Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. There were reports that the government, business, and criminal groups sought to influence the media in inappropriate ways.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of viewpoints, although there were efforts to exert direct and indirect political and economic pressure on the media, including by threats and violence against journalists who tried to investigate crime and corruption. Business owners freely used media outlets to gain favor and promote their interests with political parties. Most owners of private television stations used the content of their broadcasts to influence government action toward their other businesses. Political pressure, corruption, and lack of funding constrained independent print media, and journalists reportedly practiced self-censorship. Economic insecurity due to a lack of enforceable labor contracts reduced reporters’ independence and contributed to bias in reporting. The Albanian Journalists Union continued to report significant delays in salary payments to reporters at most media outlets, in some instances of up to 10 months. Financial problems led some journalists to rely more heavily on outside sources of income, leading to questions of integrity.
NGOs maintained that professional ethics were a low priority for some of the estimated 700-plus news portals in the country, raising concerns over the spread of false news stories that benefited specific financial or political interests. The dramatic growth in online media outlets provided a diversity of views.
In its annual Media Sustainability Index (MSI), the International Research and Exchanges Board indicated that free speech, plurality of news sources, and supporting institutions experienced a slight increase, but professionalism and business management decreased. Economic crisis and management practices in Albanian media have reduced finances and the quality of reporting in media outlets. The MSI noted that strain on media finances has led to cutbacks in newsrooms and has fostered self-censorship.
The independence of the Audiovisual Media Authority, the regulator of the broadcast media market, remained questionable, but the role of the authority remained limited.
Violence and Harassment: There were multiple reports of violence and intimidation against members of the media, and political and business interests subjected journalists to pressure.
On August 30, an unknown assailant shot 10 times at the home of crime reporter Klodiana Lala’s parents. No injuries were reported, but Lala’s two daughters were in the home at the time of the attack. Lala often reported on organized crime and law enforcement matters, including judicial reform. In a Facebook post after the attack, Lala stated she believed the attack was linked to her reporting. Police were investigating the attack.
In September the chair of the Union of Albanian Journalists stated that 12 journalists had filed asylum requests in EU member states, citing threats due to their jobs.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists often practiced self-censorship to avoid violence and harassment and as a response to pressure from publishers and editors seeking to advance their political and economic interests. A 2015 survey by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) Albania, an organization that focuses on investigative journalism, found that large commercial companies and important advertisers were key sources of pressure. A study published by the Union of Albanian Journalists in April cited censorship and self-censorship as leading problems for journalists.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law permits private parties to file criminal charges and obtain financial compensation for insult or deliberate publication of defamatory information. NGOs reported that the fines, which could be as much as three million leks ($27,800), were excessive and, combined with the entry of a conviction into the defendant’s criminal record, undermined freedom of expression. In April the Union of Albanian Journalists expressed concern that during the first four months of the year, judges and politicians had initiated 14 lawsuits against journalists.
In 2017 a member of the High Council of Justice, Gjin Gjoni, filed defamation lawsuits against two BIRN journalists and two journalists of the daily Shqiptarja.com for their coverage of his asset declaration, which prosecutors were investigating. Gjoni was seeking seven million leks ($64,800) from BIRN and four million leks ($37,000) from Shqiptarja.com, claiming the stories damaged his reputation. After several hearings, the court ruled in March to drop the Shqiptarja case because Gjoni and his lawyers had failed to appear at five of the 11 hearings. In June the court dismissed the case against BIRN. Gjoni appealed both decisions and the cases are pending.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
The Authority for Electronic and Postal Communications decreed on October 15 that 44 media web portals had 72 hours to obtain a tax identification number and publish it on their web pages or the government would shut them down. The list included several investigative news sites, including BIRN. At year’s end, the government had not shut down noncompliant portals.
According to March data from Internet World Stats, approximately 66 percent of the population used the internet.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. Police allowed UNHCR, the Office of the Ombudsman, and the NGO Caritas to monitor the processing, detention, and deportation of some migrants, especially in southern Albania.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: UNHCR reported a few cases of police intimidation and reluctance to accept requests for asylum. UNHCR received only one report of violence. It shared the report with the government, which took measures to address the complaint.
Authorities often detained irregular migrants who entered the country. As of August 23, authorities had detained approximately 67 migrants, mostly at the country’s southern border with Greece; most of those who did not request asylum were deported to Greece within 24 hours. Migrants detained further inland could spend several weeks at the Karrec closed migrant detention facility awaiting deportation. UNHCR reported that conditions at the Karrec center were unsuitable, particularly for families and children.
Through July, the Ministry of Interior reported there were 2,328 asylum seekers, including 184 boys and 105 girls, in the National Center for Asylum Seekers in the Babrru open detention center. UNHCR reported there were 2,947 asylum seekers in total through August, more than 50 percent of all migrants tracked passing through the country.
In-country Movement: To receive government services, individuals changing place of residence within the country must transfer their civil registration to their new community and prove the legality of their new domicile through property ownership, a property rental agreement, or utility bills. Many persons could not provide proof and thus lacked access to public services. Other citizens, particularly Roma and Balkan-Egyptians, lacked formal registration in the communities where they resided. The law does not prohibit their registration, but it was often difficult to complete. Many Roma and Balkan-Egyptians lacked the financial means to register, and many lacked the motivation to go through the process.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.
There were credible reports from NGOs, migrants, and asylum seekers that authorities did not follow due process procedures for some asylum seekers and that in other cases those seeking asylum did not have access to the system. UNHCR, Caritas, and the Office of the Ombudsman were critical of the government’s migrant screening and detention procedures. There were reports of border police pushing migrants back into Greece.
The law on asylum requires authorities to grant or deny asylum within 51 days of an applicant’s initial request. Under the law, asylum seekers cannot face criminal charges of illegal entry if they contact authorities within 10 days of their arrival in the country. UNHCR reported that the asylum system lacked effective monitoring.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The law prohibits individuals from safe countries of origin or transit from applying for asylum or refugee status. UNHCR reported, however, that no asylum requests had been refused based on the government’s list of safe countries, which included Greece.
Employment: The law permits refugees to work. The limited issuance of refugee identification cards and work permits, however, meant few refugees had employment opportunities.
Access to Basic Services: The law provides migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees access to public services, including education, health care, housing, law enforcement, courts and judicial procedures, and legal assistance. Migrants and asylum seekers often required the intervention of UNHCR or local NGOs to secure these services.
The government does not have reliable data regarding the total number of stateless persons or persons at risk of statelessness in the country.
In July, UNHCR and its partner, the Tirana Legal Aid Society, published a report mapping the population at risk of statelessness in the country. The report identified 1,031 persons at risk of statelessness, 97 percent of whom were children. The report concluded that most of those at risk of statelessness were entitled to nationality under the law on citizenship, but exercising this right was difficult. Most of the persons at risk were Roma or Balkan-Egyptian children. Unregistered children born abroad to returning migrant families were at risk of statelessness, although the law affords the opportunity to obtain nationality.