State pressure and physical assault on Albanian journalists

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    In the past few days, there have been two serious cases of threats to the freedom of journalism in Albania.

    State pressure on Albanian journalists Andi Bushati and Armand Shkullaku

    On 16 April at 13:30, in Tirana, Andi Bushati and Armand Shkullaku, owners and editors of the online publication Lapsi.al, were summoned for questioning to the prosecutor’s office by the Special Prosecution Against Organized Crime and Corruption (SPAK) as part of a formally open investigations into the leak of a massive tracking system of 910,000 personal data files of citizens (allegedly a dataset of the Socialist Party of Albania used for electoral purposes).

    Bushati stated that prosecutors asked him to indicate the source from where he obtained the information and that Lapsi.al refused to provide it in order to protect the source. It is unclear whether criminal investigations against journalists have been officially initiated.

    Lapsi.al and then other media published details of a large database that contained the personal information of more than  910,000 voters. The data provided  included their ID number, name, fathers name, surname, date of birth, voting center, place of birth, residence code, phone number, whether they are an emigrant and if so, which country, whether they are likely to vote for the Socialist Party, birthplace, employer, and Patron.

    Bushati described the meeting with prosecutors as “short” while urging them to fully investigate how citizens’ personal data ended up in the hands of a political party.

    “I do not believe that the prosecution will find out the truth about this event”, Bushati said.

    “This issue is being treated simply as a leak of personal data, and as such it is not within the competence of the SPAK, but this is in fact much worse, it is an electoral crime”, Bushati added.

    This was the first time he was called to SPAK. On April 19, Lapsi.al has announced that the Special Anti-Corruption and Organized Crime Prosecution has ordered the immediate execution of a court order demanding Lapsi.al to submit the evidence of how they got in possession of an alleged document containing the personal data of 910,000 people. Following this, Lapsi confirmed that they remain firm in their refusal to submit the database and thus reveal their source. Exit.al notes that it remains unclear if prosecutors have taken any action against politicians or political parties allegedly involved in the scandal. The only move they have made public so far has been against Lapsi and its journalists.

    “It’s disconcerting, the data breach involving the personal data of Tirana’s citizens, clear violation of the Constitution, the Law on Private Data Protection, and it strides far from EU’s GDPR law. Authorities in Albania should lead a transparent investigation. It is crucial to allow the media to do their investigative work, protect their sources, but at the same time media must also adhere to ethical codes of conduct. What worries me is that so far only journalists are under investigation and not the public authorities or other institutions that might be responsible for such scandalous data breach”, Blerjana Bino said, SafeJournalists researcher in Albania.

    Attack on Albanian journalist Ronaldo Sharka and his crewAnother case took place at an electoral meeting of Tirana Mayor ErionVeliaj in Kavaja and turned into incidents against the shooting crew of Ora News TV and journalist Ronaldo Sharka.

    On April 18, around noon, according to the information known so far, journalist Ronaldo Sharka and his team were literally pushed out of that political gathering.

    In an interview in the studio of Ora News, journalist Ronaldo Sharka said: “I was with a microphone, with a badge, with a media logo, easily identifiable and I addressed Mr. Veliaj, for questions in the interest of public, but the situation was very serious and there I realized that something was wrong. It was not Veliaj’s bodyguards, the bodyguards of the municipality who protected him from the media. This has already become normal for me and other colleagues. But there were people I had never seen, about forty of them who pushed the entire crew away.”

    Mr Ronaldo Sharka has now filed charges with the local Police. There is no reaction from the Mayor about this.Earlier this week, his colleague Isa Myzyraj, also journalist of the same TV station, on April 12, was physically stopped from questioning the Mayor by his security guards.

    “The Mayor refuses to respond to our questions which are questions of public interest, but he refuses to do so and has also attacked verbally our media on other occasions”, Isa Myzyraj said for SafeJournalist Network

    Ronaldo Sharko expressed concern about “the lack of the Mayor’s willingness to respond to questions from journalists and continued hostility towards this media in particular”.

    “Journalists and media professionals of Ora News TV have made public various incidents with the Mayor of Tirana, and this is an issue of concern for media freedom, but also for local government transparency and accountability. Now that Ora News journalists have filed charges with the local Police, it is paramount for the authorities to investigate this properly”, Blerjana Bino said, SafeJournalists researcher in Albania.

    SafeJournalists Network, representing more than 8,200 media professionals in the Western Balkans, stands in solidarity with Albania colleagues and condemns the attack on the TV crew, but also expresses concern about the pressure exerted on journalists to disclose their sources. In the first case, the SafeJournalist Network expects that authorities in Albania should lead a transparent investigation, and in the second one we also expect from the Mayor to react to these allegations and distance himself from attacks towards journalists.

    SafeJournalists Network will inform all relevant national and international stakeholders about both cases.

    Each attack on journalists is an attack on public interest, democracy and rights of all citizens.

    Skopje – Belgrade – Podgorica – Pristina – Sarajevo – Zagreb, 19.04.2021

    Association of Journalists of Kosovo

    Association of Journalists of Macedonia

    BH Journalists Association

    Croatian Journalists’ Association

    Independent Journalists Association of Serbia

    Trade Union of Media of Montenegro