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For a fistful of lek

On the grey zone of Albania's media landscape

29. May 2019
Magazine > Feature > For a fistful of lek

Most of Albania’s media scene is owned by a few oligarchs who decide what information is shared with the public. Journalists seeking to swim against the tide need a lot of backbone.

Colourful shop windows, neon signs and the warm light of street lamps dispel the darkness of the early evening. Four young men stand opposite a fifth lad. They’re arguing. Suddenly there’s a commotion. One of the men is knocked down and kicked by the others. Again and again. Blendi Salaj recounts the story as we drink coffee on the terrace of Rogner Hotel in Tirana. It’s not the first time he’s told it; it has also featured on his radio programme. When he first reported about the cold-blooded murder, words failed him, he says. Being a father, the incident deeply affected him having heard the victim’s parents talk about their dead child during a TV interview a few days earlier.

The 22-year-old was killed in public by his peers. In the very centre of Tirana. He was stabbed several times with an 18 cm long knife and kicked in the head. The attack happened in August 2017, but it was not until some months later that Albanian media broke the story. What made headlines was not the murder itself but the attendant circumstances and the consequences for the offenders. They had just argued over a simple smartphone charging cable, says Salaj. This was established during trial, where one of the young men was convicted of murder.

The case grabbed the headlines again when reporters of the private Top Channel TV station uncovered why three of the four perpetrators walked free from court. The journalists had discovered that the men’s parents had bribed the prosecutor in charge of the case – and so, murder became the cover-up of a crime. In his weekday morning show aired on private Radio Club FM, he regularly picks up on serious topics like this, says Salaj, 37, who studied and worked in the US before returning home a few years ago to make radio. Although he anchors an entertainment show, he believes it is his journalistic duty to communicate important information, while still leaving time for quizzes and jokes.

© Michael Sommer

Three questions for Remzi Lani

Do free media exist in the Western Balkans?
You could put it like this: As in many other regions across the globe, the media scene in the Western Balkans is free but not independent. This means that in Albania, for example, many publishing houses, radio stations and TV stations serve commercial or political purposes rather than the public interest. Added to this are the current challenges that media are equally facing everywhere else. Take the dark side of the Internet, for example: hate speech is attacking the credibility of journalistic work here too. What is more, truth seems to become increasingly less important, drowning in a sea of disinformation.

Is fake news the dominant topic?
Nowadays anyone can call anything fake news. There is no ultimate tool to uncover the truth, which plays into the hands of those that exercise a dominant power over public opinion, in particular governments. The truth is that media are losing their influence – and appear to accept the waning of their power all too willingly. With the rise of social media, it seems everyone’s a journalist now. But that’s not true. Journalism is a profession, a profession we need to defend. People must recognise the role independent, professional reporting plays in a democracy.

Does the Internet pose a threat to journalism?
We all embrace the possibilities offered by the Internet. Its emergence has brought freedom, but also the illusion of freedom. What does that mean? In Albania many young people make their voices heard through social media like Twitter. Then election day comes, and they don’t go to the polls. Do you want people to write tweets or to cast their votes? Freedom of expression has got out of hand in Albania, but here too, less is sometimes more: we don’t need 20 daily newspapers, we need five good ones. We don’t need 700 news portals but a few quality media that strengthen democracy.

Photo: © Michael Sommer

In Albania, the murder case triggered an ongoing media-led discussion about the state of the justice system. This is precisely the duty of the fourth estate – to uncover grievances and instigate positive change, says Salaj. The story of the murdered boy is a good example, because it makes a complex issue tangible. Salaj and his organisation Qendra Media Aktive aim to strengthen this fourth power in Albania: for example, by offering hands-on workshops for young journalists to complement the country’s overly theoretical journalist training.

Grey zone

Remzi Lani, director of the Albanian Media Institute, also believes that the media situation in the small Western Balkan country is complex. In this respect, however, Albania is no different from other south-eastern European countries, says Lani, who has worked as a journalist himself for many years, reporting for Spain’s daily El Mundo, for example. Founded in 1995, the Albanian Media Institute works on studies and projects aimed at driving forward the development of Albania’s media landscape and serves as a training centre for journalists. Its director describes the media situation in the Western Balkans as a grey zone.

“And that’s precisely the problem,” says Lani. Generally, it is easier to deal with a black and white situation. Sitting in the plain conference room of his institute in Tirana, the expert cites censorship as an example of what he means. Black refers to censorship by the government and white means that there is no censorship. In reality, however, many journalists in Albania censor themselves, which leads us to the tricky grey zone Lani talks about.

If editorial staffs are financially dependent on their media groups, it is rather unlikely that journalists will risk biting the hand that feeds them, which puts a curb on freedom of expression. In the press freedom index published by Reporters without Borders, Albania currently ranks 75th out of 180 countries. Both the NGO and the European Commission regard the country’s high concentration of media ownership as particularly problematic. This is also reflected in the Media Ownership Monitor for Albania, published by Reporters without Borders and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) in March 2018.

According to the database, a few major owners control more than half of the audience share through their publishing houses, radio stations and TV stations – generating around 90 per cent of sales revenues. Still, there is no clear black and white separation here either. For example, Top Channel, which was involved in revealing the legal scandal, belongs to the media empire of Vjollca Hoxha. Her husband, who founded the empire, started his business career as a coffee importer. Ten years ago, he died in a car accident with his Ferrari 599.

All five broadcasting licences for the country’s commercial digital TV are owned by only three families, as data compiled by BIRN shows. What is alarming is that as in many other countries, TV is considered by far the most important medium in Albania, followed by radio. In radio, around two thirds of the audience share is controlled by only four owners – two of which are among the TV station owners with the highest reach.

Most newspapers, on the other hand, are produced in small runs only and play only a small role, particularly in rural areas. Just the same, in print media the top four owners have a combined readership of more than 40 per cent.

Best chance

Even though freedom of the press has been protected by the Albanian constitution since 1998, media entrepreneurs use their influence to set a clear political agenda in news reporting. “Independent journalism’s best chance is the Internet,” says Besar Likmeta, BIRN’s editor-in-chief in Tirana. Platforms such as the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, which the Albanian journalist works for, have not only gained recognition but a broader reach over the past few years.

BalkanInsight.com, the flagship of this media network that is organised as an NGO, states that it is read in more than 200 countries worldwide. In the inconspicuous editorial office in Tirana, which has more the feel of a private home, Likmeta explains that quality media in Albania are more sought after than ever: “Most people are less easily influenced than a few years ago. They can easily check for themselves whether something they read about, listen to or watch is true.” This is advantageous for platforms like BIRN that primarily focus on investigative research and use social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to draw attention to themselves and their websites. In Likmeta’s view, the quality of reporting is critical, with two factors being particularly significant: regional presence and well-trained reporters.

With offices in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia, BIRN does not only rely on traditional journalistic work but also offers regular workshops to provide editors with further training – and enable readers, listeners and viewers to take a glimpse behind the scenes. Bringing journalists and the recipients of their work together is a good opportunity to keep reminding both sides of the value of independent reporting, says Likmeta. If you meet people who are affected by issues such as self-censorship in person, you are more likely to be able to ban these from everyday life.

Around 80 per cent of surveyed journalists in Albania said that they would censor themselves to avoid being dismissed, the Media Ownership Monitor 2018 showed. They would rather pocket the few lek they get paid and adhere to the editorial policy. In addition to direct contact with readers, listeners and viewers, a special online code and ethical guidelines applicable to all media now aim to counteract this situation. These guidelines have only recently been developed by the Albanian Media Institute. With a view to Albania’s accession to the European Union, the European Commission Progress Report 2018 also noted the need to improve legal conditions regarding the work of journalists – by providing legal remedies to create an economic environment that ensures independent reporting.

Presenter Blendi Salaj, media expert Remzi Lani and reporter Besar Likmeta all agree that this is imperative for uncovering corruption cases such as the one following the murder of the 22-year-old. They also agree that when it comes to the general development of the fourth estate, lighter grey tones are currently beginning to emerge.

Original in German. First published in November 2018 in the printed version of Postcards from Albania.
Translation into English by Barbara Maya.

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