Newsmen Lack Freedom: Journalism in Albania is at the Whim of Politics and Owner Interests

A handful of people own most of the mainstream media in Albania. Experts say that the concentration of ownership undermines freedom of speech by censoring journalists.

Author: Arbjona Çibuku / Photo: Pixabay

A handful of people own most of the mainstream media in Albania. 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 fragile institutions blur the dividing lines 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 even from police violence.

The lack of economic independence pushes journalists, especially young ones, to submit to the media owners’ dictates on how to report and their censorship. The forms of censorship against journalists, as they state, are quite diverse, from the banning of direct publication to the distortion of information and warnings of dismissal in case of resistance.

Media as 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 outlets, which have turned into “family business”.

“There are few cases where a media outlet is owned by multiple shareholders who have no family ties,” says Elvin Luku, Head of the “MediaLook” Center and Lecturer in the Journalism Department.

According to a report by IDRA, television remains the primary source of information for 79% of the audience in Albania, therefore, the audience is focused on the information provided by this sector, which is often fabricated.

“The problem starts with the nationally licensed visual media, which dominate in terms of viewership and advertising data and operate on a frequency band that is public property,” says Luku.

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

“Both audiences and revenues are concentrated in very few hands,” says Kristina 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 particularly important, so that the public knows from whom they are getting their information.

Politics and Information Control

As for political control of the media, it does exist in Albania, but in terms of political control, Voko clarifies that “it does not mean that the Government has bought the media, rather the media are, due to their structure, willing to serve those in power.”

Research by MediaLook published in 2018 examined how mainstream media in the country, both visual and online, reported the news released by the Press Office of the Municipality of Tirana.

“It turned out that the information on ten of the largest TV broadcasters and portals had a match rate of 50-90% with the Press Releases coming from the public institution. This indicates coverage in favor of this institution,” says Elvin Luku, Director of MediaLook.

Market pluralism in Albania according to Media Ownership 2022

“Economic interests are translated into political interests, so usually the owners have vested interests to get concessions from the State and such interests drive them to be politically biased towards those in power,” argues Voko.

Nationally licensed media outlet shareholders are not limited to the information technology sector but include several other businesses related to construction, telecommunications, automotive, gas and oil. Albania poses 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” provides for an Audiovisual Media Authority (AMA) with political balance, to certain extent.

“The members of its Board are elected three from the opposition, three from the majority, and the Chairperson by a simple majority, but it is not a politically independent AMA. Our country needs exactly the latter, that is, an institution as far removed 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 a law ‘On Audiovisual Media’ that provides for nationally licensed media to have a very decentralized ownership structure, even more than limiting shares to 30 or 35% as was the case before 2016”.

Our country needs an institution as far removed from politics as possible, sugests Luku.

Media Owners and Politicians, Together Against Free Speech

When it comes to the implication of political interests that translate into economic interests, there have been egregious cases of censorship against journalists.

On such case is the ban on the broadcast of the investigative documentary “Hills of Death.” In 2016, 17-year-old Ardit Gjoklaj died as a result of inhumane conditions in the Sharra landfill, where urban waste was burned and recycled illegally.

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

When the event happened, the “Publicus” team that Artan was working with had just been formed and they immediately rallied to uncover the causes that led to the juvenile’s death.

“Our goal was to show the Albanian people, not only the reasons for this tragedy, but also the circumstances in which it was easily made possible,” says the journalist. They uncovered patent political patronage 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 outlet where 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.

As it usually happens, even in Rama’s case, they tried to explain to him that “the broadcast could cause displeasure to the leadership of the Municipality of Tirana, with whom they had a working relationship.” But what does not usually happen, was the opposition they faced from the journalists.

“It was universally known that the shareholders of Vizion Plus television were developers and that construction permits were issued by the Urban Planning Office in the Municipal Government,” says Rama and adds that the media outlet directors did not give him many explanations as they expected him to be understanding.

Protest over Ardi Gjoklaj’s Death, September 5, 2020/ Photo: Organizata Politike

After that, a group of four journalists, following Artan Rama’s proposal to part ways with the broadcaster forever, quit the next day 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.”

Journalists Face Censorship in Newspaper, TV, and Web Reporting

When it comes to censorship, the medium makes no difference. Ermelinda Hoxhaj has been working as a television journalist for 16 years. She says that, during her career, the pressure she felt was high.

“There have been cases where if you dealt with an affair or legal violation, companies bought advertising space and the journalist’s mouth is ‘shut’ by default,” says Hoxhaj, who, after voicing her objections, faced warnings of losing her job.
“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 up, and this is more pronounced among young journalists who are just starting their professional journey.

Esmeralda Hida is a young journalist who has worked for two years in a print newspaper. She shares 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 processed transactions for salaries, and when we were once doing an article about violations that may have been committed by banks, we did not refer by name to the bank where the owner of the newspaper was involved,” 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 attests that over time, she noticed that she had engaged in self-censorship, meaning she knew she would be admonished, and she simply did not want to argue.

The situation is not vastly different in the online media, where, in addition to censorship, journalists are subjected to dictates on how to report the news.

Klodjana Agaj has been working in this sector for two years.

“The owners of online media are mostly people who are not related to journalism, but are related to business,” she says while adding that the online media outlet where she worked was used as a tool to attack businesses and individuals.

“Not long ago, I was quietly censored for a news story that I could not do. The news was about strategic investments and the husband of 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 lives in Boston, in the USA.

“In Albania, media outlet owners do not hesitate to intervene directly, foregoing even the “intermediary” editor, editor-in-chief, or news director,” says Vezaj.

The journalist shares that the owner’s economic interests had directly influenced his censorship.

“I had an experience in the print media, where an oil businessman, facing issues with justice authorities at that time, bought advertising space and I was told that we would not write about this businessman,” recalls Vezaj.
Who Protects Journalists?

Blerjana Bino, Head of the Safe Journalists network in Albania, estimates that there is a high degree of conditioning leveraged by media owners over editorial independence.

From her conversations with journalists, she says that the types of pressure are most diverse.

“If the owner does not exert direct pressure, they should not forget the connecting link such as the editors or editors-in-chief 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 canceling reporting, threats, economic insecurity, harassment, content control and fraud, even blackmail.

Bino explains that there is no information about pressure exerted by media owners or managers on an entire newsroom or on select journalists in 2021 but adds that “pressure is exerted even though journalists do not report it”.

Bino holds 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 when reporting from the field. In case of physical attacks, the newsroom does not come to their defense. Journalist Isa Myzyraj says that “most newsrooms do not provide journalists and operators with any protective equipment, such as gas masks, clothing that would clearly identify them as members of the media, not even waterproof clothing.” He says that, in case of protests, journalists are the most at-risk group, since neither the police nor law enforcement authorities 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,” states Bino.

Between the lack of a legal framework and institutions unwilling to guarantee a more pluralistic media environment and the lack of protective mechanisms, the journalists are often compelled to censorship or to act based on the interest of media owners and not the public.

This article was produced under the mentorship for young journalists “Solutions and Innovations in the Media” in cooperation with Mediacentar Sarajevo and Why not, with the support of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Belgrade, Pristina, Skopje, and Tirana.

Translation: Emina Demiri