NEW YORK—Albania has embraced a growing regional trend by adopting significant reforms to the country’s criminal libel laws. The changes were approved by parliament on March 1, and follow important amendments to the country's civil defamation provisions approved on February 17.
The changes were the culmination of a seven-year effort led by the Open Society Justice Initiative and the Albanian Media Institute, which received multi-partisan support in three successive legislatures.
Remzi Lani, head of the Albanian Media Institute, said: “It is a good day for free speech and democratic discourse. Albania’s defamation laws are now in line with the prevailing European standards.”
The amendments to the criminal code included the full repeal of four offenses that granted special protections to national and foreign government officials, which have been abused in the past to harass journalists. Prison terms and involvement of public prosecutors in defamation cases were also abolished. The lawmakers maintained insult and the deliberate publication of defamatory falsehoods as misdemeanors, to be prosecuted privately and subject to a fine.
James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, said: “The Justice Initiative and its partners had urged Albanian lawmakers to repeal criminal libel altogether. However, the reforms that were ultimately adopted are significant and should be welcomed as a sign of deepened commitment to democracy and free expression.”
Also repealed was a provision punishing desecration of foreign state symbols, and the circumstances under which desecration of the Albanian flag can be criminalized were narrowed.
The changes to the criminal and civil codes, whose adoption required a supermajority in Parliament, became possible due to a recent thaw in the chilly relationship between government and opposition parties that had greatly hampered lawmaking activities in recent years. The two sides have now committed to passing reforms important to the country’s efforts to seek European Union membership. The European Commission and media freedom watchdogs had repeatedly called for defamation law upgrades.
The civil code amendments provide greater guidance to judges, by requiring them to consider elements such as truth and the contribution of statements to democratic debate, while also taking due account of unjust attacks on reputation. The changes seek to limit damage awards to proportionate levels that do not jeopardize the financial survival of media outlets.
“These changes will add much needed clarity in an area of law that is critical to democracy,” said Darian Pavli, a Justice Initiative senior attorney who was invited to advise key parliamentary debates on the proposed reforms. Civil libel awards granted by Albanian courts have increased dramatically in recent years, casting a chilling shadow perhaps longer than that of the criminal offenses, which have largely fallen into disuse in the recent past.
Last week’s reforms in Albania follow a trend set by new European democracies, such as Estonia and Bosnia, who were among the first to repeal criminal libel laws. Such laws remain in the books in several Western European countries, but are sparsely used and subject to the close scrutiny of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.