“We are fighting against a ‘digital army’: Albania’s Citizens Channel faces cyber attacks

Photo: Citizens Channel

In recent weeks, Citizens Channel, an independent media outlet from Albania, experienced multiple cyber attacks on their website and social media profiles. These attacks occurred shortly after they took a critical stand against the government. The result was a loss of a significant amount of content, which also raised questions about the state of independent media and freedom of expression in the country.

Citizens Channel is a longtime partner of Civil Rights Defenders, non-profit media outlet from Tirana, Albania, established and managed by young professionals, with the mission to serve as a free and uncensored space for responsible voices promoting democratic values and fundamental human rights and freedoms.

Coordinated attack on civil society

“All of our major communication channels were attacked. It started with the website. For a long period, we have experienced DDOS attacks and injections of malicious scripts in our servers. Following this, on 2 April, we experienced the first attack on our Facebook page. Around 10 articles were removed, including our latest reports about how the Municipality of Tirana agreed to give public land to a private company and permit the construction of much-debated high-rise buildings near the National Theatre,” said Lorin Kadiu, Executive Director of Citizens Channel.

“The next, a mass removal of content from Facebook started, and it is on until now, where thousands of posts have been removed as Spam content. We can say that only 10-20% of the content we produced in the past 6 year is public at this time.

On 8 April, we woke up to a surge of fake followers on our Instagram page. More than 50,000 bots were added in a few minutes. The same occurred the next day, when another flow of fake followers attacked our page. This is when we started noticing that the attack was coordinated, as several other pages and personal profiles of movements and activists from Albania were similarly hit by two waves of fake followers,” he added.

As a result, Citizens Channel has converted its profile into a private personal account, where it remains to this day, and is therefore unable to disseminate its news to the wider public.

Screenshot taken from @citizens.al

Suppressing independent voices in Albania

For several years in a row, the environment for free media and journalists in Albania is in decline. According to the Progress Report of the European Commission for 2023, only limited progress was made on the freedom of expression and the independence of media, and the atmosphere of verbal and physical attacks, smear campaigns and intimidation lawsuits against journalists has not improved.

“While the media freedom and freedom of speech has been in constant shrinking, these unprecedented attacks raise new challenges to independent voices in the country. We are fighting against a ‘digital army’ with a clear goal of shutting down our channels and breaking relationship with our audience,” said Lorin.

Regrettably, the cyber-attack on the Citizen’s Channel is not an isolated incident. Earlier this year, two other organisations, Aleanca LGBT and Social Justice Organisation, fell victim to similar assaults. This alarming pattern shows a broader picture of the challenges not only facing the media but also threatening the civil society in the country. These attacks are reminders of the growing vulnerability of organisations striving to uphold freedom of expression and advocate for marginalised communities.

“When independent voices are silenced through targeted attacks, it not only undermines the pillars of democracy but also puts in danger the very essence of freedom of expression. We must collectively condemn such attacks and reaffirm our commitment to defending the principles of press freedom and democratic values, ensuring that every citizen’s rights to access information and make informed decision are protected,” said Klejda Ngjela, Civil Rights Defenders’ Programme Officer in Tirana, Albania.

Aligned with our core values and priorities, we extend our unwavering solidarity to Citizens Channel and urge the authorities to take swift action in response to the attacks. It is imperative that the attacks should stop, and thorough investigations are conducted. Furthermore, we call upon the authorities to strengthen cybersecurity measures and safeguard the freedom of the press and media organisations.

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