Vlahutin: Independent Media Related to “Criminal Interest Groups,” Bring “Fake News” EU Ambassador Romana Vlahutin and PM Edi Rama. Source: Kryeministria.

In an interview published two days ago by the Croatian newspaper Jutarnji Vijesti, EU Ambassador Romana Vlahutin has responded to what she calls “fake news.”

Ambassador Vlahutin, who usually responds to allegations in the Albanian media through EU spokesperson Maja Kocijančič, gave an extensive response to questions of Albanian journalist Augustin Palokaj regarding her role as EU Ambassador, the judicial reform, and a series of reports, published also by Exit, regarding the acquisition of her residence in luxury compound Rolling Hills in Tirana, which she called “fabrications” (a term first used by Kocijančič).

In the interview, Vlahutin denounces what she calls in populist terms “fake news,” a trope that has become popular after US President Donald Trump’s constant attacks on the free and independent media.

This is just one in a series of fictional affairs or, as it is now called, “fake news” that we are exposed to Tirana, especially my American colleague and myself. Some Albanian politicians are doing everything to include diplomats and the international community into their internal conflicts and use them as an alibi for their own mistakes. Sometimes I feel that this is one of the consequences of the terrible dictatorship of Enver Hoxha when people were brainwashed that all strangers are enemies and all have some hidden agenda. However, in contrast to the relatively small, but very aggressive group of people who are connected to political and criminal interest groups, the people of Albania are extremely hospitable, open specifically to guests and strangers.

Apart from the clichés about Enver Hoxha (he didn’t brainwash me) and Albanian hospitality (true but irrelevant), these are serious allegations. EU Ambassador Vlahutin accuses the media who investigate a transaction of €1.6 million for a seemingly very overpriced villa in a compound built by one of the most powerful businessmen in Albania of being “aggressive” and “connected to […] criminal interest groups.” I suppose that Ambassador Vlahutin is prepared to substantiate these accusations with actual proof or issue an apology.

But Ambassador Vlahutin goes even further, accusing the journalists in question, including, we must assume, the author of the present article, of “not doing their homework.”

The story of the residence of the EU coincided exactly with the beginning of the day of the establishment of institutions of vetting and is based solely on someone’s idea that there is a suspicious transaction. For anyone who knows anything about how the EU works in public procurement, it is clear that with so many checks and levels which must approve the decision before a final decision is made, it is simply not possible for any person to do something individually. What is the most bizarre turn in this story is that the “journalists” who published this did not bother to learn the basic facts, such as the one that, for example, the entire process of identifying the property and negotiations conducted months before I even was nominated as EU Ambassador and that the final negotiations were led by a colleague who especially came from Brussels, because the European Parliament is part of the verification process.

The first claim is untrue. Exit published the first article on the villa on January 26, while the International Monitoring Operation (ONM) was only established on February 8. Indeed, the Council of Judicial Nominations (KED) was established on January 27, but the KED has no explicit role in the vetting. So either Ambassador Vlahutin does not understand which are the vetting institutions, or she is trying to insinuate that reporting on the possible corruption in the EU delegation is an attempt to discredit the vetting itself. If so, she has a very poor understanding of the role of the media in a free society.

In fact, the origin of the idea that the acquisition of the EU Ambassador’s villa was suspicious was related to the fact that 1) the price paid for the villa was double the market value and 2) the owner of the compound has close relations with the government, which Ambassador Vlahutin more than once has defended, even in the face of criticism from the European Parliament. It is, I would say, natural for the media to investigate this.

I have had several exchanges with the office of spokesperson Kocijančič, and have handed in a freedom of information request to acquire the full documentation of the acquisition, including the market evaluation and the independent expert opinion. Should everything turn out to be according to the standards, I, being an EU citizen, would be happy to report that all regulations have been followed. However, so far the European Commission has been stalling my request, and the Ambassador apparently only wants to answer questions asked in her native language.

The arrogance of Ambassador Vlahutin that the media don’t know “anything about how the EU works in public procurement” is misplaced. In fact, Exit has reported about past cases of maladministration of the EU Delegation in Tirana brought to the EU Ombudsman, which all happened in spite of all “checks and levels which must approve the decision,” that Ambassador Vlahutin refers to. Certainly, none of these cases were “fictional affairs.” In spite of the many and strict regulations of the EU, corruption is still possible, and I consider it the duty of the media, especially when the EU is so heavily invested into “cleaning up” the “corrupt” Albanian judiciary, to make sure that its own behavior is beyond reproach. This is not “fake news,” this is doing our job.

Then, as far as not “bothering to learn the basic facts,” I have indeed been kindly informed by Kocijančič that the decision to acquire a villa rather than renting an apartment was taken before Ambassador Vlahutin arrived in Tirana. But as far as I understand, the EU Ambassador represents the European Commission in Albania, and is therefore responsible for the actions of the EU Delegation in Albania. Whether this or that decision was taken before she came is irrelevant. She holds an office, and that office comes with responsibility.

Interestingly enough, the Budget Control Committee of the European Parliament has now asked official questions to High Representative Mogherini concerning precisely the acquisition of the residency of the EU Ambassador in Tirana. And I wonder whether the European Commission will dare to respond with similar defiance to an elected MEP.

Through her interview, Ambassador has shown that she has acquired a real taste for the way in which politics treats the media in this country: denouncing “fake news,” suggesting criminal connections, and calling everything a personal attack. It is not the media who are insinuating, Ambassador Vlahutin is doing it herself.

What Ambassador Vlahutin needs to understand is the following: I don’t care one bit about her as a person. As an EU citizen, I care about the integrity of the European Union and the way it represents itself in non-EU countries. Because even the suggestion of corruption is enough to undermine the expensive and intensive effort to bring all European countries together – a project of whose necessity I am convinced. It is the role of the free media to investigate these suggestions, and it is the role of EU representatives to be publicly accountable.

Public accountability is not given indirectly, through a backdoor, in a Croatian newspaper to an Albanian journalist. It is not given by hiding in a villa, surrounded by bodyguards and the corrupt elite of Albania. It is given by providing full transparency about the acquisition procedure of the residence of the Head of the EU Delegation in Albania, and should everything be in order, I would happy and relieved to print that black-on-white.

Exit has asked EU spokesperson Maja Kocijančič whether it is EU policy to accuse media of “fake news” in response to allegations of corruption.