On Tuesday, 26 November 2019, Albania was hit by a 6.4-magnitude earthquake, causing devastating effects to the country. Shortly afterwards, a young Albanian girl was arrested for "causing public panic" because of a Facebook post she shared to her page, and which was supposedly false information about the post-earthquake situation. Due to a number of similar subsequent incidents, Edi Rama, Prime Minister of Albania, gave a speech in which he declared that he would shut down all media outlets that spread misinformation on the situation – and indeed, online news portal joqalbania.al was shut down a few hours later. However, the Albanian government could not block the platform's Facebook page, which the news portal used to inform the public about what they considered an unjust decision which violates freedom of expression and media freedom.
The government then introduced what was called an "anti-defamation legislative package" which was considered unconstitutional by Albanian President Ilir Meta and received criticism from the Council of Europe (CoE) and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). This legislative bill also triggered unrest among the Albanian civil society, causing various protests, in particular by organisations representing the country's media and journalists.
The Albanian government called on the Venice Commission for an opinion. The Venice Commission, in its opinion released on Friday, 19 June 2020, considered the law too vague, posing the risk of suppressing free discussion and political speech online. Furthermore, the law could also be used against individual bloggers, users of social media, and so on, and it risks imposing disproportionate fines to small online media outlets.
Obviously, misinformation and disinformation have the power to polarise our society and politics, with viral information about natural disasters such as earthquakes and COVID-19 potentially even having fatal consequences. Nevertheless, protecting freedom of expression from censorship is essential in guaranteeing human rights are protected even in times of crises and in ensuring that governments do not exploit such situations to arbitrarily expand their authoritarian powers.
Censorship threatens the work of journalists and whistleblowers, which is crucial in exposing the truth to the public. Rather than taking the easy way out and censoring content through authoritarian solutions, tangible solutions towards transparency, integrity and self-regulation could be sought. Any government safeguards should guarantee due process and proportionality of the sanctions. While finding solutions for disinformation and misinformation on the internet, we should keep in mind that freedom of expression and freedom of speech are the main values of our democratic societies.
Disinformation has always existed. What is different now is the shift towards an open internet where information is no longer curated by newspapers or TV channels, but by the individuals themselves. This gives higher opportunities to malicious actors to spread content to vulnerable audiences. To fight this phenomenon, the focus should be more towards educating online users about the sources of their information, raising awareness, and increasing societal resilience, paying particular attention to vulnerable groups who face a higher risk of being misled. At the same time, the anonymity of content writers should be guaranteed online. Such approaches led to Canada's "Break the fake" initiative of using a game app to teach citizens to identify disinformation, and to Italy's Declaration on Digital Rights that raises citizens' awareness of their digital rights. Any governmental initiative addressing online content and disinformation should be designed and implemented in consultation with the media, tech platforms and civil society. Governments need to ensure that the fight against disinformation does not create restrictions to free expression.
While this might seem a balanced solution in general, controversies might arise in cases related to natural disasters, or other sensitive issues that spread massive panic to the citizens and might even lead to loss of life, such as the most recent example of misleading information about COVID-19. Should the government or any other stakeholder have the power to shut down online portals or to arrest individuals for exercising their freedom of expression, in these cases? Or should there be no distinction regarding the content of the false information? Lastly, is it better to have no news rather than false news or biased opinions? To conclude, whatever approach is taken to fight disinformation and false information, it must be based on the respect of fundamental rights and crises should not be used as a pretext to undermine freedom of expression or unduly limit access to information.
The above article was written by Dr Nertil Bërdufi and is published here with permission from the author. The views expressed do not reflect those of the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) Team nor of the European Commission (EC).