Exit worked hard during the last 12 months to bring readers uncensored, verified, and breaking news. These are some of our favourite revelations from 2020.
Agim Kajmaku was the Socialist Party Mayor of Vora who was elected during the 30 June local elections. It was later discovered that he had lied on his decriminalization form and failed to declare his criminal record in Greece when he applied to run as a candidate. He was charged with a variety of offenses and promptly went “on the run”. The authorities said they were unable to find him.
Despite the Albanian police claiming for many months that they were unable to locate Kajmaku, Exit was able to find him in two separate locations and obtain photographs of him out and about.
Following a tip from two independent sources, Exit was able to confirm he was drinking coffee regularly at a cafe. He was then spotted again, drinking coffee and then going for a walk along one of Tirana’s main roads, just meters from a police directorate.
One witness reported that to keep a low profile, Kajmaku is traveling with a vehicle from the National Food Authority (AKU) where one of his family members works.
Police then arrested him and the Appeals Court then released him. The reduced security measure came at the request of the case prosecutor Arta Marku who said he was in poor health.
An Albanian Port, Tankers, and Syria
During the last days of 2020, Exit discovered documents that had previously chartered an LPG tanker that was believed to be involved in supplying the Assad regime in Syria with energy. Documents included company documents and a detention list from the Paris MOU that named the company as the charterer.
The revelation came following reporting for Forbes and Energy Fuse that discovered a pattern of vessels traveling between Albania and Syria.
The Jaguar S, owned by a Turkish company, was chartered by Bare’s company AV International Group in April 2019 and detained due to multiple violations of its flag requirements, as documented by the Paris MOU. The Jaguar S has been tracked traveling between Porto Romano and Baniyas as recently as June 2020 when it left Porto Romano, switched its AIS system off before anchoring in Turkey, and then traveling to the port of Baniyas where it was photographed by a satellite.
Not only this, but other vessels had been spotted leaving and returning to the Porto Romano port, also owned by Bare, after being in a Syrian port.
Another ship previously known as the Blue Way but renamed the Melody has also been spotted frequenting Porto Romano before heading to Baniyas. Owned by a Turkish company with similarities to the owner of Jaguar S, the Blue Way/Melody was slapped with US sanctions in 2015 for supplying the Syrian regime with LPG and gasoil. The vessel was spotted in Porto Romano and off the coast of Syria earlier this month.
Read the full story here.
PPP by Stealth
In 2019 and 2020, Exit was involved in a cross-border investigation into a dubious public-private partnership that was tried in Malta before being exported to the Balkans. In Malta, the government handed over three state hospitals to a company with no experience in hospital management. The concession was for 99 years and was worth over a billion euros. Within a couple of years, the concessionaire was bankrupt despite taking hundreds of millions from taxpayers. The concession was sold for EUR 1 to another company which appeared to have the same people behind it.
Despite a criminal investigation being launched in Malta, the new company Steward Healthcare and the investors behind the whole scheme started pitching the governments in Albania, Montenegro, and North Macedonia.
Exit revealed a complex web of Memorandums of Understanding and draft laws that would pave the way for a similar scheme to be implemented in Albania. Meanwhile, Steward Healthcare was found to owe at least EUR 12 million to the Maltese state and to have sent COVID-19 patients to state-owned hospitals instead of caring for them in their institutions.
Exit also reported that the company “held hostage” the US government during the pandemic after it threatened to close its doors unless they were given $40 million.
Disgraced ex-Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat then begged the new Maltese government for more money for the concession. The Opposition accused him of premeditated theft. Muscat had previously visited North Macedonia, accompanied by Steward Healthcare officials to meet with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. Discussions centered around exporting the scheme and PPP to the country.
The November 2019 earthquake followed by the COVID-19 pandemic just a few months later, presented many challenges for Albanian society. But what about those covering the crisis? Exit spoke to a range of media professionals throughout the country about their experiences covering such traumatic stories and the impact it had on their mental health.
Unsurprisingly, Exit found that many suffered stress and anxiety, as well as post-traumatic stress. In fact, between 80-100% of Albanian journalists experienced some kind of work-related trauma and repeated exposure can lead to serious long-term effects.
Journalists Exit spoke to detailed their experiences including full breakdowns, seeing therapists, panic attacks and medication, relationship issues, increased use of alcohol, and exhaustion. These were further exacerbated by having to work long hours without breaks and in difficult and dangerous conditions.
You can read more here.
Interview with a trafficker
2020 was a year where Albanian police made a large number of arrests for migrant smuggling through the country. By summer, arrests were taking place every day. Citizens were found transporting third-country nationals from the border with Greece to Tirana and then onwards to Montenegro or Kosovo. The final destination being an EU Member State.
Exit was able to identify one individual who had been arrested for trafficking and they agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity. During the interview which took place in Shkodra, they divulged detailed information on how migrants were moved from the border, with cooperation from police, through the country. When arriving in Tirana, they were taken to a safe house in Laprake where they had time to rest and recover, before starting the next leg of their journey.
You can read the full article here.
Exit’s Participation in the UNESCO World Press Freedom Conference
2020 was a great year for Exit as we were chosen to participate in the UNESCO World Press Freedom Conference 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the event was rescheduled until it was eventually moved completely online. Exit was asked to organize an event in Tirana, in collaboration with the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and with the Albanian Helsinki Committee, and the Albanian Media Council.
Exit was the first Albanian media to organize an event for the Conference which is the world’s largest and most prestigious journalistic event
The event took place on Zoom due to COVID-19 restrictions and a video of the event was streamed internationally during the conference. The topic focussed on the challenges facing journalism in Albania and the solutions that can enable journalists to work without fear or favor.
You can listen to a podcast of the full event here.
Following the demolition of the National Theatre, the Albanian government set their sites on razing to the ground another historic structure. This time, it was the Cultural Centre in the town of Rrogozhine.
Exit discovered that the Municipality was planning to demolish the Cultural Centre, under the guise of earthquake damage, and use earthquake reconstruction funds to build in its place. The building, a fine and sturdy example of Socialist Realism architecture needed repair but according to local architects and the man who oversaw its construction in the 1970s, it wasn’t earthquake damaged and did not need to be demolished.
Exit was then able to obtain a copy of the report used to justify the decision to demolish it. It was clear that no forensic examinations had been carried out and the decision was made based on a short, visual inspection. It was then discovered that the individuals who carried out and signed the report had complaints of abuse of office filed against them in SPAK. They were two of the same individuals who signed off on the demolition of the National Theatre.
Despite the building being written off as unsafe and earmarked for demolition, the Socialist Party held an event in it shortly after it was condemned.
Furthermore, Exit reported that this expensive and unnecessary work was going to take place while some 150 Rrogozhine families were living in unsafe houses or tents, following the earthquake.
Following Exit’s expose, the plan to demolish it was shelved, and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Austrian Development Agency stepped in to fund the repair and rehabilitation of the structure.
Turgut Ozal School
In November, Exit was approached by individuals from the Turgut Ozal schools in Tirana. They explained how a few weeks prior, tens of police turned up at several of the school’s campuses simultaneously, without a warrant or court order, and demanded to search the premises. In addition to this, they started photographing and filming students who were present at the school and confiscated parent lists.
The staff described how they had previously been subjected to an “extended and intensive” tax audit that found nothing. An audit by their auditors had also confirmed that everything was in order. The “raid” that followed was “terrifying” according to those that Exit spoke to.
The school is owned by a Dutch company but staff believes the “attacks” on them are due to allegations it is run by Gulenists. They further speculated that the police action is due to pressure from the Turkish government to take “steps” against the Gulen movement and to hand over its members to Turkey.
There is no known link between the Turgut Ozal school, its teachers, or students and the Fetullah Gulen Movement.
The school then filed a criminal complaint against the State Police for raiding the premises without a warrant or court order, and for using excessive force.
You can read more here.
GRETA: Human Trafficking Survivors at Risk if Returned to Albania
In an exclusive interview with Exit, Petya Nestorova, the Executive- Secretary of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) spoke of how sending survivors of human trafficking back to Albania from EU states or the UK carried real risks. She urged the Albanian government to talk to other countries about the risks women pose when they are returned, including being rejected by their families, social ostracisation, poverty, intimidation, and being trafficked again.
The ability to grant asylum to Albanian women and children who have survived human trafficking should be used more she said.
Following GRETAs latest evaluation of Albania’s approach to human trafficking, they noted that women are not given witness protection, assets of traffickers are not seized, and victims do not receive compensation, despite being entitled to it.
GRECO: Albania Needs to go Beyond Just Ticking Boxes
In early December, Exit interviewed Sophie Meudal-Leenders, one of the authors of the Council of Europe Group of States Against Corruption (CoE GRECO) 5th Evaluation Round report.
During the interview, she reiterated that Albania needs to implement and enforce the laws it creates. While laws look good on paper, they need to be implemented. Leenders noted several examples where frameworks to prevent corruption are in place but that they are not used, or even functional.
She called on authorities to execute reforms and not just to conduct a “box-ticking exercise”.
Leenders noted that Albania has a long road ahead in the fight against corruption and it’s something the country needs to commit to in the long run.
You can read the summary of the GRECO 5th Round Evaluation here.
The Saga of Acromax Continues
Exit had been reporting on the activities of Acromax for almost two years when in 2020 it was picked up by German media.
Previously, Exit had discovered that Acromax had worked for the Socialist Party as recently as August 2019. Owner of Acromax Aldor Nini told an Exit journalist that “the only business relationship we have is with the political party PS”. He then listed examples of work that the company had undertaken which included blocking unauthorized use of copyrighted material and reporting to Facebook instances of “fake news”. Nini then sent a list of articles he had removed on behalf of the PS.
But in January, he denied that they were clients and said Acromax “does not provide services for political parties.”
Nini then threatened to instigate a SLAPP suit against Exit and its journalist. The lawsuit never materialized.
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.
The Plagiarism of Erion Veliaj
The Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj had a busy year plagiarising other people’s work for Municipality propaganda.
Exit revealed the first instance in January 2020. The Municipality put up several “artsy” road signs in the Blloku part of Tirana to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the city. Exit was quick to realise that they were copies of work by artist Clet Abraham who lives and works in Florence. After confirming with Abraham or ‘Le Clet’ as he is known, it became clear that the Municipality had not asked for his permission to copy his work.
When asked about the issue, Veliaj called an Exit journalist a fascist and a troll and blocked her.
In February, the Municipality published a video called “What is Tirana to You?” on his profile. The song was almost identical to the song “What is London to you” published by the Mayor of London’s office in 2018. When contacted by Exit, the London Mayor’s office expressed surprise and said they had no idea the song was being repurposed for Tirana.
Then in March, Veliaj published an image of a design that he said was of the new Tirana University campus. The image was actually the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Exit reached out to the Boston ICA and Diller Scofidio + Renfro to ask if they have been engaged by the Municipality of Tirana to create an identical project, or if they have given Veliaj permission to use their designs to build the new Tirana university campus. No reply was forthcoming.
Exit Becomes First Balkan Media to Complete Independence Audit
In 2020, Exit News was asked to take part in a pilot project and to undergo an extensive audit of its professionalism and independence. The project was spearheaded by Reporters Without Borders, the Ethical Media Alliance, and with support from UNESCO and the European Union.
The process involved publishing all contact information, ownership, and information relating to financials and funding. Furthermore, it included an extensive review of all policies related to hiring, training, safety, discrimination, and privacy, as well as editorial guidelines, mission, and processes for complaints.
During this process, Exit appointed the Albanian Media Council as an external ombudsman and became a founding member of the Ethical Media Alliance. Exit pledged to be bound by the decisions of both of these entities, should they receive any complaints about Exit’s work.
Exit was the first media in Albania and the Western Balkans to undergo the audit and publish the results. The next step is a full audit with Deloitte, the results of which will also be made public.
Aidan White, the former Secretary-General of the International Federation of Journalists and President of the EJN said that “The Exit News commitment to ethics is a guarantee to the public about the quality of its journalism.”
“Exit News has set a standard that all newspeople should follow, not just in Albania, but across the Western Balkans and the European Union. They have taken up the challenge, declaring “we have nothing to hide and are ready to speak the truth in the public interest. I congratulate them for their pioneering action.”
RSF commented that when compared to other candidates across Europe of a similar size, Exit was “pretty far advanced” in terms of compliance.