From: Alice Elizabeth Taylor
Albania and Its Deterioration of Media Freedom

Not content with threatening journalists verbally and in the online world, on Saturday, the Albanian authorities took things a step further by attacking journalists and photographers in the streets.

One journalist, Eliza Gjediku, was rendered unconscious by the indiscriminate use of tear gas and dozens more suffered respiratory difficulties, causing them to cut live broadcasts and seek refuge. In addition to this, a freelance photographer, Arben Dajçi was hit over the head with a policeman’s metal baton, leaving a large gash above his left temple.

When asked what he was doing to incur the wrath of the police, Dajçi stated he was just taking photographs and that the hard blow to the head took him completely by surprise.

The actions of the authorities and the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of tear gas has been condemned by the Ombudsman, Reporters Without Borders, and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Albania is becoming an increasingly more dangerous place to be a media worker. Over the last 18 months alone, journalists have had machine guns fired at their homes, been threatened with firearms, been gassed in the streets, received death threats on live television, had their residence permits revoked, been targeted in smear campaigns, and been sued by the Prime Minister– just for conducting their profession.

In the last two weeks, apart from the attacks on Gjediku and Dajçi, other journalists that have been violated include Nikollë Lesi who was attacked by the police and prevented from working, Erion Skëndaj who was assaulted after reporting on protests on the 28th March, Dorjana Bezat who was prevented from reporting on the use of gas on civilian homeowners, Renaldo Salianji who was assaulted by the bodyguard of Arta Marku, and a journalist of Fiks Fare TV show who was told he should be “hanged” by the Socialist Mayor of Puka.

In addition to this, an employee of the Bashkia – a civil servant – attacked me online, calling me a “troll” and accusing me of having my opinions controlled by my partner. He also posted photos of my partner who was exercising his democratic right to protest – something that seems to be frowned upon by this regime.

It seems that blatant sexism, invasions of privacy, violence, and public attempts to discredit journalists are just part of the tool kit rolled out by this government, when a journalist reports on facts they do not like.

Countless other Albanian journalists are relentlessly harassed, lose their jobs or are threatened with unemployment, and most that pursue independent reporting do not use their own names due to fear or repercussions.

One Albanian journalist told me: “Using a fake name to write with means I am free to write the truth, if I use my own name and criticise the government, they can go after me and my family. I cannot risk that.”

But there is little recourse for those that are attacked – the police is widely believed to be under the control of the regime and many do not have faith that the impartiality of the judiciary cannot be bought or influenced. As a result, journalists rarely report attacks or threats made against them, and when they do, justice is rarely achieved.

In my own experience, when searching for a lawyer to represent me after pro-government portals made libellous statements about me, I was refused representation by four different legal professionals due to fear for their jobs, reputations, and families. Eventually, I found one that was not scared to go up against these people and the cases are due to be filed in court in the coming days.

In addition to this, my residence permit still remains in limbo, despite the fact I was at risk of losing my unborn baby at the time it expired. Under Albanian law, presentation of the numerous medical certificates, hospital admission records, and prescriptions I have to evidence my serious ongoing condition is sufficient, yet the authorities refuse to back down. Nothing to do with my daily reporting on government corruption and propaganda of course. Just a total coincidence.

Since Saturday, Albanian journalists protested in the streets demanding better rights and protections, yet the government failed to even comment.

But whilst a handful of journalists endeavour in earnest to report the realities, myself included, the government propaganda machine remains ever constant. Armies of fake profiles and paid commentators patrol social media, ready to pounce on any article that portrays the government in a bad or critical light. In addition to this, the propaganda and highly one-sided information that is pushed out from ministries via social media and press releases destined for embassies, continues to increase.

Both Rama and Erion Veliaj, the Mayor of Tirana refuse to give press conferences or answer questions from any journalist that they have not handpicked and vetted themselves. The Prime Minister even has his own TV station – ERTV where he pushes out round the clock coverage of his supposedly awe-inspiring reign over a country where most of the population are desperate to leave.

Rama has also attempted to introduce a new media law that will bring every single blog and online news platform in the country under his direct control. If passed, the legislation would allow him to shut down any portal in the blink of an eye without undergoing any legal process. Owners of the site would then have to go to court to fight to reopen their site, again appealing to the discretion of a government controlled entity. The move attracted widespread local and international criticism and has been shelved for now, but there is no doubt that Rama will do his best to implement these measures, one way or another.

But it is not just the press in Albania that is under threat from the long arm of the Rama regime’s censorship. An ongoing investigation carried out by Exit has revealed that Albanian ambassadors in several EU countries have approached foreign journalists and editors who have been critical of Rama’s government. This is a chilling testament to the government’s belief that they have the right to quell freedom of expression and speech, even beyond their borders.

It seems that as the discontent of the population increases and becomes more frustrated, Prime Minister Edi Rama’s grip on power becomes even more fervent. Attempts to silence critics and lash out at those that dare to question his government become less covert and blatant attacks on freedom of speech and expression are becoming very frequent.

Like an unfortunate soul clinging to the side of a cliff without a safety rope, Rama digs his fingers into the clay tightly, despite the fact that at any moment he will slip and tumble into oblivion. The more he feels himself slipping and losing control, the tighter he grips onto the cliff until eventually, either the cliff crumbles between his hands or his fingers break.

Either way the outcome is the same and us journalists, the ones that continue in the face of adversity will be there to report it.