18 June 2002


More than a decade after Albania's transition from hardline communist dictatorship to fledgling democracy, journalists still risk harassment, physical assaults and criminal defamation lawsuits, often by authorities, says Human Rights Watch (HRW). In a 60-page report released last week, the organisation says the media, haunted by the legacy of the previous regime, remain "far from free" in Albania.

Based on interviews with dozens of journalists and surveys of legal documents conducted during a three-week investigation last year, the report outlines three main areas of concern: violent attacks and intimidation of journalists; defamation trials against journalists; and the use of state advertising to exert editorial control over media.

Journalists in Albania, particularly those working outside the capital Tirana, suffer widespread intimidation and physical attacks, says HRW. They are subject to continuous threats, arbitrary detention, severe beatings and other attacks. What is disturbing, says HRW, is that police and other authorities are often behind the attacks in response to criticism of government corruption or human-rights abuses.

These attacks reached a peak during the June 2001 election. HRW says in three such incidents, authorities were responsible for, and may even have planned, actions to repress freedom of expression during that period. In all instances of attacks documented by HRW, not one person has been prosecuted or disciplined.

The use of defamation suits against the press is another tactic used to silence criticism. Examining six cases in which journalists have been sued by the government, HRW says Albanian law provides for jail sentences of up to two years for insulting or defaming public officials, an "unnecessary … measure that … violates freedom of expression." In all six cases, courts have denied defendants the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty despite guarantees in the Albanian constitution.

Finally, HRW notes the government's heavy use of state advertising to influence the editorial content of the media. Comparable in value to the entire private advertising sector, the state's advertising clout exerts considerable pressure on the media. Those sympathetic to the government are awarded generous contracts while those critical of officials can have virtual boycotts imposed on them, HRW says.

The group urges the government to end intimidation and attacks on journalists, repeal the country's criminal defamation laws; and establish mechanisms to ensure state advertising is not abused to interfere with media content.

To view the full report, go to www.hrw.org.">http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/albania/">www.hrw.org.


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