Prosecutors in Albania have warned that the malicious distribution of fake information about the coronavirus, with the purpose of spreading panic, will be treated as a criminal offence.
By Gjergj Erebara
Prosecutors in Albania said they were opening an investigation into what they called “diffusion of fake information or announcements in any form aimed at creating a state of insecurity and panic among the people”, warning that causing panic in this manner is a crime.
Prosecutors said they suspected fearful messages were being spread mainly through WhattsApp.
The prosecutor’s announcement on Monday followed an eruption of coronavirus cases in nearby Italy, a country with which Albania has multiple links.
The scare over the virus prompted directors and teachers of a private school in Tirana to take a two-week holiday. Their announcement met harsh criticism from the Minister of Education, Besa Shahini, however, who warned she might annul the operating license for the school.
“The directors that are spreading panic by closing down their school in an illegal way, allegedly to prevent a viral situation that does NOT exist in Albania, should be investigated by the justice bodies,” she said.
The school defended its decision to close for a fortnight, however, retorting: “Between HEALTH and ANTI-PANIC the Ministry choose the later”.
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The Socialist government of Prime Minister Edi Rama has been engaged for months in a battle against what it calls fake news, aiming to justify its attempt to impose a tough regulatory regime on the online media that has been criticized widely by both Albanian and international rights organisations.
After Albania was hit by a 6.3M earthquake ion November 26, Rama complained again about panic being spread on the online media. Police and prosecutors promptly arrested a 25-year-old Facebook user and charged two others with spreading panic, in what local rights groups said were disproportionate and unreasonable measures.
Meanwhile, in Italy, the government has approved an extraordinary law with immediate effect to fight the spread of the virus, by banning cultural events and protests in several towns in the north, where 219 cases of the virus and five deaths had been reported by Monday afternoon.
Worldwide, concerns about a global pandemic have grown, as countries fail to contain the spread of the virus through quarantine measures. Some 78,811 people have been infected and 2,462 people had died from the virus so far, according to the World Health Organization.