From: Arbjona Cibuku for Citizens Channel
Analysis: Journalism in Albania is at the Whim of Media Owners

A handful of people own most of the conventional media in Albania and experts say that the concentration of ownership undermines freedom of speech by censoring journalists. The data speak of a lack of media pluralism, while the weak legal framework and weak institutions blur the divisions between media, politics and business.

In 2021, Albania fell by 20 places in the media freedom index, receiving the lowest historical ranking as a result of the situation worsened by threats to editorial independence, the violation of the physical integrity of journalists by organized crime and the failure of the Albanian state to protect journalists from police violence.

The lack of economic independence pushes journalists, especially young ones, to accept the dictation of the way of reporting and censorship by the media owners.

The forms of censorship against journalists, as they declare, include the banning of direct publication, to the distortion of information and warnings of dismissal in case of resistance.

“Media as a family business”

Kristina Voko, executive director of BIRN in Albania, says that according to the indicators of the Media Ownership Monitor (MOM), the country was assessed as high risk in terms of political and economic control of the media, which has turned into a “family business”.

“There are rare cases when a media is owned by many shareholders who have no family ties”, says Elvin Luku, head of the “MediaLook” Center and lecturer in the Journalism department.

According to an IDRA report, television remains the primary source of information for 79% of the audience in Albania, thus making the audience focus on information from this sector, which is often fabricated.

Elvin Luku, MediaLook director and UT lecturer

The two big owners – the Hoxha and Frangaj families – control more than two-thirds of the market with 71.7%. The four largest television owners are the Hoxha family with Top Media, the Frangaj family with Klan, the Dulaku family with Media Vizion and businessman Hysenbelliu with News 24, according to MOM.

“Both audiences and revenues are concentrated in very few hands,” says Voko, adding that “if one media owner or three media owners own the majority of the audience, then they influence public opinion for their own interests.”

Biased reporting is directly related to media ownership. The owners of the television stations, where the audience is most concentrated, “are people who have other business interests beyond the media”, says Voko, and this affects the way they broadcast the news.

Political independence of media according to Media Ownership Monitor 2022

“The information is formatted based on the interests of the media owners,” says Voko while adding that the transparency of media ownership is very important so that the public knows who they are getting the information from.

“Information policy and control”

As for political control of the media, it exists in Albania, but Voko clarifies that “it does not mean that the government has bought the media, but the media, due to their structure, are ready to serve those in power.”

Research by MediaLook published in 2018 analyzed how the main media in the country, visual and online, reported the news sent by the press office of the Municipality of Tirana.

“It turned out that the information on ten of the largest televisions and portals had a compatibility of 50-90% with the press releases coming from the public institution. This indicates a coverage in favour of this institution”, says the director of MediaLook, Elvin Luku.

Market pluralism in Albania according to Media Ownership 2022

“Economic interests are translated into political interests, so usually the owners have interests to win concessions from the state, and these interests push them to be politically biased towards those in power”, argues Voko.

Nationally licensed media shareholders are not limited to the information technology field but to several other businesses related to construction, telecommunications, automotive, gas and oil.

Albania presents a high risk in the concentration of the media and the audience, due to the lack of legal regulation on ownership issues, according to MOM.

Luku clarifies that in Albania, the law “On Audiovisual Media” builds an Audiovisual Media Authority (AMA) to some extent with political balance.

“The members of its board are elected three from the opposition, three from the majority and the chairman by a simple majority, but it is not an independent AMA from politics. Our country needs exactly the latter, that is, an institution as far away from politics as possible”, said Luku.

Furthermore, he says that a second model in the EU is that of an AMA – “like a regulatory agency, but with an Audiovisual Media law that provides for nationally licensed media to have a very broad ownership structure decentralized, even more than limiting the shares to 30 or 35% as was the case before 2016″.

“Media owners and politicians, together against free speech”

When it comes to the implication of political interests that translate into economic interests, censorship of journalists has marked flagrant cases.

Such is the ban on the broadcast of the investigative documentary “Hills of Death“.

In 2016, 17-year-old Ardit Gjoklaj died from the inhuman conditions in the landfill of Sharra, where urban waste was burned and recycled illegally. The Municipality had previously heralded it as a great place to work.

“The way in which the Municipality of Tirana tried to avoid its responsibilities shocked the whole society”, recalls journalist Artan Rama.

When the event happened, the team called Publicus that Artan was working with had just been formed, and they were immediately engaged in discovering the causes of the minor’s death.

“Our goal was to show the Albanians not only the reasons for this tragedy but also the circumstances in which it was easily possible”, says the journalist. The responsibilities they discovered were clear, political clientelism between public authorities and private companies.

He and his colleagues had anticipated their discoveries in this investigation, ” but what we hadn’t anticipated was the very media in which we had decided to convey the story”.

The leaders of the Vizion Plus media. company, after learning about the story, asked the journalists to change it.

“When I refused, they advised me not to broadcast it that week and to deal with the topic that was to be broadcast next week”, says Rama.

They tried to explain to him that the broadcast could cause displeasure to the leaders of the Municipality of Tirana, with whom they had a working relationship”.But what didn’t happen often was the opposition that came to them from journalists.

“It was universally known that the shareholders of Vizion Plus television were builders and that construction permits were issued by the Urban Planning Office near the Municipality”, says Rama.

Protest for the murder of Ardi Gjoklaj, September 5, 2020/ Photo: Political Organization

After that, a group of four journalists quit the media and decided to broadcast the material online.

Today, Artan Rama works in Albania as a freelance journalist and has not chosen to leave the country, but economic security is a concern in this sector. Therefore, he considers it necessary to “build a moral financing platform for the support of media products”.

“In newspaper, TV and web journalists face censorship”

The medium makes no difference when we talk about censorship. Ermelinda Hoxhaj has been working as a television journalist for 16 years, and during her career, she says that the pressure she felt was high.

“There have been cases that if you have dealt with an affair or a legal violation, the companies have brought advertisements, and the journalist’s mouth is automatically ‘shut’ “, says Hoxhaj, who, after objections, faced warnings for dismissal.  

“The media market is becoming a monopoly of some powerful businessmen, who are monopolizing not only the news but also the salaries and the job market of journalists,” says Hoxhaj. 

Economic insecurity keeps journalists from speaking out, and this is more pronounced among young journalists who have just started their professional journey.

Esmeralda Hida is a young journalist who has worked for two years in a print newspaper. She says that there have been many cases of censorship, but “one of them is when we wrote about banks”. 

“The newspaper had a bank where it passed transactions for salaries, and when we once did an article about the violations that the banks and the bank where the owner of the newspaper was connected to, we did not mention his name at all,” says Hida. She also shares another case where she was forbidden to mention cases of corruption in the Municipality of Tirana.

“Of course, we were told not to report it, as the owner was close to the municipality and the latter used to advertise in the newspaper”, says the journalist.

Hida testifies that over time she noticed that she had gone into self-censorship and she simply did not argue.

Klodjana Agaj, young journalist

The situation is not very different in online media, where, in addition to censorship, journalists face the dictation of news. 

Klodjana Agaj has been working in this sector for two years. “The owners of the online media are mostly people who are not related to journalism, but are related to business”, she says while adding that the online media where she engaged was used as a tool to attack businesses and individuals. 

“Not long ago, I was quietly censored for a news story that I couldn’t do. The news was about strategic investments and the husband of the minister Olta Xhaçka as a strategic investor”, she says.

Flamur Vezaj worked for 12 years as a journalist in Albania, but in 2017 he decided to leave, and today he lives in Boston, in the USA.

“The owners do not hesitate in Albania to intervene directly, excluding the “intermediary” editor, editor-in-chief or news director”, says Vezaj.

The journalist shows that the owner’s economic interests have directly influenced his censorship.

“I have an experience in the print media, where an oil businessman, with problems with justice at that time, brought advertisements and they told me that we will not write about this businessman”, recalls Vezaj. 

“Who protects journalists?”

Blerjana Bino, head of the Safe Journalists network in Albania, estimates a high degree of conditioning in editorial independence influenced by media ownership. 

From her experience in conversations she has had with journalists, she says that the forms of pressure are among the most diverse.

Blerjana Bino, representative of the Safe Journalists Network

“If the owner does not exert direct pressure, they should not forget the connecting link such as the editors or chief editors who can ‘translate’ the interests of the owners into direct or indirect pressure on the journalists”, says Bino.

According to the Safe Journalists report, the most common forms of pressure are shutting down broadcasts or cancelling reporting, threats, economic insecurity, harassment, content control and fraud, and even blackmail. 

Bino clarifies that there is no information about the pressure exerted by media owners or managers on an entire newsroom or certain journalists in 2021 but adds that “pressures are exerted even though journalists do not report them”.

Bino estimates that journalists have no protection “because there are no umbrella organizations or unions”, further deepening their fear of opposing the owners. 

Journalists feel unsafe even in the field when they are reporting. In case of physical attacks, the editorial office does not come to their defence.

Journalist Isa Myzyraj says that “most newsrooms do not provide journalists and operators with any protective equipment, such as anti-gas masks, clothing that is visible like the media, and not even waterproof clothing.”

Isa Myzyraj, journalist

He says that journalists, in case of protests, are the most at risk group since both the police and law enforcement structures do not respect the work of journalists and “often physically attack them, even though in many cases they can identify them as journalists”.

“Their safety is vulnerable if their journalism conflicts with the interests of the owners,” Bino declares.

Between the lack of a legal framework and institutions that lack the will to guarantee a more pluralistic media environment and protective mechanisms for journalists, the latter are often forced to censor or act based on the interest of media owners and not the public.