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Media Under Fire

Since the collapse of the communist regime more than two decades ago and the birth of independent media outlets ushered a new era for journalism, the relationship between journalists and politicians in Albania has always been fraught with tensions.

In this adversarial relation the local political elite has shown little tolerance for independent journalists and media outlets and has done everything in its power to control their coverage. In the 1990s, the pressure on the media from the government was direct, as journalists were harassed by security services and even jailed, while the independent newspaper Koha Jone was torched.

However, such heavy handed tactics earned local politicians an international reputation as enemies of the press and forced them to change tune to more sophisticated methods, which sought to influence the media by corrupting its owners with government contracts, privatization tenders and lucrative construction permits.

The perks offered by the government to oligarchs who invested in media, created a bustling market with dozens of print and TV outlets. These outlets often displayed a strong political bias in their coverage, which depends on the economic and political interests of the owners. Because of these ever changing interests many journalists are pushed toward self-censorship.

The journalists who resist the pressure often face direct verbal abuse and threats coming from the highest echelons of power, which aims to test their resolve and draw attention away from critical reporting.

According to the annual report on Freedom in the World, published by the US based rights watchdog group Freedom House, former center-right Prime Minister Sali Berisha routinely ‘denigrated’ the media and journalists while in power. Berisha once called the press corps a bunch of ‘economic idiots’ when he was asked about the poor state of the country’s finances, while he routinely branded critical journalists as members of the ‘criminal fraternity.’ 

In power from 2005 to 2013, Berisha coined terms like "media [controlled] by crime" "Machete [in the hands] of crime", or "media [controlled by] the opposition" and "construction mafia", often in response to pointed questions on government corruption scandals that reached into his inner circle and family members. After the January 21, 2011 riots in Tirana, where four opposition supporters were killed by the Republican Guard, Berisha accused four journalists of being part of a coup d’état, together with then president and general prosecutor.

Similar to Berisha, current Prime Minister Edi Rama has been equally offensive toward journalists when confronted with criticism. When he was mayor of Tirana from 2000 to 2011, while responding to a question from a female reporter that he did not approve of, the socialist leader infamously suggested that she would be better off working as a prostitute.

In the ideal world of Albanian politicians the media should follow the script produced by their propaganda machines, which in video, print or through social media are distributed directly toward the public. However, not always journalists follow the political script laid for them and politicians often respond with rants, which they defend as personal opinions rather than attacks against media freedom.

Faced with questions over the alleged ties of his minister of interior to a drug trafficking gang, Rama lashed out at journalists in October 2017 during an impromptu press conference calling them ‘ignorant’, ‘poison", "garbage bin", "scandalmongers", "charlatans", and “public enemies”. The denigration of the media features often in Rama’s rhetoric, who over the last few years has increasingly used communication through social media to avoid scrutiny from journalists.

Berisha and Rama are not singular cases in Albanian politics. Other political leaders, like President Ilir Meta or opposition leader Lulzim Basha, have also resorted to negative rhetoric to respond to critical coverage. Responding to an investigation from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania, which exposed how the Socialist Movement for Integration had spent nearly 300,000 USD in lobbying in the US and declared only a third with the Albanian Election Commission, former party leader and current President Ilir Meta lashed out at BIRN by calling it ‘Soros funded media’. Independent media outlets, including BIRN Albania’s online publication Reporter.al, have faced increased attacks tied to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories linked with US philanthropist George Soros – the founder of the Open Society Foundation. Meta’s spokesperson in a statement also accused BIRN as ‘fake news’ and ‘Soros propaganda,’ without addressing the findings of the investigation.

Angered by critical comments made by writer and political commentator Fatos Lubonja during a current affairs show on TV News 24 in February 2018, Democratic Party boss Lulzim Basha lashed out at the former prisoner of conscience as a ‘nihilist’, a ‘liar’ and a ‘Marxist.’ 

Some commentators have opined that behind the colorful language used against the media by Albanian politicians stands a ‘strategy of abuse,’ which aims to derail public attention from scandals by providing a readymade TV spectacle. Others see it as an attempt to delegitimize the ever-shrinking pool of critical journalists and outlets, which are not controlled directly by oligarchs or indirectly by Rama, Meta, Berisha and their cronies.

Although, local observers remain divided if the antimedia rhetoric is a well thought strategy of abuse and disinformation or rather a more blunt reaction from politicians that have yet to learn to respect the principle of media freedom. In any case, the attempt to slap the ‘fake news’ label on credible media outlets or name-calling reporters as ‘ignorant’ and ‘charlatans’ might have a negative effect on the media’s role in fighting corruption and holding decision makers accountable.

As academic research has shown, high levels of media freedom is correlated directly with low levels of corruption, both areas that Albania desperately needs to make progress, in order to fulfill its hopes for speedy accession in the European Union. 

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