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Representatives of fourteen member organisations of SEENPM met on 30 October in Tirana for an annual meeting of the General Assembly. As the highest decision-making body in the network's governing structure, the GA reviewed SEENPM's activities in the previous year, including the implementation of the network's 2014-6 strategic plan and finances.
Corina Cepoi, the outgoing president of the SEENPM Board, highlighted a number of projects that the network implemented in 2014, including SEE Media Observatory, EU Investigative Journalism Awards in Western Balkan and Turkey, Partnership for Media Development and Reporting Neighbours in Balkan Media as well as initiatives on hate speech and digital regulation and efforts to determine and address capacity building needs of SEENPM members. Tihomir Loza, executive director, provided updates on the current activities of the SEENPM Secretariat, including fundraising and plans to improve the network’s internal and external communication.
The General Assembly also voted to elect three new members to the five-member SEENPM Board. Mladen Velojić of Media & Reform Center, Serbia; Barış Altıntaş of Platform 24, Turkey; and Ljiljana Žugić of the Montenegro Media Institute replaced three members whose terms had expired: Corina Cepoi of IJC Moldova, Ilona Moricz of the Centre for Independent Journalism, Hungary; and Ioana Avadani of the Centre for Independent Journalism, Romania.
The new board held its first session after the GA meeting, electing Ines Bamburać, executive director of Mediacentar Sarajevo, as its president. “I am looking forward to working closely with the network’s governing bodies and executive director to enable SEENPM to continue playing a key role in advancing media freedoms and professionalism at a time when the media sector throughout the region faces a number of tough challenges,” said Ines Bamburać.
The Council of Ministers has proposed new amendments to the Penal Code, which aim to criminalize again defamation. Moreover, the aim of the new amendment is to grant specific protection against defamation to high public officials. The government submitted the amendments to the parliament on October 14, while the discussion in the Parliamentary commission on Legal Affairs is planned to take place on November 16. The proposal follows remarks made by Prime Minister Edi Rama in a plenary session in parliament on February 12 that he was examining the possibility of reverting to criminal regulation of defamation. His speech addressed the political debate in the parliament, where continuous verbal assaults and exchange of charges between political rivals has become the norm.
The amendment in question proposes to add Art. 238/a to the Chapter of the Penal Code “Crimes against state authorities.” The proposal for the article is the following:
Defamation against a high or elected state official
The defamation, made in a worldly manner, against a high or elected state official, with the aim of attributing him a fact that the law stipulates as a penal offence, is sanctioned by fine or imprisonment up to three years.
According to the report that accompanies the proposed amendment, this is a direct initiative of the Prime Minister, as he has said publicly before. The report claims that there have been grave violations of the defamation against high public officials since the decriminalization of libel, and punishment through civil lawsuits has been insufficient. Hence, the government views it as a necessary step to reintroduce criminal defamation regulation. Another argument is that the Code retains protection for offending the court, so the same protection should be enjoyed by the government. The report states that since the effects of penal cases are more serious than those of civil cases, this will lead to prevention of defamation.
The news on this amendment has sparked instant reaction and opposition from media community and there have been calls for protests from heads of associations. The Albanian Media Institute and Soros Foundation, who were the main supporters and drivers of the decriminalization of libel and defamation in 2012, have submitted their opinion to the Parliamentary Commission on Legal Affairs, upon the request of this commission, drafted by Darian Pavli, a well-known freedom of expression lawyer. According to this legal opinion, the initiative is a hasty one, with technical shortcomings and with a very negative impact on many aspects related to freedom of expression.
This is certainly a very negative development in the area of freedom of expression. The amendment extends special protection to high officials, at a time when they should be more open to public scrutiny and criticism. As the legal opinion submitted to the commission details, apart from the general effect on climate of freedom of expression there are also several problems with the proposed amendment:
- The current proposal extends protection only high and elected state officials, compared to old provisions that referred to employees carrying out a state or public duty. This means that the amendment aims to defend especially those officials that should be more exposed to public criticism, while denying the same protection to ordinary public employees.
- There is no clear definition of the “high official,” and what that includes.
- The amendment does not directly relate defamation to the duty and function one has. The proposal sanctions those statements that aim to attribute a fact that the law stipulates as a penal offence, without specifying that the defamatory statement must be related to the function one has in public and state institutions, and not include all criminal offences.
- Another problematic aspect is that the prosecution can start to investigate it and take it to court as crime against state authority. Given the recent history of prosecution cases that intimidated journalists and the risk for politicizing prosecution, this is of great concern.
- The sanctions proposed in the amendment, which can lead up to three years of prison term, are very severe and unacceptable in the light of ECHR case law, which will certainly have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and its exertion.
For all of these reasons, the adoption of this draft law as it is would be very hasty and a major setback on freedom of expression standards in the country. While there are always arguments for amending laws and specific provisions, doing them without public consultation and in a way that goes clearly against freedom of expression in order to protect officials is certainly the wrong way to change legislation.