Updated Declaration by the SafeJournalists Network Regarding the Arrest of Journalist Ervis Hasanaga in Albania

    photo: canva

    The SafeJournalists Network has been closely monitoring the developments surrounding the recent arrest of journalist Ervis Hasanaga in Albania. Hasanaga was arrested on May 30th on charges of computer fraud (Article 186/a of the Criminal Code) for publishing unverified news stories on a web portal. 

    According to the authorities, Hasanaga, along with other individuals, published fake news on the portal Shqipnews.info, which aimed at denigrating high-ranking officials of the State Police. The portal, which was not legally registered and had its domain purchased outside of Albania, was allegedly created and managed by a Chief of Sector of the Agency for Police Oversight in Durres, Albania, who orchestrated the scheme to damage his colleagues or superiors. This individual has not yet been arrested. The materials for publication were provided to Hasanaga through another staff member of the same agency, who was also arrested. 

    The prosecution has classified Hasanaga’s actions as computer fraud, a serious criminal offense punishable by imprisonment. They argue that the unauthorized publication of false news constitutes a deliberate attempt to manipulate and present false data as authentic. However, the legal basis for computer fraud does not address the denigration and damage to the image. 

    On June 2nd, the judge agreed with the prosecution’s request, asserting their right to investigate the matter further. The court has imposed an “obligation to appear” measure on Hasanaga until the investigation is completed.

    Hasanaga’s lawyer, Ylli Kamberi, contends that there was no criminal offense in this case and that the arrest was illegal. Kamberi told BIRN that Hasanaga was not arrested in flagrante delicto as reported by the police but had voluntarily presented himself to the authorities after being summoned for clarification. The lawyer emphasized that Hasanaga did not falsify any data but merely published a news item that later turned out to be false. Upon being informed that the news was untrue, Hasanaga promptly deleted it. Kamberi argues that the issue should be treated as a civil or administrative matter rather than a criminal one, highlighting that publishing false news does not equate to computer fraud. 

    The SafeJournalists Network recognizes the importance of journalists adhering to their ethical code and maintaining integrity and responsibility in their reporting. We also stress that it is imperative to rigorously investigate illegal activities such as the use of web portals for extortion or address the deliberate damaging of someone’s dignity and image; however, this must be done in a manner that also safeguards media freedom.

    On this occasion, we have reservations about the decision to classify the publication of unverified news as computer fraud. This classification sets a dangerous precedent that could lead to a chilling effect and self-censorship among journalists working in the public interest. The use of severe criminal charges like computer fraud, which is related to the manipulation of digital systems and data integrity, is disproportionate to the actions of publishing unverified news.

    We recognize that there are major challenges in Albania regarding the lack of information integrity in the online media, as evidenced in our Report of the Indicators on Media Freedom and Safety of Journalists in Albania. To address this issue and protect media freedom, we recommend the following:

    • We strongly urge journalists to adhere to their ethical code rigorously, uphold the integrity of the information they publish, and unequivocally distance themselves from any practices involving blackmail, extortion, fake news, or disinformation.
    • Strengthen self-regulation within the media industry through adherence to ethical codes and standards.
    • Using any media as an instrument to blackmail public officials, private individuals or businesses must not be normalized and must be properly addressed.
    • Authorities should ensure that legal actions against journalists are proportionate and appropriate, distinguishing between criminal offenses and civil/administrative issues.
    • Investigations into journalistic practices should be thorough, transparent, and fair, with clear and compelling evidence.
    • Albania should adhere to the Venice Commission’s recommendations regarding online media, the standards of the Council of Europe, and good practices in the European Union. 

    The SafeJournalists Network will continue to monitor the situation closely and advocate for a fair and just resolution that respects journalists’ freedom and critical role in society while upholding the principles of accountability and the rule of law.