Since the fall of Communism in Albania, its press has flourished. But that doesn’t mean the country’s media are truly independent. Megan Williams reports from Albania on one news show that’s bucking the trend of government control.
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BOB GARFIELD: For half a century, the small Balkan nation of Albania was the world’s most isolated communist regime, with a nearly paralytic news media. Then, in 1992, communism ended. The country now has dozens of newspapers and ranks higher than some Western countries for freedom of the press.
But while Communist control is a thing of the past, the media in Albania now confront the dangers that face all nations in transition. Megan Williams reports on the nation’s media landscape and on one news show that’s using courage and humor to keep Albania honest.
[SOUND OF MEN SHOUTING]
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Downtown Tirana, Albania’s chaotic capital city, and the sound of change is everywhere, buildings going up, cobblestones laid down. Fifteen years ago, Albania went from being a nation under the thumb of a paranoid communist regime, to one swept away in a wild frenzy of economic activity, much of it illegal.
Longtime Albanian journalist Remzi Lani sips an espresso at a hotel bar. As head of the country’s free press watchdog, the Media Institute, he says the literally dozens of newspapers, radios and TV stations in Albania give it the appearance of having an independent press.
But he says most are either controlled by the government, with its recycled communist leaders, or by new business interests, in particular the construction companies busily at work here.
REMZI LANI: Most of the papers in Albania can be described as newsletters of construction companies. There is no logic to have 25 dailies in this country, which is the highest number of dailies per capita in Europe, and they produce the lowest number of copies per capita in Europe.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Lani says the newspapers act as a private lobby, giving favorable coverage to friendly politicians. Most journalists have no job stability, and editors and owners don’t hesitate to tell them what line to take. While it’s clearly an abusive freedom of the press, Lani says he still prefers it to the old regime.
REMZI LANI: This is the very painful choice, but between abusing with freedom and lacking freedom, I prefer the first one, abusing.
[MUSIC, MAN SPEAKING ALBANIAN]
MEGAN WILLIAMS: The other side of that painful choice is government control of what gets broadcast. Albania’s Prime Minister Sali Berisha, appears on state-run television two, sometimes three times a day, doing everything from making wild and unsubstantiated accusations about opposition politicians to speechifying in front of airport renovations.
[MAN SPEAKING ALBANIAN] Erion Veliaj is the young former relief worker who now runs Albania’s democracy Advocacy group called Mjaft, or Enough. He says that even many privately media outlets survive on a government willing to pay for good press.
ERION VELIAJ: You’re getting a lot of pro-government being extremely powered with sort of extra licenses and additional coverage, being offered public spaces and tenders. The government funds a lot of the media, when it comes to sort of these paid adverts for jobs and positions, so a lot of these extreme right wing, almost neo-fascist newspapers survive and actually make a lot of money just out of government ads.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: But there is one news show here that everyone points to as an exception to the rule.
[CLIP: ALBANIAN CORRESPONDENT/[LAUGHTER]
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Fiks Fare, which means Right On in English, at four years old is the country’s most popular news show. It’s a hybrid of 60 Minutes and The Daily Show, with dancing show girls thrown in. Seventy per cent of the country’s three million people tune in nightly.
Broadcast on a station owned by businessman Drieten Holshah, a banker and coffee importer, the journalists who work here say what’s unique about the show in Albania is that there are no restrictions on what they report.
Each afternoon, producers listen to people’s complaints about corruption or government ineptitude, and each night, they air exposes with hidden cameras and farcical skits on high-ranking officials. Host Simeer Khodra says he feels privileged to be working for an independent show in a country so dominated by business and government-controlled media. But, he says, few other journalists in Albania want his job.
[HOST SPEAKING IN ALBANIAN, IN BACKGROUND]
INTERPRETER FOR SIMEER KHODRA: You need to be half crazy to do this show. Every time I’ve approached some top journalist to join our team, they always say the same thing: No, I can’t. It’s too much. I’m afraid. There’s no way I’m going to go against top ministers and cabinet members. So you have to be slightly crazy.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Since Communism fell, journalists have been threatened and even beaten up. But after journalists protested against the government- prompted assault of a reporter three years ago, attacks have stopped.
The TV station owner's wealth and popularity of the show have so far kept Fiks Fare on air, but its executive producer, Armir Shkurti, says the threat remains.
[ARMIR SHKURTI SPEAKING ALBANIAN]
INTERPRETER FOR ARMIR SHKURTI: Directly there is never pressure to shut us down, but indirectly, yes. We have invested thousands of dollars in our studios, and have a contract to stay here for more than 20 years, but the government is now trying to kick us out. It says it wants to put a theater in here, but this is a theater, a theater for the people.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: And for what media watch dogs say, it’s still a largely passive audience. After 50 years of a brutal communist regime, there’s little civic responsibility here. People don’t yet know how to organize around an issue to make their voices heard for the common good.
Remzi Lani of the Media Institute says that until Albanians see themselves as active members of a community, journalists who tell the truth are essentially on their own, just like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes.
REMZI LANI: I believe that our job is to tell that the king in naked, like in Anderson’s story, but not to go and buy clothes for him.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: But so far, the truth doesn’t seem to matter much.
REMZI LANI: You can say everything you want, and nobody cares. With other words, you have the right to speak, but not the right to be listened, and this brings, in my opinion, the devaluation of the free world.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Lani says the next step in Albania’s transition to Democracy is for the public to give real support to the handful of independent journalists here, to take action as the free independent citizens they finally are. For On the Media, I’m Megan Williams in Tarana, Albania.
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