The media capture and Tirana’s trolls’ masters

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times November 25, 2016 10:02

By Genc Pollo*

Opposition Democratic Party MP Genc Pollo

Opposition Democratic Party MP Genc Pollo

Last November I started my speech in this forum citing a Turkish editor complaints on the media situation in his country   whom  I heard at the EC Speak up conference which took place a few days earlier. There was no Speak up this year but in similar events I hear, apart from the dramatic developments in this particular country, that there is concern almost everywhere about media freedom. According to the European Commission progress report   published earlier this month media freedom is in recess or under threat in much of the Western Balkans and Turkey.

"If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all" is a quote from the perhaps controversial US philosopher  Noam Chomsky. Searching yesterday the internet for the mandatory dictum in a speech I came across it and to me it looked like the modern day version of the voltairian precept of the human life sacrifice so people can say anything the sacrificed ones disagreed with.It also goes well with our   context  it seems.

Even beyond the Republic of Albania's borders, the freedom of expression and the media freedom seem to be under pressure and even moving backward and for this you don't necessarily have to read the EC   progress report.

Focusing on our own issues I am sharing with you some of the concerns debated also  at our parliamentary committee.

The pluralism of media, and first of all the political one, would be its main virtue in a multi-party democracy. In Albania, this virtue has rapidly moved toward disappearance in the past three years, especially among electronic media, televisions, with fewer newsrooms remaining impartial and professional.

By luring media owners with lucrative contracts, construction permits, advertisements etc. the editorial line in newsrooms has been homogenized in  the government propaganda line, in an unprecedented situation since the advent of privately-run TV stations in Albania some two decades ago. Just to remind you that before 2013, there were two national privately owned  TVs, one supporting the government and the other close to the opposition. The   TV stations in  the past three years have been generally pro-government and, some of them, a priori, against the opposition.

Under these conditions, it would be expected that the public broadcaster assumes the role of the balancing, objective and correct TV. This was also the aim  of the compromise between the ruling Democratic Party and the opposition  Socialist Party on the electronic media law ahead of the 2013 general election: i.e. that the director general of the Albanian Radio and Television, (RTSH) wouldn't be any longer  a person pre-determined by the Prime Minister, but he/she would be appointed in broad  consensus that also involved the opposition. Even this consensual norm, like several previous ones, was undone last March when the ruling majority approved an ad hominem amendment to appoint at that position a person close to the Prime Minister. All tales  about new statutes and fair news coverage can not restore confidence, especially for its political impartiality in next year's general elections campaign.

In the past three years,   I have often denounced the government that through the illegal appointments of people inthe Audiovisual Media Authority, who were  sharp conflict of interest it   put the media regulator  to the exclusive service of a quasi monopolistic media cartel, understandably pro-government. These appointees  proved me right by voting in January 2016 to grant  digital network licenses to operators in open violation of the law. Although this decision was temporarily blocked by the vote against by the opposition appointed AMA members, again the cartel people found a way out with actions and omissions and delivered their services by legalizing   illegality and by consolidating   the pro government media monopoly. The issue here is the limitation of private media ownership, vastly employed   throughout Europe to ensure its   plurality. These standards were in our legislation since the first media law in the mid-1990s were  cancelled this by official efforts (legal initiatives and courts) of the   and trials, by the PM's right hand man in Parliament and the AMA chief.

The politicians-business-media amalgam has recently produced scandalous cases of conflicts of interest with direct consequences to damaging public interest and in hearings with the parliamentary committee, we were suggested that media owners are excluded from public procurement. Whatever the value of this proposal, when current laws are not enforced and implemented   it is foreseeable how   the future laws will be dealt with.

I mentioned advertisements as a common tool to corrupt media   and one of   the battle horses of yesterday's opposition, which has been forgotten by the current government in power. Even a lawsuit on wrongdoing with advertising case filed by a current minister on her predecessor was withdrawn later without explanations. Likewise, the government refuses to explain why it doesn't initiate further improvements to the advertising legislation, following the best practices such as the ones were introduced at a CoE Tirana seminar two and a half years ago. I have kept repeating  the opposition would support such legislation.

Likewise, we are not being given explanations on, just to mention one example, why an ad by  OSHEE, (the electricity distribution operator, a state-run monopoly) ws splashed all over the TV screens despite containing no useful info for users but simply self praise. An MP of our parliamentary committee, just before last Christmas, wrote to the line minister, and even rewrote to the newly appointed minister in February 2016 seeking information on the amount spent and its distribution. This MP is sure this end of the year's holidays will come, but the Santa Claus will not carry the government's letter for him.

During this legislature, I was hopeful we would fully decriminalize libel  and leave it to the Civil Code as in every EU country, by continuing the  consensual legal changes of 2012. Two events made my hope vanish: the first when in January 2015 the Prime Minister sued for slander two senior opposition DP officials who had declared that PM Rama had links to crime gangs and had filled the public administration with gang members.  I am citing only a single case from much more than a  dozen: the  Prime Minister reproposed as a mayor candidate a known person, who became notorious when it emerged that he had been sentenced by a court in Italy for gang rape and by a Swiss court for drug trafficking. This person became  famous when he confirmed he had been sentenced by a court in Munich, Bavaria, but couldn't remember on what offense. Yet the two DP senior officials lost their trial.The second event was when in November 2015, the Prime Minster personally initiated a law annulling and making it again a full crime. An initiative which he withdrew declaring he would reintroduce it later.

We all accept that investigative journalism is an important component of a healthy democracy. But let's just examine a recent case how the Albanian democracy treats this kind of journalism. Everybody remembers the accidental death of a teenager at the Tirana municipality landfill at the beginning of August, unveiling a lot such as lack of job contracts and lack of technical safety standards the mayor had publicly guaranteed of, the selection of the landfill company owned by a local Socialist leader, of course with criminal records, with no competition and an abusive and lucrative contract. The public would know nothing about this, had AlidaTota, a TV news director, the "Publicus" journalistic team and the Hashtag Albania, news website portal,  not investigated into it. The consequences for them was that Mrs. Tota was fired last August as she refused to drop  her investigation, that the "Publicus" team suddenly had their TV contract suspended in September after they were told their programme would not be aired and that the "Hashtag Albania" portal was taken down in October following a complaint by a businessman close to the Prime Minister and the Mayor, a beneficiary of lucrative contracts from them. What made things worse was not simply flinging mud at journalists by media close to the Tirana Municipality and the Socialist Party, but especially ministers who spoke at Parliament, not to congratulate the investigation and condemn  censorship, but to discredit professionally and personally the investigative journalists. What made them extreme, but even comical, were the systematic attempts by the Socialist Party MPs to obstruct the hearing of these journalists in  our parliamentary committee, with attempts ranging from the meeting boycott to the physically blocking the meeting room doors. The latest case was this week on Monday, November 21.

Just to remind that the majority acted the same way with the parliamentary committee hearing with journalist Telnis Skuqi who in spring 2014 discovered that the Gjirokastra police had accidentally arrested a person close to the Interior Minister who had been employed by him in this ministry, while he was driving a lorry loaded with cannabis as well as two runways of single-engine narco planes in an nearby village  At that time, these things were being reported for the first time and were not much  a daily occurrence like today. Eventually Skuqi received death threats and is now seeking asylum somewhere in the EU. I wish this does not happen with the journalists of the landfill case.

We talked about online journalism. The numerous websites and social networks are welcome alternative to the mainstream media, often captured by special interests. Even though with limited   resources in Albania's context, they serve as a mechanism both relieving and necessary.But they are not that untouchable as shown by the "Hashtag Albania" case which was forced to change its internet address (URL), losing a considerable part of its readers. But considering that news portals and social networks, mainly Facebook, are their gateway to the reader, there are increased efforts being made to suspend and even remove their postings,  Facebook profiles and pages. This is what happened to “à§” and “Lolita” , known for their satire against every public figure, with the government of course holding the lion's share. It is no coincidence that following the practice of Putin internet trolls that there are 40 activists working online in the Prime Minister’s office, 23 of them at the municipality of Tirana, not officially declared with the organization chart and hidden in different directorates, but always receiving their wages from taxpayers' money. There are also two dozens of them working with the Socialist Party and they are also likely to be indirectly paid through taxes. Their duty is to attack with all swear words everybody who criticizes, uses irony or denounces the government, the municipality and their chiefs. Many of you, including me, have direct experience with such  trolls. That's why the new legislation the government is preparing on websites, either in line with the best practices and the acquisor not is met, understandably, with deep disbelief.

It is often talked about online hate language. There are also statistics about the criminal investigation into them. But to put things to perspective, suffice it to say that on Sept. 19 this year, the Prime Minister, speaking in front of 300 State Police officers, said that for the police, the Democratic Party was a worse enemy compared to crime (this quote was written this way on the PM's website until this week). I can't remember any similar case from three difficult moments 1997, Sept. 14, 1998 and  Jan. 21, 2011 despite the political tension and street violence of these moments. I don't think this case will make into the prosecution statistics.

A few words about the international community. The fact that in last month's hearings with investigative journalists there were representatives from the Tirana offices  of international European organizations, makes me hopeful that there is a wake uphibernation on media freedom issues in Albania. Likewise, this month's progress report by the European Commission, no longer uses convoluted language, but talks about regress and no progress in this field and presents the  issues in clearer language. I mean this because the public reports presented in Vienna and Brussels that I have read in the past three years (excluding parliamentary reports), contained inaccuracies, semi truths, omissions and perhaps served as   Potjomkin faà§ades. .   Unfortunately, this  encourages  transgressors the same like the silence of the EU and US ambassadors was   presented by the Prime Minister during the parliamentary debate in September as a proof   that the cannabis issue is inexistent.

The laws and written regulations can change, but without the political will to implement them, nothing will change for the better. And if the political power in Tirana does not change hands, it will be difficult to hope for more positive changes.

Genc Pollo is an opposition Democratic Party MP. This article is based on his speech in the Media Development Forum organized by Albanian organizations along with the OSCE, EU Delegation and Council of Europe on 22 November 2016.


Tirana Times
By Tirana Times November 25, 2016 10:02