In headlines now / 20.01.2017

Finland deported Albanian investigative journalist

By LInus Atarah Investigative journalist and photographer Hamza Hatika fled from his native Albania in 2015 with his family and sought political asylum in Finland, harassed by the authorities because of his work and no longer feeling safe in his home country.  His application was rejected last summer, and he was deported with his family in December. Hatika has worked with wide-ranging news organisations in Albania since 2004, including as a correspondent for Radio Free Europe, the Prague-based radio station that broadcasts news to Eastern Europe and parts of Central Asia since 1949. It was however, when Hatika started Kurajo Media Centre, an independent news organisation, that his name began to appear on the radar screen of Albania’s political authorities; political harassment was not long in coming. His website was hacked, he alleged, because the news portal he had founded as an association of journalists provided unedited livestreaming of parliamentary sessions. The Kurajo Media Centre also carried news critical of the Albanian government of Prime Minister, Edi Rama who has according to Hatika clamped down on the media due to reports of widespread corruption in the country. The high point of Hatika’s harassment was reached in March 2014, when the Prime Minister was not pleased at the way he had been photographed in one of the parliamentary sessions. A week later, the Prime Minister sent his bodyguards to drag Hatika out when he was covering a live parliamentary session Parliament, while threatening his life. At that point, he decided his safety could no longer be guaranteed and so decided to seek political asylum in Finland. The media watchdog, Freedom House has pointed out that media freedom is guaranteed by Albania’s constitution, but the overlapping of business, political and media interests have prevented the emergence of independent news outlets. Media freedom is compromised by the underlying polarisation between the two dominant political parties in the country; journalists turn to lean more towards one party or the other, according to international to Freedom House. The European Union has notified Albania about the need to address the issues of fundamental rights, the rule of law, judicial reform and fighting corruption before membership accession talks with the EU could be kick-started. The EU has raised special concerns over "widespread self-censorship among journalists, who are sometimes physically obstructed from covering specific events, assaulted, or threatened because of their work". Albania is ranked 82 out of 182 countries by the media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in its 2016 World Press Freedom Index – a statement on media freedom in the country. The US-based Freedom House, in its 2016 report, classifies Albania’s media as partly free. It goes on to observe that, “Reporters have little job security and remain subject to lawsuits, intimidation, and occasional physical attacks by those facing media scrutiny”. “While the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, the intermingling of powerful business, political, and media interests inhibits the development of independent news outlets”, according to the evaluation of Albania’s media environment by Freedom House in 2016. Most Albanians seeking political asylum in Finland have had their applications rejected because Finnish Immigration Service (Migri) considers them mainly as economic refugees seeking a better life rather than political refugees, according to Kaisa Harkisaari, information officer at MIGRI. Altogether 135 Albanians had their applications rejected last year while just six applications were given positive decision, according to figures given by Migri. Migri did not want to disclose how many were journalists. Last year Finland tightened its asylum policy in line with other European counterparts, many of who have closed their doors to refugees fleeing from troubled regions, following the global refugee crisis.  Among them were journalists from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia, who were also advised to return and relocate to the safer parts of their countries or change their jobs. After losing his appeal against the negative decision of the Finnish government, Hatika finally took his case to the European Court of Human Rights. But as fate will have it, the Court selected an Albanian judge to review the case. Hatika’s application was rejected and so all options were closed for him and his family that includes his mother and two young children. Overcome with frustrations, Hatika with family was returned to Albania in December. In a telephone interview for this article, he said he was facing an uncertain future in the country. He complained of “being held as a hostage”. He is unable to secure Albanian identity documents for his little son, who was born in Finland during their brief stay in the country. They are still with the Finnish authorities and without them he cannot be issued with a travelling document. However, according to legal experts here, Hatika’s case might have turned out differently if he had sought asylum in France or Germany, almost anywhere else in Europe, where his case would have been examined as potential violation of individual human rights. In the past year, the Union of Journalists in Finland has intervened on behalf over a dozen journalists seeking asylum in Finland and had ran into similar difficulties, but unlike in Hatikas case, no appeals have been rejected as yet. Hatika’s case came to the attention of the UJF when he had already exhausted all the legal channels, including the European Court of Human Rights. It was no longer possible to extend any legal assistance.

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