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News agencies versus “fake news”

Prime Minister Edi Rama’s remarks at the first international conference dedicated to the “fake news” phenomenon:

Honourable representatives of the state news agencies from many countries in Europe,

Dear participating friends,

Tt is my pleasure to be invited in this friendly dinner that precedes the opening of the first international conference dedicated to the fake news phenomenon in Albania.

On the other hand, the effort to tackle this opinion is definitely of a particular interest albeit it is not a new phenomenon in the human history and it is even said that Theophrastus, Aristotle’s student in ancient Greece, in third century BC he published a book entitled “The Characters of Theophrastus”, making use of all rumours of the time, made up a number of untrue stories collected in the form of rumours and told them claiming he had obtained them from reliable sources. It was a book that could indeed be considered the first social experiment to prove the power of rumours, the power of “fake news” as it came to be known as one of the most reliable books for their authenticity.

However, what to Theophrastus was merely an experiment, a joke, thanks to the today’s technology has turned out to be a genuine mechanism to exert malign influence and you are more experienced and much more familiarized with this phenomenon, but I believe that one of the examples of the tremendous power of defamation and fake news is a detailed study showing that over 126 000 fake news were published via Twitter over the past decade and the result was undoubtedly frightening. Fake news and slanders enjoyed a higher credibility, had a much higher number of followers and were more widespread than the real news stories through the contribution of the followers themselves.

The sensational nature of the fake news, the actual attention span and pervert nature of slander, sponsorship of such news stories by interested factors for various reasons, make a postulate by Jonathan Swift become a reality as he said: Falsehood flies, while truth comes limping after it. We also have experienced our bitter share of this history even though I would say, for reasons that are not appropriate to discuss today, in some ways, Albania, emerging from many years of isolation and total impossibility regarding the freedom of expression, has been a pretty prolific in terms of slanders and fake news during whole transition period. What the fake news in its very essence is a phenomenon deliberately used to trigger wilful bewilderment and confusion and create internal destabilization in the society, we have seen it materialized in a series of sensational news stories that are spectacular for their falsehood tyre, yet widespread and quite debatable issues with a major disturbing effect on the public opinion. Such was the case three years ago when a foreign news webpage reported a news that was immediately spread suggesting that the government had decided to bury in Albania more than 1400 containers loaded with radioactive waste. Just imagine the catastrophic dimension of such an operation, as well as the visual and physical size the transportation through Albania of some 1400 containers loaded with radioactive waste would have had. I mean this was not about invisible troops. However, it created significant bewilderment and public concern.

Later, a news story reported this year spread the word suggesting that under a secret agreement with the European Union, the government had decided to host 600 000 refugees, former ISIS fighters. For a significantly not short time, this news story made the headlines of the citizens’ daily concerns and it took really long time to fade away as something completely false. It took significant efforts to explain that it was untrue and it took many efforts to show that how that it was in fact a deliberate libel to create exactly the effect that it actually created.

Likewise, I can list other news reports, including ridiculous reports over an alleged accord between me and the President of Russia to sell him an entire Albanian city, which was just the tip of the iceberg in a rather much large-scale sale that, in fact, no one ever found out how far it was about to go and so on, in a situation that has affected not only us, but has already become a general situation and phenomenon everyone has to deal with and your visit here coincides with the period when we are making preparations to forward a legal bill and anti-slander package to discourage fake news and promote a journalism that refers to those two classical sources when writing news stories and ease the tremendous burden this series of falsehood creates in the public opinion.

To date, Albania has one of the most relaxed defamation laws and of course our goal is not to move towards models like those in many European Union member states, where libel is included not only in the provisions contained in the Criminal Procedure Code, but it is punishable also by imprisonment. What we see as very important is first and foremost to unify legislation by including all the online media that is currently unregistered out of the legislation. Remember that more than 20 000 portals with “.al” registrar have been registered over the past five years in Albania and tens of thousands of other websites with other name host also operating in our country, with over 700 of them being news portals, 12 of which until recently were managed by editorial structures and by only 72 journalists. No one knows who owns and who provides funding for the other 600 news portals and no one knows which are the goals behind the launch of such portals.

This is a jungle situation where we intend to establish a normality rule just like in other countries by introducing some legal amendments that, as I said, do not aim neither the amend the criminal procedure code nor the civil code but merely focus on a kind of existing media regulation updating.

We have a pretty advanced legislation on the audio-visual media and special media watchdog, the Audi-visual Media Authority, tasked with monitoring and reporting every case when the electronic media becomes subject to complaints and concerns voiced by individuals or various groups as a result of fake news or defamation. The watchdog’s board can immediately act to evade the lengthy time of court decision-making on flagrant cases disrespecting human dignity or failing to respect many standards and other rights and freedoms. This is a structure that we actually find in other countries too and what we will practically aim under the new package is to make the Authority available to those who are affected by defamation and become object of fake news spread via the online media. Likewise, we will also set up a new national database, registering all websites operating in Albania and maximally avoiding the stories of ghosts that operate without any control in the territory of Albania to date. I stated earlier that Albanian legislation is one of the most relaxed ones in terms of penalties. We will increase fines due to be imposed on websites for fake news, or slander as I term it in one single word in Albanian, and I believe it will be sufficient to create a healthier situation, just like it is imperative to safeguard the copyright and ensure that all media outlets are protected by law and have no reason to see themselves being victims of unfair competition in the very second they deliver their own production online as their production is copied and reproduced infinitely. Likewise, when it comes to the reproduction, we will act to punish the slanderer, which means that if a media outlet is to be held accountable for the spread of a fake news or a defamation, whoever takes and replicates it, will be held equally accountable like the media originally disseminating it.

Actually, as you may better know, a number of initiatives have been launched in the EU member countries. Most recently, just few weeks ago, French parliament passed a harsh law against slander or the fake news, a legislation named after the President of France, “Macron Bill”, which indeed sets new rules giving extraordinary power to the relevant authorities to remove any false contents and prevent their spread via the social media and even block the publishing sources and ensure a much greater financial transparency than to date.

Similar examples are to be found in other countries too, but as far we are concerned, we are all aware that careful steps should be taken to maintain a full balance between the need for quality information that guarantees every constitutional right of the citizens and, on the other hand, ensures that fundamental freedom of expression is not infringed.

Of course, legislation is not a magic wand, and neither it is the legislation only to tackle problems, let alone such a complex problem of modern society that we are discussing but establishing a clearer system of rules undoubtedly helps towards improving the situation and serves the efforts to improve the relation of the media consumers with the information sources.

To conclude, without further ado, I would like to thank you all again for your presence in this Tirana conference hosted by the Albanian Telegraphic Agency, an institution that is really significantly recovering step by step following a long period of hibernation and is adapting also thanks to the new leadership of the Director, who is the main initiator of this conference as well as the tireless and energetic individual who pushed me to come and deliver remarks in front of you. I want to thank her for providing me this opportunity and I want to conclude by quoting Shakespeare who used to say that lying often gives short-term advantages as lie is seven-faced, while the truth is single-faced only. But on the other hand, a distinguished personality of our history, Faik Konica, who was not just a writer but someone more than that, used to say that the he eternal advantage of the truth is that it doesn’t need any twisting or fat in writing.

Now, the daily life of everyone involved in information and the life of everyone who, no matter whether he likes it or not, is subject to information takes place between these two, so, hoping that better days will come when truth will finally prevail over the seven faces of the lie, I wish you a pleasant stay and a most enjoyable dinner here in Tirana.

Thank you!