Part one of a two-part series.
The last year has been unprecedented in Albanian history. Asides from the ongoing political infighting and a constant stream of scandals, Albania has been rocked by two natural disasters that have killed more than 180 and left thousands in economic insecurity.
On 26 November 2019, Albania was hit by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake that claimed the lives of 51 people, injured hundreds, and left thousands homeless. Just four months later, a global pandemic was declared as COVID-19 took hold and the country went into lockdown. To date there have been 4570 cases and 128 deaths.
Asides from the medics, rescue teams, and aid workers, journalists have been on the front line too. Diligently reporting on the situation as it unfolds. Often with limited access to official information, under threat of attacks against their profession, and at risk to their own safety and wellbeing, Albanian journalists have provided the public with up-to-date information on both crises.
Research shows that journalists often suffer from ‘transference’, whereby they experience the pain of victims they interview or scenes the witness. This can lead to indirect secondary trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Following Hurricane Harvey in the United States, 90% of journalists interviewed two months later displayed some symptoms of PTSD and 20% met the threshold for a diagnosis. 40% could be diagnosed as having depression and almost all displayed some symptoms of the condition. Reporters noted they suffered from flashbacks, insomnia, bad dreams, and disruption in their daily lives.
Key stressors of their conditions were not just the nature of the stories they were covering, but long hours, unpredictable schedules, and pressure over their role in reporting on the disaster.
Another US study interviewed journalists working for a daily newspaper. Findings revealed that the higher the coverage of traumatic content, the more likely they were to suffer from PTSD. Journalists spoke of the emotional drain, exhaustion, flashbacks, anxiety, depression, and alcohol abuse.
Little has been acknowledged or written about the impact of two traumatic events on journalists in Albania, just four months apart. Exit spoke to five local reporters including two television presenters, one photographer, and two text journalists to find out more about their experiences and the aftermath.
Isa Myzyraj was asleep at his home in Durres when the earthquake struck. He was the first journalist to report on the disaster, opening his live stream about four minutes after it occurred. His house collapsed in the quake and he was lucky that he and his family managed to escape.
“I opened the live video and recorded for 19 minutes transmitting the horror of those moments. It was the scariest event I have ever reported as before my eyes there was only rubble and people below it. I couldn’t do anything except ask for help on the live broadcast,” he said.
Experiencing the epicentre, the collapse of his home, and the horror of that night as it happened has had a lasting effect on Isa. For weeks after he said he couldn’t enter a closed room and slept in the car, suffering from nightmares every night.
“There were moments when I just burst into tears, I don’t know why…it came naturally. I cannot forget the screams of relatives crying for their loved ones who were left under the rubble. I cannot forget a single moment.”
In terms of COVID-19, Isa said it was the unfamiliarity of not knowing what we were dealing with that made it scary.
“I didn’t know how to behave…It was a situation that made me think every day that the world was changing once and for all. It was scary…I would finish work every day at midnight and look at the city empty, without people, without cars, without even police…it was really scary,” he added.
Still suffering from anxiety and stress from the earthquake, when the pandemic started, Isa said it heightened his psychological and mental state. He moved to live alone out of fear of infecting his parents and was overcome with fear for the future of himself, the country, and humanity.
A female journalist working in a mainstream newsroom also gave her account to Exit, but under the condition of anonymity as she didn’t want her employers to consider her as “weak”.
She described the difficulty in both being professional and reporting on the situations as they unfold, while also caring for yourself and your family.
“Covering the earthquake was very traumatic. Not only did I have to leave my home but I was on duty 24/7, trying to report factually and quickly to keep people updated. It was awful, watching the death toll get higher and higher as they brought bodies out of the rubble.”
Even harder was trying to continue reporting while the ground was still shaking and she was in fear for her safety. This fear is something that remains with her today.
“I was running on adrenaline for days and I slept around 2 hours a night for the first couple of weeks. Even now I sometimes feel the ground shake even when it doesn’t and every time I think about the earthquake, I get anxious and my hands’ sweat. I have had nightmares and flashbacks and perhaps once a week I wake up panicking, thinking there has been another earthquake.”
Like Isa, she said that the start of the pandemic and the feelings that accompanied it just exacerbated an already fragile mental state.
“I think you end up internalising a lot of the pressure and stress- because there is a huge amount of pressure to report properly. Also the fear of the unknown and what could happen, worries about losing your job, your family, people you know. It is a huge burden to carry, combined with the stress of lockdown as well,” she said.
The journalist told Exit that she believes she had two small mental breakdowns over the last seven months resulting in her being unable to work for a few days at a time. She believes it is due to the events she has reported on and the pressure involved in her work.
News anchor Klodiana Lala said that covering the aftermath of the earthquake was one of the only moments she has ever felt fear in her work.
“This was among the only moments I have felt fear. This was also for the fact that I am a mother and some of the victims trapped under the rubble of apartments or flats were children, at the same age as my daughters.”
Klodiana took the initiative to seek some professional help in managing the emotional fallout from her work. She consulted with doctors and psychologists to help her ensure she could continue her work reporting and serving the public.
While reporting on COVID-19 did not scare her, it did stop her from being close to her family due to fear of infecting them. She adds that journalists in Albania were and are completely unprepared to deal with such events
Most of the journalists’ Exit spoke to noted that their colleagues had all been impacted as well. Some reported cases of PTSD, anxiety, and depression, even positive COVID-19 tests. Others noted that the pressure to keep the public informed while the situation changed minute by minute, had a profound impact on their physical health.
“As soon as I stopped work for the day I would collapse. When you switch off autopilot and the adrenaline stops running, that’s what happens- you break down,” the anonymous journalist said.
In terms of the support received, responses were generally positive.
Maksi Rama, a reporter said “COVID was tough as it happened a few months after the earthquake. Our employer supported us with a financial bonus after the earthquake, and during COVID we were tested three times.” He also reported that they were given reasonable amounts of time off which allowed him to relax and decompress.
Another female journalist told Exit that her employers provided personal and emotional support for them, allowing them to have time off when things got too much.
“There were no questions asked. They understood and supported us as much as possible- they always put our safety and wellbeing first,” she said.
But Isa doesn’t know the best way to help journalists pursuing these sorts of stories.
“We definitely need help. I am of the opinion that a plan should be drawn up by professionals. A plan to be implemented whenever there are events such as this. Events where the journalist must be there, every hour and every second, for hours whole, seeing the horror with their eyes but is not allowed to react with emotions.”
Maksi added that working hours for journalists should be five to six hours instead of eight hours plus.
“Many times friends and colleagues told me they didn’t even have time to buy a bottle of water or eat because they had to report live,” he said.
“Journalists should have the opportunity to meet with a psychologist when covering stressful stories, it’s important.” he added.
All of the journalists Exit spoke to noted some impact on their family lives. Some went without seeing family members for months at a time, others became agitated and stressed at home thus negatively impacting their personal relationships.
“I have been cold and emotionless but also anxious as I’ve tried to process the feelings I have from the last few months. You have to internalise them else you cannot continue to do your job,” the female journalist told Exit.
But she added with a smile;
“I will say that we knew this was a tough job when we started doing it. Journalism isn’t easy, stress and trauma is a part of the territory.”