SCiDEV statement regarding the special parliamentary committee on disinformation

SCiDEV statement regarding the special parliamentary committee on disinformation

SCiDEV statement regarding the special parliamentary committee on disinformation

Socialist Party MPs request for a special committee on disinformation

On 28th March 2024, seven MPs from Albania’s Socialist Party (SP), in power since 2013, requested the formation of a special parliamentary committee to tackle disinformation and foreign interference in democratic processes. This committee is to analyze various aspects, including disinformation via media, foreign financial support, and malicious economic influences, assessing compliance with legal transparency obligations in democratic processes, particularly in election campaign financing. According the request, the committee will recommend legal and administrative measures to enhance platform responsibility, ensure content transparency, and address inauthentic online behavior without infringing on free speech, including content removal and accounts closure. It will engage with media, business, and civil society to foster debate on combating foreign interference, evaluate funding restrictions, and collaborate with organizations monitoring disinformation. Annually, the committee must report its findings and suggestions to the Assembly, including strategies to counteract harmful information campaigns from third countries. Comprising 13 members representing all parliamentary groups, led by the majority party’s representative, and it intends to be supported by a group of experts from various governmental and national institutions, the committee’s term is one year, subject to extension by the Assembly (Full request). Prime Minister Rama  endorsed immediately this request and stated that “we need to move with full speed”.

Rationale

The rationale for the request is based on the Memorandum of Understanding signed on February 15, 2024, by Albania’s Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Igli Hasani, and US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, in Tirana, targeting the manipulation of foreign state information and disinformation. However, this document is not available publicly. Further, the request follows the Ukraine – South East Europe Declaration on February 28, 2024, that emphasizes bolstering efforts against disinformation and cyber threats to contribute to global stability. Third, according to the SP, the request responds to the EU’s 2023 Report on Albania recommendation on the necessity for Albania to continue its initiatives to curb foreign interference and disinformation, promoting societal resilience against such threats.

Approval

Through a rapid procedure without consultation, on 3rd April 2024, the Albanian Assembly’s Conference of Chairmen approved the establishment of a Special Committee, with votes solely from SP MPs, to coordinate efforts against disinformation and foreign interference, integrating the work of four other committees (Foreign Affairs, Laws, National Security, Education and Means of Public Information). The opposition, however, raised concerns about the committee’s clarity and purpose, questioned the redundancy with existing committees, stressed the need for transparency, and called for detailed consultations on the committee’s objectives and international agreements.

Reactions

The Albanian Media Council has expressed concerns over the establishment of this committee, pointing out its unclear goals and potential risk to media freedom. They criticize its predetermined timeline and its investigative mandate, viewing it as a possible threat to journalistic independence. The Council emphasizes pressing media issues that require urgent attention over disinformation and advocates for a non-partisan, unbiased approach, questioning the committee’s capacity for self-examination regarding government or political party propaganda. The request by the SP MPs to investigate alleged foreign interference in Albania’s information sphere, critics see as an attempt to divert attention from more pressing issues like systemic corruption in governance and the media’s underlying problems (Reporter.al).

SCiDEV stance

While SCiDEV acknowledges the significance of addressing disinformation, there are substantial concerns about the process, necessity and scope of the proposed parliamentary committee in Albania. Independent research indicates that although pro-Kremlin narratives exist in the Albanian media landscape (BIRN Albania Study), their scale does not justify the creation of a special committee, especially when such an initiative could potentially endanger free speech. The emphasis on foreign disinformation, particularly from Russia, seems overstated given that the bulk of misinformation is domestically generated, predominantly by local political actors for domestic purposes along side the polarised political landscape (European Parliament Study 2021; Albanian Media Institute Study). Also, the Parliamentary Committee on Education and Means of Public Information and the Parliamentary Committee on Security are existing mechanisms that can address the issue.

Reports (Reporters without Borders, Safe Journalists Report, MediaLook Study) on media freedom have highlighted significant concerns about the concentration of public information and the escalation of government propaganda, which, along with political actors’ efforts at both local and central levels, are aimed at overshadowing authentic journalism with prefabricated media content. Given this backdrop, there are legitimate concerns about the newly proposed committee, initiated by the SP, regarding its ability to objectively oversee and counteract propaganda, including any that may originate from the SP itself. The effectiveness of this committee in maintaining impartiality and genuinely addressing the issue of propaganda is under scrutiny, considering the existing challenges in the media landscape and the parliament’s limited oversight capabilities (European Union Report Albania 2023).

The establishment of the committee was rushed, lacking broad-based consensus and failing to integrate evidence and data, which raises concerns about its foundational robustness and intent. There is a notable omission of independent research findings mentioned above. If on the other hand, MPs have other intelligence on foreign interference in Albania’s information space from public authorities in charge of security issues, it should be disclosed, to ensure accountability and informed public discourse.

Moreover, the committee’s broad mandate, encompassing everything from legal reforms to platform regulation and content moderation, seems overly expansive and risks overlapping with existing frameworks. Notably, the recent revisions to the Audiovisual Broadcasting Code by the Audiovisual Media Authority, which were developed through consultations with civil society and media organizations, already address many concerns the committee aims to tackle, including disinformation, hate speech, and promoting gender equality in media. Existing parliamentary mechanisms, like the committee on education and public information, could potentially provide the oversight and engagement needed without the necessity for a new committee.

The committee aims to increase accountability for platforms like Meta, yet Albania and the Western Balkans lack significant influence over these global entities due to their smaller market size. A more effective strategy would be aligning with the EU Digital Services Act (DSA), which offers a comprehensive framework for platform regulation, content moderation, advertising, and algorithmic transparency, ensuring that platforms, especially the larger ones, are accountable for their role in disseminating disinformation and impacting electoral processes. The DSA’s co-regulatory approach, reinforced by the updated Code of Practice on Disinformation and the new Commission Guidance, provides a viable path for Albania. A working group within the Ministry of Interior is already focusing on adapting the DSA’s principles to the Albanian context. Albania must ensure alignment with the European framework on the issue such as DSA and Media Freedom Act, which includes among others safeguards against unjustified removal of media content and protecting media pluralism and independence from unwarranted pressures.

The government’s previous endeavors to regulate the media raise legitimate fears that this new committee could be another tool to intimidate or silence critical voices. This pattern suggests a potential misuse of regulatory frameworks to undermine journalistic independence and restrict freedom of expression ahead of the general parliamentary elections in 2025.

The lack of transparency in political campaign financing and advertising in Albania is a significant concern. Implementing ODHIR’s recommendations to enhance financial transparency is essential, as murky financial practices can serve as conduits for disinformation campaigns, influencing public opinion and electoral outcomes.

The challenging working conditions for journalists in Albania, noted by various media and civil society organizations, contribute to self-censorship and weaken journalism’s role as a bulwark against disinformation. Ensuring that journalists operate in a supportive and secure environment is critical for fostering robust, independent journalism capable of countering disinformation effectively.

The standard approach to public consultation in Albania, often seen as a mere formality, casts doubt on the committee’s ability to enact genuinely transparent and inclusive legal and administrative changes. For the committee’s efforts to be legitimate and effective, the consultation process must be meaningful, allowing for a diverse range of voices and expert insights to shape outcomes.

The committee’s intention to work with experts is a positive step, but the lack of clarity on how this will be implemented raises questions about the depth and effectiveness of this collaboration. For the committee’s work to be grounded in expertise and informed by diverse perspectives, the process of selecting and collaborating with experts needs to be transparent and structured.

SCiDEV recommendations regarding the process:

  • Assess the essential need for the special committee in light of existing mechanisms in place and the predominance of domestically-generated disinformation and ensure that its scope and actions do not unduly impact free speech.
  • Implement strict protocols to ensure the committee operates with impartiality and is not used as a tool for political gain or to suppress dissent, in line with concerns raised by media freedom reports.
  • Incorporate independent research and ground the committee’s actions in independent research to ensure an evidence-based approach to disinformation.
  • Publicly disclose any intelligence related to foreign interference to ensure the committee’s transparency and accountability, but also credibility and need for its creation.
  • Make use of existing legal mechanisms like the Audiovisual Broadcasting Code before introducing new regulatory bodies, avoiding unnecessary overlap.
  • Engage in genuine consultation process, ensuring the committee’s decisions are well-informed by a spectrum of stakeholder insights, including structured expert collaboration with clear methodologies for expert engagement to bolster the committee’s effectiveness and credibility.

SCiDEV recommendations on tackling disinformation in Albania:

  • Align with the EU Digital Services Act and upcoming Media Freedom Act to effectively tackle disinformation while maintaining a realistic approach to Albania’s influence on global digital platforms.
  • Follow through on ODHIR’s recommendations to increase transparency in political financing, addressing potential sources of disinformation.
  • Enhance conditions for journalists to foster a media landscape that is resilient to disinformation and supports free expression, tackling issues such as precarious employment and self-censorship.
  • Strengthen media and information literacy programmes.
  • Encourage self-regulation in the media.
  • Support capacity development of media and journalists, including building cyber security resilience.