Following Exit’s investigations into Acromax and its owner Aldor Nini, German portal Netzpolitik.org and ARD FAKT have picked up the scent of the company that is having a chilling impact on media freedom in Albania.
For nearly a year, Exit has been looking into the mysterious company that has been removing content from social media and media platforms. Content that often paints the Albanian government in a bad light, or could be used to hold them to account.
Journalists, activists, media portals and even citizens have found their content, videos, pages, and articles removed by Acromax, often for no apparent reason.
Offending content included Erion Veliaj’s 2015 election campaign where he made a lot of now broken promises about issuing construction permits. Facebook pages focusing on activism, urban development, and criticising the socialist party were also removed.
During the year of investigation, the man behind Acromax Aldor Nini admitted that the ruling Socialist Party were clients and that they were asked to take down articles and “fake news” for the party. He then backtracked, said the Socialist Party were no longer clients and threatened Exit with a vexatious SLAPP for their reporting.
Despite this, the screenshots and the list of articles he claimed they removed, remain.
Daniel Laufer, the journalist who has been working on the story for the last few months, sought the opinion of the German branch of Reporters Without Borders. They condemned the activities of Acromax, considering it an attempt to suppress independent journalism.
Christian Mihr, the German CEO of RSF told Laufer “something like this opens the door to the misuse of media power for political and economic interests”. He mentioned the important role that independent online media have in publishing information that is a “thorn in the side of those in power.”
Taking things a step further, Mihr says that the actions of Acromax are a “case of clear abuse of copyright to restrict journalism and independent information.”
Of course, Aldor Nini, the man behind Acromax denies it all. Meeting with Laufer to discuss the claims made about his business activities, he stuck to the line that the removed videos infringed copyright law. Netzpolitik found that while some videos did not name a source, some were original posts with interviews and appropriately sourced snippets from other channels. This means that there is little if any legal basis for their removal.
Nini also claimed that he has nothing to do with politics and a relationship with the government “actually does not exist at all”. He then said they had only advised the client on copyright issues and had not removed any ‘fake news’ or other content.
This is despite Nini’s admission to an Exit journalist in August last year that the ruling party were clients. He then provided a list of ‘fake news’ and content that they had removed for the party.
He claimed to Laufner that this was a “misunderstanding” and he has “no idea” why he wrote this.
The messages he sent, however, seem crystal clear.
“This is the full list of links reported on behalf of PS by our company due to copyright infringement or clearly fake news,” the message reads. Nini then took the time to post a list of links of articles that were removed by his company for being fake news.
He claimed to Laufer that the PS are no longer clients but he cannot remember when this relationship ended.
Nini’s partner in Acromax is Anxhela Faber, the stepdaughter of the Albanian ambassador to the United States. She was proposed to that role by Prime Minister Edi Rama’s government just months after they came to power.
Facebook and YouTube didn’t want to comment to Netzpolitik on the nature of the relationship between Acromax and them, but they seem to be on good terms. In 2016, Faber was invited to a Facebook conference in London.
In another bizarre claim to the German journalist, Nini said that he was suing 21 media outlets including Exit News but that he didn’t have a summons address to send the lawsuit to. This is despite the fact Exit’s address is listed on the website and Nini had already sent a cease and desist letter, which arrived, to that address.
He then using the same, tired, baseless rhetoric that is often used to try and discredit independent journalists in Albania, said that a representative of Exit told him that they had been paid to publish the articles exposing Acromax.
Of course, this is not true and sure enough, just after Nini told Haufer this claim, he emailed him to ask for the removal of the allegations from his statement.
Then, shortly after the interview with Nini, two of the censored pages seem to have been reactivated out of the blue. Nini then said he wants to talk to Exit News but that their apparent legal action will stay in place. Exit has still not received any notification of legal action.
Albanian portal Faktoje also received communication from Acromax saying how they would like to discuss how their journalists could avoid further issues in the future. Faktoje had previously had one of their videos removed by the company, despite it containing their original content and interviews.
But it is not just in Albania that Acromax is active. Their registered office is situated on one of Hamburg’s most expensive shopping streets yet no doorbell or mailbox with their name on is visible. Acromax also earns money from the advertising that accompanies its clients’ videos online. In fact, according to the Netzpolitik report, most of its revenue is generated in Germany.
The German Federal Foreign Office, however, says it has no knowledge of the Hamburg company.
There are still a lot of questions around Acromax and the power it wields through Facebook and YouTube. Nini’s reaction to the additional reporting done by Netzpolitik and ARD FAKT will be telling.