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Freedom of the Press – Albania is running out of Oxygen

Freedom of the Press - Albania is running out of Oxygen

Freedom of the press in danger in Albania

Martin Henze

Democracy: the government of the people by the people for the people.

“What do we actually want to talk about?” asks Martin Henze, an international expert on the Balkans, at the beginning of our conversation about the elections in Albania. In 1991, we celebrated the adoption of the Windhoek Declaration, which declared the creation of an independent, pluralistic and free press as the cornerstone of democracy and economic development. Where are we in Albania- 30 years later?

Freedom of the press is a great good of democracy; in Albania, free reporting is in danger and on the way to becoming impossible. After the end of the Cold War, the Windhoek Declaration marked an important milestone for the protection of press freedom worldwide. Buoyed by confidence and optimism, it led to the adoption of progressive and media freedom-protecting laws worldwide, especially in many countries of Eastern Europe, including, incidentally, Albania. 

The Windhoek Declaration also led to 3 May being celebrated annually as International Press Freedom Day.However, 30 years later, journalists in Albania are under more pressure than ever before. Information blackouts and state disinformation, arbitrary arrests and violence against media workers have massively restricted press freedom.

Insults, death threats and criminal proceedings with high compensation demands create a climate of intimidation and self-censorship in Albania, especially for investigative journalists. Politicians like Rama regularly denigrate journalists as “bins”. The German journalist Peter Tiede, from the renowned German newspaper Bild, is called bought just because he, together with decent Albanian journalists, exposed the criminal actions of the members of the Rama government to manipulate the 2017 parliamentary election. Rama wanted to sue him, but was unsuccessful; the newspaper Bild did not retract its reporting.

The main news media in Albania are concentrated in the hands of a few business families who are in an economic predicament due to autocracy and cannot help but pay homage to the autocrat Rama by the majority, there are some exceptions. The Corona pandemic unfortunately reinforced and solidified repressive , autocratic tendencies in Albania. 

Never since the introduction of the current methodology of the Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking, Albania had such a bad list position, 82 out of 180 as under the Rama government, in the period before the Rama government, Albania occupied a good one, the 35th place. So, we cannot attest Albania any progress towards democracy and the rule of law since 2013, but rather massive regression. The Albanian government has completely failed, the problem is that Rama has no qualified personnel, but he knows that too.

If you look into the question of freedom of the press and media in Albania, you often read that freedom of expression and freedom of the media are enshrined in law, but that there are often reasons for self-censorship. Can you explain this in more detail?

One main factor is permanent job insecurity. A large proportion of Albanian journalists work without an employment contract and must expect to be dismissed at any time. Even with a contract, journalists are not sufficiently protected against this. There is no real job protection and trade unions fighting for labour rights are marginal. The Albanian journalists’ union has been campaigning for better rights for several years and has at least achieved that more journalists now receive employment contracts. Another reason for self-censorship is that management has the last word, especially on critical reports. This discourages many journalists from reporting in a truly critical way; they have families and have to provide for their safety and protection, which is understandable. Albania has de facto turned into a kleptocracy

You are currently writing a legal textbook: “Freedom of the Press in Danger”. What is the situation in Albania?

The free press landscape has been destroyed in Albania – but not yet the freedom of the press. The difference is important. We don’t have a Russian-Turkish situation. Rama does it differently. Journalists are only partially, directly prevented from working, those who are free can theoretically report freely, but the conditions for free journalism no longer exist. He lets the businessmen do the dirty work. Albania has de facto turned into a kleptocracy.

How does he go about it?

Rama has been trying to manipulate the parliamentary elections by his own security agencies since his party in 2017, in the meantime investigators have found asylum in Switzerland and Germany, using laws to bully the media. That went wrong, the outcry from Brussels and Europe was too great in 2019. Now they are trying it step by step, in the individual jurisdictions. Or they impose advertising boycotts so that the free media lose their sources of income. And they try political pressure at the same time, the government and friends of the oligarchy initiate lawsuits. This costs money, time and nerves.

The strategy of the Rama organisation in Albania summarised is:

1) Build and stabilise the kleptocracy’s own media empire. 

2) Stir up fears with fake news. 

3) Defame critics and free civil society/opposition. 

4) Use Facebook as an amplifier. 

5) Attack freedom of the press. 

6) Create “state broadcasting”. 

7) Financially destroy opponents. 

You mentioned that the free media in Albania can report what they want – it just has no effect. How is this to be understood?

It no longer has any effect on the Rama kleptocracy. There is no longer a scandal that has any consequences. Since the structural, massive manipulation of the parliamentary elections on 25 April, after the manipulation of the elections in 2017, although all the facts are known, there has only been criticism from the OSCE, the international press and some EU states, the US ambassador in Tirana , even the EU ambassador congratulated the autocard, the only question is what they congratulated for. Since then, all dams have broken for Rama in Albania. He does what he wants. He decides, repeatedly, to dismiss the last, free, democratic institution, the state president Ilir Meta, he repeatedly attacks the press through another media law.

On the other hand, many Albanians are dissatisfied with this government and interested in the truth and the future of the country. I can understand the journalists in Albania, there are days when they are inclined to become cynical because nothing can be done against this overwhelming power of the government’s propaganda. But there are also days when you think, when should you do journalism if not now? When have we been more relevant and more courageous than now? I think the freelance journalists should be much more courageous right now. You only need a server, a few laptops and a camera to build a newspaper. Albania is not China, you can’t turn off the internet The US ambassador just got behind the investigative journalists after all. A good idea, I’m thrilled. This surely means that the US embassy in Albania will offer these critical journalists protection from now on, and if necessary a job if they are dismissed. I hope that she does not just speak out, the West is to be judged by its deeds.

But isn’t there an EU progress report?

As you can see, there is no progress. In fact, I think these reports are wrong in substance and in form. A report that presents a state of affairs that does not exist. An embarrassment for the EU, for which the EU representatives in Tirana are responsible. The explosive aspect is that these reports conceal the real problems and lead the EU politicians in the wrong direction. If a doctor makes a diagnostic report and the report is faulty, but the patient is still operated on, there is a risk that he will die. Unfortunately, Albania is in a similar situation right now.

Journalists in Albania have reacted with concern to a decision by the country’s parliament to restrict access to meetings to public television and the state news agency, calling it the latest blow to media freedom under the ruling Socialist Party, what do you say?

Announcing the decision in early June 2021, the Parliament, the President of which is the former Minister of the Interior of the pre-1992 totalitarian regime, said that the new media regulation had been drafted in accordance with the European Union directives that Albania wishes to join. This is indeed wrong, this directive, presented by the former, communist Minister of the Interior, once a communist, always a communist, has nothing to do with a regulation based on the rule of law.  Even the EU delegation has recognised and rejected this. However, this development should be seen in the context of an incident in 2018.

What do you mean by that?

At the end of 2018, the government presented legislative plans that could give the state far-reaching possibilities to control online media. The authorities often refuse or delay information and favour media that are loyal to the government

There was a danger that the government would be given direct and arbitrary access to media content on the internet through the media authority. The Council of Europe also stated that the proposed stricter regulation of online media did not meet the standards it demanded.

The law had been drafted without prior consultation with journalists’ associations and was kept secret. The law gave the Albania Media Audio Visual Agency (Ama) the power to order the closure of internet portals in Albania without the necessary legal guarantees or to impose fines of the equivalent of up to 6,500 euros. This would significantly increase the risk of censorship and self-censorship. In addition, the government planned to impose a 20 per cent tax on online media and a six per cent tax on TV stations. According to official figures, traditional TV stations have the highest annual revenues, but they were to be taxed less than online media, which often have a higher critical potential.

The last remaining democratic institution, President Ilir Meta, a true constitutional patriot in the good conservative sense, had intervened against this, I remember the demonstration for the protection of the Albanian constitution and state of 3 March 2020, and had called in the Venice Commission. 

The Venice Commission examined the case and this package of laws was rejected as anti-democratic and incompatible with the international rules of freedom of the press. As a result, the autocratic government withdrew this package of laws. But did not abandon its plan.

What did the government do? 

It opened the package and is now trying to establish absolute control over the flow of information in individual regulations, step by step, whether in criminal law, by suing free press organs, by imprisoning journalists or as now.

To what extent will this restrict freedom of expression and freedom of the press?

The new regulation is associated with various risks for press freedom. There is no concrete classification, information can be channelled and manipulated. This offers a lot of room for interpretation, which is wanted by the Rama government. The autocracy is to be stabilised. From our point of view, the law aims solely at a fundamental control of the media. Step by step, members of the ruling party are taking control of the media and telecommunications. Journalists will, as in communist times, only be able to report according to protocol and will no longer be able to do investigative work. Albania’s democracy is thus in a process of neutralisation after the rigged parliamentary elections of 25 April 2021, but that was to be expected.

In the end, a large majority in parliament voted in favour of the law. How do you explain that?

There are currently 122 MPs in parliament: 74 from the ruling Socialist Party, 48 MPs represent the opposition. However, the current situation is complicated. At the beginning of last year, the MPs of the opposition Democratic Party (DP) and the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI) resigned their mandates. They justified this radical step by saying that they no longer wanted to serve as a “shop window opposition” for an undemocratic regime, the reason given was the actual lack of the rule of law, the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court was set dysfunctional by the Rama government in 2018. Candidates have moved up because Mr Rama liked it so much at the time, but they are not recognised by the DP and LSI as representatives of the opposition. They accuse the new mandate holders of having been bought by the Socialist Party. Thus, Albania is currently in a deep domestic political crisis. In addition, the parliamentary elections in 2021, which were again massively manipulated, and the fact that the parliament does not have the constitutional number of MPs, led to a dysfunctionality of the parliament. Basically, every law passed in the Albanian parliament has been null and void for years. An absolute chaos.

And what does Europe say about this?

The current parliamentary regulation on press freedom is a real provocation to the EU. But, we will not be provoked by autocrats like Rama and by a former communist interior minister. I had met this Minister of Interior at the end of 2018 at an international conference in Albania, he wanted to welcome me, refused. I knew his CV and knew about his unacceptable approach against democrats, in the early 90s, such a person is per se a persona non grata. You see, in Germany we impeached this inhuman , communist normative clatura in 1991/1992 and put them in prison, that was the right way, on such hands is the blood, of upright and tortured people. The decision of the dysfunctional parliament has no legal force, but it is a symbol, the nail in the coffin of Albania’s future. Unless something fundamental changes in Albania now, membership of the European Union will be a distant prospect. 

No democratic electoral law, no freedom of the press, manipulation of the parliamentary elections in 2021 and 2017 by members of the ruling party autocratically led by Rama, holding of an illegal local election in 2019, abolition of the rule of law in 2018, and now a political dementia is apparently setting in for Rama, he claims, publicly, that Albania does not have to fulfil any criteria, that is, rule of law, democracy, etc., for starting accession talks with the EU. The sole responsibility for this event and the results lies with Mr. Rama. 

It is now time for the political parties in Albania to come to their senses and put the choice and protection of the Albanian nation at the centre of their actions. In a democracy, this can only be done through compromise; it is no longer about being right, but about defining the possibilities of the nation. The implementation of a joint transitional government of national unity is essential for the further development of Albania, after the existing crises have been overcome, new elections should then be called. 

Mr Henze, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us.

Interview in Albanian language:

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