If there is one thing Prime Minister Edi Rama cannot handle very well, it is prestigious foreign media outlets reporting independently about “his” country.
Three days ago, on November 19. US magazine Newsweek published an opinion piece by Albanian–Dutch journalist Vincent Triest and British journalist Will Nicoll, titled “The Opiate Epidemic Isn’t Just America’s Problem: How One Small European Country Got Hooked on Cocaine.”
The response from the Rama government was swift, and followed a now familiar two-step approach.
Step 1: The counter-opinion
The piece written by Triest and Nicoll itself contained little “new” information. The facts mentioned in it are well known from several international reports. Indeed, Albania has one of the highest cocaine consumption levels per capita, and yes, Albania is still the no. 1 exporter of marijuana in Europe. Also, the sequence of events sketched out – the booming cannabis cultivation in 2016 and the reinvestment of those profits into upgrading criminal networks that then switched to cocaine and heroin as the police started to crack down on cultivation in 2017 – is plausible and matched by the reports of increased Albanian prominence in the organized crime circuit in Western Europe.
But the response of the Prime Minister was immediate, with an opinion piece published the next day in the Financial Times. The piece, titled “Albania’s drug crime is now a European problem,” attempted the following:
- Change the discourse from increased cocaine and heroin trafficking and organized to the successes of the government against cannabis cultivation after severe international pressure;
- Discrediting journalists who do not bring the “real story”: “Perhaps because journalists are attracted by the half-empty more than the half-full, the real story never made it into print. The real story was that record amounts of cannabis were at last being identified — and destroyed”;
- Blame EU (“consuming”) countries for not doing enough: “We in Albania have done everything possible to eradicate a considerable source of a Europe-wide problem. But the consuming countries must vigorously investigate the perpetrators and to freeze the proceeds of their crimes”;
- Painting himself as the victim. Listen to this:
They will think nothing of using their wealth to buy influence. They will hire seemingly respected law and accounting firms and lobbying agencies. Through these intermediaries, they will find ways to turn accusations on their head and depict themselves as innocent victims under attack from business rivals or worse, from political adversaries — namely my government and me. We have already had this experience.
“They will think nothing of using their wealth to buy influence”: So what about the €863,000 found in the car of Saimir Tahiri’s business friend Orest Sota, together with two of his boating licenses?
“They will hire seemingly respected law and accounting firms and lobbying agencies”: So what about the hundreds of thousands of euros spent on Cherie Blair’s Omnia Strategies in exchange for war criminal Tony Blair’s “free” advice? Or his former spin doctor “praising” Albania on command?
“Through these intermediaries, they will find ways to turn accusations on their head and depict themselves as innocent victims under attack from business rivals or worse, from political adversaries”: This one proves itself – you said it first, Rama.
Naturally, no one in Europe is going to be convinced by Edi Rama’s rambling text, which fails to address any of the facts provided in the Newsweek article, or any of the concerns expressed in EU capitals. They know very well that Albanian crime is a problem, and are contemplating all possible measures to stop it – including reinstating the visa regime.
But his article in the Financial Times is not written for European citizens or policy makers. It is written to be featured on his own Facebook wall, so that his Albanian followers can see that he too can publish in prestigious foreign media. That’s more than enough.
Step 2: Personal slander
Triest has in the past broadly covered the illegal immigration of Albanians to the EU, and was one of the first to pick up on the threat of the reinstatement of the visa regime, should illegal immigration and the expansion of Albanian organized crime in the EU continue uninterruptedly. For instance, this issue has led in the Netherlands already to worries of both government and opposition parties in Parliament.
Will Nicoll previously interviewed Rama in 2015, also for Newsweek. The article, titled “Edi Rama’s Albanian Renaissance,” contains a few pearls, such as Rama’s claim that the “police were devastated by links to organized crime.” Obviously, they are still devastated. In itself, the article was neutral with regard to Rama and the possibilities of his success.
I mention these personal details, because the next step is to personally slander both journalists on Albanian media. Not only should all of Rama’s Facebook followers see proof that he can write in English, but also that the authors of the Newsweek article are in fact guns-for-hire of the opposition. In all of this, facts and policies are irrelevant.
Invited in Rudina Xhunga’s TV show Dritare, Triest was asked to participate in a debate on whether negative news about Albania ought to published in foreign media. Triest’s article was therefore cast as “negative,” giving Albania a “bad name,” and his role in the entire program was basically to justify that giving Albania such a bad name was in fact a good thing – a battle that is difficult to win. Moreover, Xhunga hardly addressed the article itself, as much as the way it had been received by the Albanian media – further confusing the debate and obscuring the facts.
Flogert Muça, from government-allied portal Lexo, started by a long monologue on how Nicoll was a “sexologist” (because he published in Men’s Health) and therefore knew nothing about Albania. There were implicit attacks on Triest’s age, foreign education, and mixed background. He would not “understand” Albania as Albanians who grew up in Albania do.
Muça continued by insinuating that the “lightning-fast” translation of the article into Albanian was not accidental, because it had been written in Albanian and then translated to English. In other words, the article in Newsweek was a “set-up” by the Albanian opposition – and therefore illegitimate. Again, these are hardly accusations that you can defend against, but they work well to muddy the waters – which is the only aim.
Moreover, Muça consistently tried to undermine Triest’s “expertise.” Upon Triest’s factual claim that Dutch Parliament is asking the Ministry of Justice and Security to investigate the reinstatement of the visa regime, Muça shouted at least a dozen times that the Netherlands cannot decide on its own, and that Triest didn’t know what he was talking about – because he didn’t study “international relations.” But Triest’s point was that if there are actually countries considering revoking Albania’s visa exemption, how can we possibly think Albania is nearly inside the EU? Again, a sensible point covered up by a personal attack.
Another point of conversation was the absence of government sources cited in the article. Triest cited a problem common for every journalist critical of the government, namely that their access to the government had been largely shut off. In response, PS deputy Musa Ulqini, stated that Triest could have used the “co-governance platform,” “just like thousands of Albanian citizens,” to file a complaint, “that would have been dealt with.”
Even though Ulqini is supposed to be a member of the Parliamentary Commission for the Media, he clearly does not understand that a government portal for complaints is hardly the right place for a journalist to receive a response to an article. Personal contacts of government spokespeople are available to journalists all around Europe, so that a comment, or even no-comment, can be easily gathered. This is not at all the case in Albania, and Triest was correct to point this out.
Ulqini even appeared to have memorized Rama’s article in the Financial Times, because at a certain moment he also literally used the metaphor of “journalists are attracted by the half-empty more than the half-full.” In other words, the majority of participants in Dritare were gathered there for a single purpose: the undermine Triest’s credibility and obfuscate the facts that he brought into the world.
In all of this, the role of Xhunga was perhaps the most problematic. Her program had turned from a from the beginning tendentious debate into a public court – without her intervening for a single moment to get the debate on track. This is the role for “moderators” under Rama’s media regime: to give free way to personal attacks and disinformation, instead of facilitating an open and fair debate.