“Democracy is in danger,” “Media is not a workshop,” “AMA give up”… Hundreds of people were gathered in front of the municipality, raising their voices so that their anger could be heard. A few days back, famous journalists working for MAPO newspaper and ABC TV, considered close to the opposition, declared that their contracts had not been prolonged.
Signs of the media’s weakened autonomy, these lay-offs are not incidental. They are the aftermath of a series of upsetting events. Only a few months before parliamentary elections, an unfavorable wind is blasting over the Albanian press.
Holding up a red card, Nertila Marku is one of the organizers of the protest. Assuming the position of the social activist, she blames the media by stating that
they do not invite real experts that could explain the political and social struggles of the country! They rather have on their shows people who cannot stop flattering the government for its successes and this is because they work with government officials. We need truth, not endless lies. Edi Rama and Erion Veliaj are the real managers of the information.
In Albania there are many news channels. Acting as fundamental political instruments, they have dominated citizens’ lives for years. They are ever-present and watched in cafes, restaurants, and shops.
It is hard to find unbiased and factual messages among this flood of information and images. The majority of private media is owned by key businessmen. Many are concerned about the closeness of these “oligarchs” with the current political leaders. Nertila, who was actively against the past government, states:
Rest assured that it is worse than during the Berisha government. It was a bacteria then which has turned into a threatening virus now. We must destroy it!
Should the socialist government have any reason to worry about the work journalists do? Since the end of 2015, you cannot help but notice the legal attacks the actual government has launched to frame the freedom of expression and the right to information. They have criminalized offensive statements made against officials; issued harsh punishments for authors of online pages and their comments; condemned investigative journalists for “unlawful influence”; propozed a mandatory state authorization for online news pages etc.
Some measures mentioned above failed to be implemented owing to critiques they have received. In front of this legal failure, the socialist government has turned to other means. That of exerting direct influence over various channels owners.
Sazan Guri has been socially active for many years. He explains:
The prime minister and the mayor of Tirana interfere constantly in the media. Lately, they have put pressure on AMA on purpose, so that journalists can lose their job positions. They directly influence the content and organization of the TV shows.
Not far from here, in front of AMA’s doors, Aulon Kalaja rallies the crowd. He is a journalist working for a private TV station and has stood up to take the word:
Since 2013, around 20 shows and many channels have been closed, many well known professional journalists have lost their jobs. We do not want that others suffer the same consequences.
According to Aulon, Albanian democracy is in danger because “the two key managers of information are Edi Rama and Erion Veliaj”, the prime minister and the city mayor, respectively. “Free information is just an illusion.”
Last September, Artan Rama, a journalist, suffered the consequences of this new editorial line. His apparent mistake was the investigation he conducted over waste management in Tirana. He launched his investigation after a boy of seventeen years old lost his life in a landfill. His show was censored and prevented to go on air; and the directors of Vizion Plus TV, owners of a construction company were awarded with a contract to erect a new public building in the capital city. Since leaving Vizion Plus TV, Artan Rama condemns the Albanian media system:
There is lack of transparency and there is corruption in the political elite that serve oligarchs who use the media to further their personal interests. Free information is but an illusion. It is used as an instrument to the new demagogy.
What is most concerning is the rise of self-censorship. Until some time ago, the media worked with two divided groups, one was “the elite of well known journalists and the other the journalists that were at the mercy of the first group”. Today many of them remain silent acting as the “servants’ servants.” They tossed away their professional ethics and they were forced to work for the personal interests of executives and owners of TV channels. “In Albania the freedom of expression is dying off,” retorts Sazan Guri.
Many journalists feel powerless when faced with the rising self-censorship and competition. In the dozens of court processes filed against abusive dismissal from work, only a few have made it. When confronted with powerful attorneys and lack of evidence, journalists carry no weight. There are journalists’ associations but the protesters think they have lost all credibility. They serve more as organized groups of interests rather than protectors of truth and freedom of information and expression. They are protecting only a few. Aulon Kalaja denounces the“open conflict of interests” where “the leader of the main journalist association is the brother of a key leader in the State Police.” This major association has expressed nothing regarding censorship problems in the last four years.
The organizers of the protest are thinking of other ways to save autonomy and protect freedom of journalists. An anti-censorship association could be created quickly. Would it be able to go against political pressure of Albanian oligarchs?
There is a wall that divides the protesters from the leaders, and the time when Edi Rama and Erion Veliaj were united with the social cause for an open and democratic society seems far away.
This report, published with authorization from the author, was first published in Courrier des Balkans.