The last 12 months have been harrowing for media freedom in Albania. Restrictive laws, physical and verbal attacks, devastating smear campaigns and a climate of fear and self-censorship have prevailed.
After speaking to a number of media experts and stakeholders both locally and internationally, Exit brings you some of the key issues facing Albanian media and journalists today.
A key issue that impacts journalists in Albania is that of media ownership. As Brian J Williams from the United Nation points out, editorial independence needs to be guaranteed which is harder when media organisations are part of large conglomerates
In Albania, the main media are owned by a handful of families, most of which have no professional journalistic experience and have interests in politics, construction, gambling, and real estate. This results in the media portals being used as a mouthpiece for the business interests of their owners. This can take the form of painting political leaders in a good light, and shying away from controversial stories, scandals, or investigative journalism. More often than not, these portals can also be used to attack those who criticise the state or big businessmen.
Journalist Aleksander Cipa said that as much as 80% of owners are not media professionals and that ownership practices should mirror the EUs.
“A change in legislation and practices is needed to guarantee ownership pluralism for audiovisual media outlets. That would create the basis for reducing the opportunities for censure and self-censorship, which mostly derive from the interrelated business interests of media owners with elected officials and powerful politicians.”
The ECPMF said that the fact that businesses working in banking, gambling, for-profit higher education and construction, also own media platforms has a “high risk” for plurality in the country.
But this is not something that can change overnight. Without funding from these lucrative industries, many media would struggle to survive. Smaller independent media find it hard to balance independence with advertising revenue. Others rely solely on fundraising and grants to keep going.
Democratic Party spokeswoman Albana Vokshi said that today, many journalists who have been critical of the government have been threatened, blackmailed and found it difficult to find work. She said their work is vital and has helped to uncover scandals, corruption and links to organised crime.
Unfortunately, the repercussions of such writing often make journalists self-censor. Fear of losing their job, not being paid, being blacklisted across other media, and the risk of online or physical retribution leads many to remain quiet. Exit has on occasion been contacted by journalists from other portals who have a story but cannot publish it out of fear. Others, including some Exit journalists, cannot use their real name, again out of fear for repercussions on them and their family.
We cannot blame journalists for self-censoring because the reasons why they do it are complex and far-reaching. Many wish to delve deeper and to step away from the narrative imposed by their editors but economic and social fears prevail. When you are earning a couple of hundred euros in a month, it is easier and more secure to censor yourself than to risk everything for a story.
Cipa said: “If the legislation and legal institutions were respected without selectivity and double standards, then we would not have this reality in terms of censure and self-censorship. A reality that, unfortunately, has remained unchanged throughout the years.”
The job of Albanian journalists is made even harder due to an almost total lockdown on access to information. Requests to government spokespersons often go unanswered or as in my case, result in being insulted by an elected public official.
There are no public press conferences and the Prime Minister and Mayor of Tirana do not allow the media to film their activities. Instead, they send pre-recorded showreels to media who are expected to air them without asking any questions. Rama has his own TV station, funded by who, no one knows and journalists are rarely if ever allowed to ask or question his actions.
Freedom of information requests are often ignored and if they are answered, they tend to be as vague as the law allows. Information is deeply monopolised, transparency is at its lowest, and access is refused. Journalists struggle to sift through propaganda to find the truth of a situation.
During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, medical staff in Albania were stopped from speaking to the media. The government stopped what few press conferences it held and access to information was limited to watching public officials read pre-written declarations.
This, combined with all the other hardships facing journalists means that getting an original story or investigating a matter of interest, is difficult, if not impossible.
By far, the most prevalent threat to journalists in Albania comes from the state. Not only are journalists attacked verbally, sometimes physically, judicially, and with restrictive laws, but the government does not seem to care.
“We cannot say the current government is clearly committed to press freedom. It is exemplified by the rhetoric,” said the head of the Europe and Balkans desk at Reporters Without Borders.
The ECPMF added that change can only happen if there is political will and the current government is not displaying it.
“The current government is not willing to ensure media freedom and that’s why major European institutions are criticising Albania,” they said.
Legal counsel Flutura Kusari added “Albanian journalists work in dangerous environments…this makes it impossible to do responsible journalism. The current situation can only be improved if there is political will.”
Prime Minister Edi Rama does little to hide his dislike of the media. From threatening SLAPPs, suing journalists, and reeling off an impressive 42 public insults against the media in a little over a year- there is little hope when the head of government is so vociferous in his disdain.
Cukali said that Rama’s hatred comes due to a desire to hold onto power. With a free media that can criticise their actions, this is not possible, hence the crackdown and barrage of attacks.
“I believe that the less balance of power there is in a country, the less internal democracy there is within the political parties, and the less represented people are in a parliament, the more authoritarian the power holders (or grabbers) become. And they cannot hold onto that power for long unless they control the media narrative. That’s why they try to buy the media, and when they cannot, they attack it.”
Cipa agrees, noting that the continual verbal conflict and language from the Prime Minister is contributing to a poignant and significantly worsening situation.
A very effective way of silencing media and journalists is through online harassment. Smear campaigns, social media lynchings, and the prevalence of hate speech on social media have left many journalists working in fear. Sonila Meco was recently exposed to a barrage of vile abuse after a status she posted on Facebook was picked up by Gazeta Tema. The scathing article which accused her of disrespecting Albanian doctors meant she was inundated with threats of violence and abuse.
Other female journalists often receive threats of sexual violence, lewd or unkind comments about their appearance, and deeply misogynistic tirades, just because they have chosen to speak out.
This combination of tabloid media targeting women journalists and whipping up crowds of trolls into a frenzy has dire consequences. Not only does it put the lives of women at risk, but it deters others from pursuing a career in the field.
2019 was a year we saw a number of physical attacks on journalists including the indiscriminate use of tear gas, police assaults, and police officers physically stopping journalists from doing their jobs.
The Opposition-led anti-government protests led to a number of incidents where journalists were hospitalized, injured, or even rendered unconscious. The indiscriminate use of tear gas and excessive force from the police was condemned by local and international media freedom organizations.
Others reported being assaulted by bodyguards and other security personnel, hired to protect state employees. Nikolle Lesi, the editor of Koha Jone, reported being attacked by the police, as did Enver Doci from News24. Many of these crimes went unpunished.
Flutura Kusari from the ECMPF raised concerns that the rhetoric used by politicians was creating a situation where violence against journalists would likely escalate. While there have not been any journalists murdered in recent years, this could all change if the culture of impunity for crimes against them continues.
Few, if any of the crimes committed against journalists are even investigated, let alone punished. This results in a prevailing sense of journalists having nowhere to turn. Unable to trust the government, police, courts, or even other journalists, they either suffer in silence, self-censor or continue, putting their safety at risk.
But in a country where the minimum wage is around EUR 200, it is no surprise that journalists are struggling. Not only are wages low, but there is a lack of proper labour conditions in the industry.
Williams said “Journalists need secure, predictable, long-term contracts so that they don’t self-censor out of fear for their jobs. Journalists need resources so that they can do in-depth stories, and have the time to do research.”
Media workers in big portals follow the editorial line to ensure they get paid. Those in the few independent media don’t know where next month’s salary is coming from. To be independent and to investigate scandals means insecurity in terms of financing and the ongoing operation of the portal.
Often, portals have to decide between getting advertising revenue and money or struggling from month to month. One option means toeing the party line and staying away from critical stories, the other is real journalism.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the media even harder, meaning many are shedding staff and cutting salaries.
“Covid has hit many businesses and the media is one of those that got hit hard. Even traditional media and I could mention logos of many broadcasters that are laying down staff or decreasing wages. This has a direct effect on the quality of reporting, which even before Covid was not at its best. The government refusing to include journalists in the so-called “war wages” has also helped in making the situation worse.”
This informality in work relations and problems with financial remuneration are still a big issue. Laws that concern journalists rights are not respected and only add to challenges facing Albanian journalists, according to Cipa.
Judicial harassment and restrictive laws
As if this climate was not enough to strike fear into the heart of media workers, the Albanian government decided to take things further. The passing of the “anti-defamation” package gives the state the power to shut down content, impose fines, and silence journalists if they are perceived to have committed a series of loosely defined offenses. Widely criticised and acknowledged as being anti-European, the government seems determined to enforce the law, much to the dismay of local media.
The UN, CoE, OSCE, EU, EP, and all the international media freedom organisations have been clear in their message- drop the law. They have all pushed for self-regulation instead.
The UN office in Tirana said, “self-regulation is best; the punishment should be proportionate, and judgements should be made by independent courts.”
RSF added that the laws clearly go against international best practice.
“The two laws proposed by the government will have, we believe, a negative impact on press freedom in Albania. Fortunately, the President vetoed them, but his veto may still be overrun by the Parliament,” they said.
But it is not just the state, big business, and organised crime that is after Albania’s journalists. The troublesome climate has resulted in a deep mistrust of the media from the country’s public. Many feel they cannot trust what is said, that the media lie and that they are all financed by a political party.
In terms of financing, a common way to discredit the media is to allege they are linked to or paid by a political group. Sometimes this is true, sometimes this is not. In the case of Exit, a smear campaign stating both the portal and its journalists were paid by the Opposition, was reported as a threat against media freedom by the Council of Europe.
This combined with the ethically dubious actions of some tabloid portals means that even good journalists get tarred with a negative brush. Those fighting for the truth find themselves up against a public that doesn’t trust them and think they are motivated by money, greed, or power.
The Albanian Media Council has plans to combat this. Through the inauguration of the Albanian Alliance for Ethical Media, they hope to encourage journalists to self-regulate and to raise their professional standards. Politicians and those seeking to discredit the media will always throw those allegations around but if journalists can show they are transparent, honest and ethical, these smears can be combated.
“Lack of ethics translates into a lack of trust from the public. First let’s try and raise the standard of professionalism. We are trying to unify the media around one main objective: raising the ethical standards of reporting.”
In a country where there is little to no political will to see an independent, free, and flourishing media, it seems that the future rests in the hands of journalists. To overcome the current situation requires will, strength, and above all solidarity between media workers to come together to fight for a better future, not just for Albanian journalism, but for Albania as well.