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19 Feb 13

Can Albania’s Media Be Set Free At Last?

Axel Kronholm

Without reform aimed at easing the current strong outside pressures on the media, the press can never become a force for societal change.

As I set off in the fall of 2012 to research press freedom and the situation of journalists in Albania, the first thing I realised was that repressive legislation is not the main problem.

Considering the country’s relatively recent history of authoritarian rule, Albania’s media legislation is understandably liberal and free.

However, the press and broadcast media are still clouded by censorship.

For a country like Albania, which is eager to modernize, deal with deep-rooted corruption and join the European Union, the issue of the state of the media could hardly be more pressing, considering its potential in working as a catalyst for change.

But a worrying downward trend shows that this potential is being squandered. In international indexes of press freedom and corruption, Albania continues to drop in the rankings.

From being in 34th place in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index in 2003, Albania had dropped to 102nd place in their latest report.

One example of the problem are the methods that the political elite uses to exert influence over the media.

The difficult financial situation of the Albanian media renders them vulnerable to special interests.

The government wields considerable power. Using its budget for public information campaigns, it is able to reward government-friendly outlets for their reporting and punish more critical voices by handing advertising to competitors.

Private advertising is run on similar principles. Business owners know that their choice of media partners will have consequences for their relations with the state. This puts critically minded media at an even bigger disadvantage compared to other outlets and skews the competition in the market.

What is financially rewarded is not primarily the circulation, or the quality of reporting, but the political allegiance of the media outlets in question.

This relationship between government and private enterprises is detrimental both to the open market and to journalism.

Another major factor restricting the freedom of the press is the situation of most journalists in Albania. It is hard, if not impossible, for an outsider, used to the Scandinavian model of the press, to imagine life for journalists in the Balkans.

However, from interviews with Albanian journalists and media professionals, I am able to conclude that self-censorship is a major threat to the media’s role as a watchdog.

The informal labour market contributes to this situation. Most Albanian journalists work without any contracts. Publishers also frequently violate labour rights regarding payment and vacation time.

Journalists in Albania are constantly on their guard, viewing self-censorship and self-restraint as necessary not only for their jobs and careers, but for their own personal safety.

Most journalists I interviewed have their own stories of violence or threats of violence. The pure notion of risk and its possible consequences keeps journalists on their toes, forcing them to think carefully about what they intend to report.

Such questions become almost existential in an environment of stifling corruption. 

Albania has a large number of dedicated and talented journalists who, despite this inhospitable environment and the overwhelming pressure, do their best to report and investigate wrongdoing.

But the media as a democratic institution and as a force for societal change is on its knees, cornered from all angles by special interests.

Financial woes and threats to reporters actively undermine the role of the press as a watchdog.  The press in Albania is barely any longer a facilitator of informed choices and does not set the agenda for policymakers.

A more transparent and fairer system of state support for media outlets would be a good place to start serious long-term reform, leading to a healthier media climate.

Use of government funds currently spent on advertising to create an un-biased system of press subsidies, based purely on circulation, would limit the media’s dependance on business and political interests and prevent the government from skewing the competition by distributing its money based on the outlet’s political affiliation.

This would also require improved transparency on behalf of the media with regards to circulation, the number of employees and so on.

Whichever way this is eventually dealt with, these issues deserve their spot in the public debate and should be taken seriously by the political elite.

Axel Kronholm is a freelance Finnish journalist who researched freedom of the press in Albania for his bachelor thesis. His thesis can be read at: http://axelkronholm.com/press-freedom-in-albania/

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