From: Alice Elizabeth Taylor
Agon TV, Italian Landfill Sites, Rama, Media Freedom and a €140 Million Unpaid Bill

British media has reported on the curious case of Italian/Albanian television station Agon TV which was shut down by Albanian government.

The article, entitled “How Albania’s government shut down an entire TV station that dared to criticise it” explains how the government has now become liable for damages of €140 million, payable to the owner Francesco Becchetti.

The shut-down came following the station’s reporting on alleged vote-buying and election-rigging in favour of Edi Rama’s Socialist Party during the local elections in 2015. One report detailed how one man voted 20 times with illegally purchased fake ID cards. These allegations of vote-rigging and electoral fraud were later corroborated by the leak of prosecution wiretaps that provided evidence of collusion between SP ministers, the Prime Minister, criminals, government officials, and other individuals to threaten voters and buy the outcome of local and general elections.

This put the station in the firing line of the government and the Mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj even threatened the station, according to The Independent.

They reported his words as: “I don’t understand why you are doing this to me. You are forcing me to be your enemy. The entire government is going to be [Becchetti’s] enemy for no reason.”

The government responded by charging Francesco Becchetti and his partner Mauro De Renzis with an assortment of financial crimes including money laundering and tax evasion before starting procedures to seize Agon.

Agon continued to broadcast but staff remained unpaid due to frozen bank accounts and the blocking of wire transfers from Italy to Albania, stopped by Albanian banks. Court orders to seize the station were then drawn up and the unthinkable unfolded.

A previous employee of Agon TV who spoke to Exit on condition of anonymity spoke of how they were in the canteen of the station when the news of his arrest warrant broke. They stated that at the time, people were suspicious as Rama had already tweeted about it, before the judge even issued the arrest warrant.

Then, one evening two directors announced to staff that the police were coming. They asked staff to start loading equipment into vans that then tried to leave the premises. The guard refused to lift the barrier up to let the vans pass, so members of staff opened it with force. 

Fearing the worst, the employee left during the summer and by November, the station had been closed down and was in the clutches of Rama’s government.

Referencing the article in The Independent, the source praised its accuracy but claimed that the allegation that Italian staff being stopped at the border was not true. They said that this was not the case and it was a story fabricated by the press possibly using a document leaked by HR.

When asked if they thought the claims of financial crimes that were levied against Becchetti had any basis on the closure of the station, the source said that they believed it was due to the government being angered by the content, but that there was also a lot of speculation about the owners’ other business interests and alleged links to less than legitimate businesses.

They told Exit that Becchetti’s uncle, Manlio Cerroni has faced charges on a number of occasions in Italy for abusive waste management and fraud linked to one of his landfills in Rome. Cerroni has also been investigated by Rome’s prosecution department for links to the Camorra organised crime group and an ex-member of the Camorra implicated him in a mob-linked landfill scheme. Then, in his 2015 book “L’Aquila e la Piovra”, undercover policeman Gianni Palagonia wrote about a drug trafficker who made a trip from Albania to a landfill in Lazio that is currently owned by Cerroni.

Speculation aside, the situation for those directly impacted by the stations seizure is dire.

The source is still owed wages from their time at the station, totalling some €1500. They explained how they engaged the services of a lawyer and paid some 10,000 lek for them to pursue the case. Unfortunately, the lawyer failed to chase it up or produce any results, leading the source to believe that they were either fearful of pursuing it or pressured into not. 

Now, the statute of limitations has passed and the source is not hopeful of ever seeing a cent of the money that is owed.

They also spoke of the anger of other leading television stations who were upset that their staff left to work at AGON due to “much higher salary and better working conditions”. When things went wrong, the attitude from many of them was “well it serves you right” and some allegedly refused to employ ex AGON employees, effectively blacklisting them in the Albanian media community. 

Now the government has to cough up some €140 million in damages to Becchetti- money that will come from the public purse at a time when the country is suffering economically and a large percentage of citizens live below the poverty line.

So far, the government has not paid a cent to Becchetti and they continue, unabated to further restrict the freedom of independent media within the country.