From: Alice Taylor
Comment: Albanian Media Has Blood on its Hands Over COVID-19 Misinformation

Albania is under attack from a barrage of misinformation. If it wasn’t visible enough on social media and television, even the Albanian Intelligence Services confirmed it in a 2020 report. We are being fed reams of fake news designed to disrupt our societies and cause harm. The scary thing is, it’s working.

The problem is so severe that non-Western bad actors don’t even need to try particularly hard anymore; tabloid media in Albania is more than happy to pick up the baton.

Without conscience, a sense of social or moral responsibility, or even ensuring people are qualified to speak on a topic, they invite sensationalism onto our screens.

Alfred Cako is an ex-Member of Parliament and conspiracy theory literature publisher. He now spends much of his time on TV shows, espousing claims about COVID-19. 

Here are some of his more memorable quotes:

  • Deceased convicted pedophile and rapist Jeffrey Epstein owned Moderna;
  • US infectious diseases doctor Anthony Fauci was a President at Pfizer;
  • That Fauci is the illegitimate son of Mother Theresa;
  • That Bill Gates and Fauci are trying to depopulate the world;
  • COVID-19 is a plan of the Illuminati;
  • COVID-19 doesn’t exist, and it’s just a way to force people to be vaccinated;
  • A large portion of the world will die by the end of 2021.
  • By 2025, only 10 million people will be living in the UK out of 68 million due to vaccines;
  • People over the age of 65 will die from the vaccine due to “deformed hormones”;
  • That by March 2021, COVID-21 would be announced, and it would cause cracks in people’s skin;
  • “They” want to put the blood of the devil in Albanians to change their DNA, so they aren’t Albanian anymore.

He has also freely used antisemitic slurs, including comparing vaccination to the “holocaust” and making accusations against philanthropist George Soros.

But this case is not isolated. Human rights activist Xheni Karaj appeared on a TV show with journalist Blerta Tafani, who used several slurs and insults against her. Also on the show was ‘psychologist’ Marsela Lekli, who claimed that children brought up in an LGBTI environment will be LGBTI. She also made several other comments against same-sex couples.

But research conducted by Exit showed that to practice as a psychologist in Albania, one must be registered with the Order of Psychologists. To practice as a psychologist or present yourself as one without being legally qualified or registered is against the law.

The Order confirmed to Exit that Lekli is not and has never been registered with them. They then made several public statements, distancing them from those who claim to be professionals when they are not. 

They even sent a letter to every court in the country, reminding them to be wary of psychologist experts who might not be qualified to carry out the work.

Yet, this non-registered individual who cannot call themselves a psychologist appeared on television and presented themselves as an authority without checks and balances.  

Lekli has not responded to any calls for comment.

The problem with putting unqualified people on TV to talk about sensitive, technical, or serious subjects is the following; Firstly, when you put someone on television, there’s a perception that they are essential and authoritative. You assume that they are there because they’re one of the most foremost and respected voices on the matter at hand.

Secondly, when you are told their profession, be it ‘psychologist,’ lawyer, or even doctor (in cases where a doctor in a different specialty is brought in to talk about COVID-19), this is an abuse of the appeal authority. Knowing someone’s profession makes the viewer trust them more, although that trust is not always deserved.

Much of the mainstream Albanian media is driven by click-revenue and advertising. The more clicks and viewers they get, the more money they make. It doesn’t fit into their business model to have sensible, measured debates that impart fact-based information. What gains viewers is controversy, outlandish claims, and even bigotry.

Data crunching conducted by BIRN found that some YouTube videos of Cako were approaching 800,000 views and more than 1,500 comments. Other videos of him discussing COVID-19 claims have reached nearly 3 million people on Facebook.

He is so popular; he has a weekly slot on one of the most-watched TV channels in the country.

But the consequences of this misinformation and deliberately provocative rhetoric are dire.

Albania has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. Meanwhile, its health service is one of the poorest and least efficient. With around 23% of the population is fully vaccinated, despite vaccinations being freely available for all, it seems disinformation has a part to play.

The broadcasters in question told BIRN that they have a right to give space to “alternative voices” and that it doesn’t reflect their editorial line. But does this right supersede people’s right to life?

The consensus in the media community is that opposing views should be presented, but with caution and responsibility. Giving a platform to false and defamatory information without any caveats or disclaimers and not counteracting it with the same level of visibility is irresponsible journalism. Furthermore, presenting people as experts when they are not is wholly unethical.

One could even argue that such comments could be constituted as “inciting panic.” You will recall that the government arrested several activists and journalists following the 2019 earthquake for this.

For a country like Albania, this situation is incredibly problematic. The ability to fact-check information is reduced due to the majority of the population speaking only Albanian. When the media fails to present fact-based information with high visibility, people are more likely to fall foul to misinformation. Instead of stepping up to help improve vaccination rates and public safety, some media is propagating dangerous information that could well leave them with blood on their hands.