The eighth in a series of 52 interviews with Albanian women in the public sphere #52GraShqiptare
Sonila Meco is a journalist, television presenter, economist, professor and lecturer. She studied Finance at the University of Tirana, graduating first in her class before becoming a lecturer in the Department of Finance and Accounting at the Faculty of Economics. She has also taught at the European University of Tirana, gained a Masters in European Studies at the Faculty of Philology and studied at the Albanian School of Political Studies. She has also undertaken training at CNN, BBC, and a number of media institutes throughout Europe. As well as her academic career she has worked as a journalist and anchor at TV Klan, Vision Plus, ABCNEWS, and a news station that was shut down by the Albanian government, Agon Channel.
She has written countless articles and columns, authored and presented some of the country’s most popular current affairs programmes, worked as a consultant in both media and economics and has won awards for her work. Sonila is also active with social and civil society issues, in particular regarding politics, media and reforms. She is married, has a daughter, Amaris, and lives in Tirana.
Sonila now presents ‘Tempora’, a weekly talk show with a focus on current affairs, in particular politics, economics, social issues, and culture.
Tell me about yourself as if we are meeting for the first time?
I was born in Tirana to an optician mother and a petrochemical engineer father and I have an older sister who has been my idol since I was a child. I attended Ismail Qemali high school and spent four years in the most wonderful learning environment, surrounded by excellent students, many of which went on to be successful and prominent in their fields. This time influenced me a lot; it broadened my horizons, and I developed incredible friendships that helped to shape who I am today.
After high school, I was supposed to go to Turkey to study International Relations at an American university, but as the day to depart got closer, I realised that I didn’t want to go. I began to pass through a crisis, feeling lonely and anxious and it became clear that I couldn’t leave my friends and parents behind. At the very last moment, I changed my mind and decided to stay in Albania. With just four days to spare before the entrance exams to the University of Tirana, I had to make a quick decision about what I would study. Having previously spent my last few years of school not knowing what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be, I found myself unsure of which subject to choose. So, I took four pieces of paper and I wrote Turkey, Finance, Economics and business on each one and picked one piece of paper. I then repeated it and got my mother to do the same and each time it came out with Finance.
I was by no means in love with the topic and I had no intention of spending my life working in an office or bank, so I decided that the path I would take would be that of becoming a lecturer. At that time, the best students at the end of the fourth year would automatically become lecturers, and sure enough, I graduated as the best in my year and at 21 years old, I began to teach. I was teaching four subjects, sometimes to students older than me- I was young, accomplished, with a big circle of friends and I was happy.
Then, one night, during my second year of lecturing, I was in a restaurant with my friend. From across the room, a very well-known director offered us a drink, struck up a conversation and asked me if I had ever considered working in television. I was just 22- very young, yet professionally accomplished. I was enjoying life and, considering it like just another part of an adventure, I said yes. I auditioned, they liked me and a couple of months later they asked me to present the Albanian World Cup coverage in 2000.
I knew a bit about football but my secret weapon for this job was my memory. I studied and studied every match from 1968 onwards- scores, players names- I studied it and kept it in my mind. Then, when I presented I was able to reel off facts and details as if I was an expert on the matter. People were amazed and that was my big break. I was then given the choice- do you want to present TV shows, or the news and I chose the news.
What is the secret to your success?
I am very curious as a person and I consider myself very strong-willed. In every endeavour I undertake, I am constantly striving to go beyond, to unearth more, and to get to the root of the story. I also want to be the best- not in the sense of being better than everyone else, but rather in my role as a journalist. I want to be the best by exploring, studying and absorbing information and using it to become a specialist in what I am doing. Even for the smallest segment, I study a lot to make sure I have the full story, have understood the background and got the full picture.
When I say something I want to be accurate, I want to be a reference and I want people to listen to me and know that I am telling the truth. I want to be confident in what I am saying- to be able to defend my point and be a good example.
I believe that every journalist should have a basic education in a field like law, economics, or history. Journalism as a subject should be a masters. When you are a journalist you become an expert in many things and it helps to have a solid knowledge of academia to base your skills upon. When I studied economics, it may not have been my passion but it gave me the skills I needed to be a good journalist. I also believe that books are essential to my work- if you don’t read books, you cannot expect to be a good storyteller. I am also reading and studying a lot about history and philosophy because to me, these are important weapons in helping to understand what is happening in today’s world.
One thing I have learned is that you cannot be a super mum- you have to learn to prioritise. I am incredibly lucky that I can draw on the support of my husband, my mother in law and my parents and this allows me to function as a mother, a journalist, and to continue my studies. I don’t like to refer to my work as a “job” because I don’t want that to define me. My family, studying, learning- this is what defines me as a person.
What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge I have overcome in my professional career was myself. I learned that sometimes, you can be your own worst enemy and this was a battle that I fought for many years but now can say that I have won. I spent too much time and energy worrying what people thought or said about me, caring what my critics said and not being able to distinguish between toxic and constructive criticism. I suffered from anxiety for some time and this had a huge impact on me mentally and physically but you have to learn to ignore those that make you feel that way- by not taking notice of their words, you take away their power.
The second big battle that I faced was that of being a journalist during a time of turmoil. I started journalism at the time private media was becoming established in Albania and this was a huge challenge. It was a time, and still is a time of hard politics and issues with media owners- you have to remain professional, be human, and be a good person. I learned to confront the situations that needed to be confronted and to ignore those that didn’t matter.
The third challenge that I have faced is that of politics. Working as a TV anchor on the country’s biggest news stations means that I have been on the front line in the battle between politics, TV and media owners. It is an ongoing battle of principles and as a journalist, I am the watchdog. In Albania, politics and journalists exist in a very toxic relationship and sometimes you find yourself used and abused so you need to be aware of yourself professionally at all times.
Have you ever been scared to do your job?
There are times that I have been scared of doing my job but only because I don’t belong to myself. I get scared for my parents, my husband and my little girl as they may see comments and bad things that are written against me. It worries me how they will absorb it. In my work, I have seen a lot and the worst thing that could happen to me already has- at Agon TV they took my job, closed the station, stopped us at the border and published lies about us, they even took my car.
You cannot imagine these awful things happening to a media in a European country, but it did. I learned many lessons as a result of this situation and I saw many people’s real faces. I finally understood how strong I was because the fear I had, manifested itself into strength.
Tell me about being an Albanian woman in 2020?
Being a woman, full stop is a challenge. Trying to do everything, being in the public eye, my work- all of it is hard. There is also a pressure to be in good shape and to look in a certain way and you cannot bring your problems into the TV studio. It isn’t about looking sexy or being vain, it is about conveying professionalism and not looking tired or stressed when the cameras are on.
In Albania, it is sad to say that society is very depressed and very anxious. Our society is suffering. I have to acknowledge that I have been very lucky and I cannot compare my experiences to a woman living in the more rural areas.
I was raised in Tirana, I studied at the best schools, have supportive family and friends. While my battles have been hard for me, I have had support but when you look around, you see that this is not the case for many. These problems are not with women, they are with society as a whole.
But how to combat it? We need to lead by example. Women need to talk, tell their stories of success and overcoming the odds. Women from all walks of life- the suburbs and the city- we need to promote women who have a personal, strong story because, in this sad society, we need people to look up to. Women need to have something to aspire to and someone to make them say “yes I can do this”.
The media and society needs to stop focussing on just bad news- stories of violence and violation- it needs to bring good examples into the public, examples of how women can overcome thing. This is how we can move forward.
Tell me about being a mother?
I remember the day we brought Amaris home from the hospital, walked into our home, and just looked at each other and said: “what now?” From that day on we experienced fear and strength- we learned every day and she taught us, and me how to be a parent. I also began to understand the immense importance you have to your child- you have the life of that person in your hands and you have to understand the responsibility that it brings.
I want to lead by example. I have explained to my daughter that she is the first thing in my life but that for us to grow, I have to work. She understands that I will be a better mum by working and she understands why I work such long hours. Of course, she has friends whose mothers do not work and I have made it clear that that is fine because that is the best choice for them. The time we spend together is the most precious and it is quality time- the time that I am at my best.
Every day I am learning more- she teaches me to be a mum and to be humble, and we continue to learn from each other.
I think a lot about what she will think when she is. 25 and whether she will be proud of me or not. I have to be the mother that Amaris would be proud of.
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your younger self?
I would give the advice to my parents and to other parents and it would be not to have protected us so much. They did so much to shield us and keep us safe, but this meant I didn’t know that life was so hard. Of course, you shouldn’t frighten your children, but you need to prepare them for the realities.
Teach them to learn, explore, travel and try to understand what is happening around them.
This article was originally published on The Balkanista.