders' report on press freedom. "The Albanian government increased pressure on the media in 2020, threatening to pass an anti-defamation law, despite criticism from press freedom organizations and against the advice of the Venice Commission," the report said. The Venice Commission is the Council of Europe's leading human rights body.
So what basis was used to establish the agency? According to the prime minister's press office, the MIA was modeled on the experiences and existing agencies of a number of different countries, including the press and information office of the German federal government.
Germany's Federal Press Office has existed since 1949, when what was then West Germany was governed by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. Today it is headed by a government spokesperson and two deputies. A description of its tasks and functions emphasizes concepts and key words such as democracy and freedom of expression — terms that were blatantly missing from the ministerial decision taken in Albania to establish the MIA.
For political scientist Hasimja, where Albania differs from a normal democratic country is that public relations with large sections of the media are governed by co-optation and clientelist cooperation, attendant journalistic standards, he says, are therefore miserable. "In some cases, the government has attempted — with some success — to restrict and control media freedoms to the extent that it is protected, through pretexts, from defamation or copyright."
Bearing this in mind, the problem is not with the new formal structure, but with the potential for it to be used to strengthen the government's capacity for restriction and control, at the expense of freedom of expression, Hasimja said. The MIA is to be headed by a "general director, who shall be appointed, dismissed or fired by the prime minister."
Another major bone of contention among Albanian journalists is that of submitting requests for information. For Cela, point "N," which states that "the Agency shall answer letters and requests for information regarding issues of information and media communication, or other issues in its area of responsibility," will further complicate the situation.
"In my work, I have had over a dozen cases where I have been denied the right to information, forcing me to take legal action as a result." She is convinced that the creation of the agency will make everything more difficult, as it will be MIA employees who will decide whether or not to release the information requested.
To date, concerns expressed by Albanian journalists have focused on the ways in which the MIA will affect their daily work and to what extent. "Following the creation of this agency, I think it will be very difficult for me to exercise my profession. The state, which has an obligation to guarantee the rule of law, is creating a superstructure to hinder free and independent media, and to revive the ministry of propaganda," says Cela.
In Albania, the authority that deals directly with the right to access information is the Information and Data Protection Commissioner. The government does not see the creation of the new agency as a clash of competencies. In a response to DW, the latter stated that, "The relationship of journalists and media with the spokespersons of the ministries and the government has not changed and conforms with all international best practices, so there is no overlap with the work of the Commissioner for the Right to Information whom you mention."
Freedom of expression continues to be one of the main criteria that Albania must fulfill if it is to become a member of the EU. "As far as Albania and its path towards EU integration is concerned, this new agency is likely to trigger new and legitimate fears among European institutions, regarding the political aspect in particular. Seen in the current Albanian context, the establishment of such a structure sends problematic signals to the EU in terms of how the government sees its relationship with freedom of expression," concludes Hasimja.