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Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Albania

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 1998
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Albania, February 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c56523c.html [accessed 11 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In January and February, a violent crisis erupted in the country, sparked by the collapse of several pyramid investment schemes, costing many Albanians their life savings. US$1.5 billion was lost. The northern and southern regions of the country descended into anarchy as thousands of angry Albanians looted military and police arsenals, and the government lost control of many areas. Most Albanians blamed their financial ruin on the increasingly autocratic administration of President Sali Berisha and his ruling Democratic Party, who had failed to institute economic reform or warn citizens against the dubious pyramid schemes. On January 26, thousands of protesters clashed with riot police in central Tirana and government buildings were set ablaze across the country. On March 2, Berisha declared a state of emergency in the north, instituted a curfew in Tirana, and imposed blanket censorship on the media.

These conditions created tremendous obstacles for the newly independent media, as well as for state-controlled television and radio broadcasts, which were closely monitored by Berisha and his government. With the introduction of censorship, no independent newspapers were published for almost a month. Before they could publish, newspapers had to be scrutinized by the State of Emergency Staff, established in the respective districts. The only papers that managed to circulate in March were Rilindja Democratike, the organ of the Democratic Party, and the Albanian Daily News, which submitted to censorship.

Journalists faced threats and beatings for reporting on anti-government rallies in Tirana and elsewhere, while media organizations were targets of looting and robberies of computer equipment and cars. The offices of the largest independent newspaper, Koha Jone, were torched by Berisha loyalists. The newspaper's archives and computers were destroyed, with damages amounting to US$220,000. Zamir Duke, Koha Jone's chief crime reporter, was abducted from the office during the incident. He was beaten and released the next day. The paper's top legal correspondent, Alfred Peza, was arrested, interrogated, and tortured for three hours by police in Fier. The nationwide curfew was strictly enforced upon journalists, which enormously hampered the news-gathering process and created distribution restrictions on the print media, especially in the south.

The government and Berisha targeted foreign media (BBC and Reuters, in particular), along with the opposition Socialist Party, blaming them for the crisis.

Newspapers began to publish once the declaration of the state of emergency and the curfew were formally lifted in April, but not without risks for journalists and newspaper owners. Occasional attacks on Koha Jone journalists occurred as late as August.

Berisha conceded to demands for new general elections in June. During the election campaign, the print media were split into two main political camps supporting either the former coalition government or the left-wing opposition. The dailies with the largest circulation were either political party publications or independent papers that nevertheless displayed some political bias. State television and radio needed to comply with the electoral law, which required them to provide access only to leaders of the major political parties. Only independent Shijak TV, a station situated between Tirana and Durres, provided comprehensive election coverage and equal access to all parties.

The Socialist victory in June brought some stability to Albania. But many of the press' problems have persisted. Poor distribution systems, as well as occasional attacks on reporters and theft of equipment, still plague the media. Limited printing facilities, financial constraints, and an underdeveloped advertising market exacerbate the problem. A number of qualified journalists have either left the country or have quit the profession. The remaining journalists require training in the traditions of independent media. But the Albanian media have grown more diverse since the June elections.

In September, the parliament adopted a new press law that states simply that "the press is free" and "freedom of the press is protected by law." The 1993 press law had listed numerous restrictions, which allowed authorities to confiscate publications on vague grounds, limited journalists' access to information, and established large fines on editors publishing anything arbitrarily deemed illegal.

The new law also amended the statutes governing state radio and television, allocating broadcast time between the president, government, and opposition and guaranteeing political parties the right to define the content of their air time.

On September 2, the Albanian legislature also amended the broadcast law to provide for more air time for presenting "alternative" views. But Albania still lacks clear guidelines for the licensing of private television and radio stations, which allows for the arbitrary denial of licenses on political grounds. Nevertheless, a number of private regional and local broadcasters exist; six private television stations broadcasting locally, most of them focusing on local issues. Two stations, TV Arberia and Shijak TV, broadcast evening news programs.

A four-day strike by nine of the country's largest papers in November highlighted the serious financial dilemmas faced by print media. The government rejected their demands for a cut in the value-added tax on newspapers, which it had raised to 22 percent in September, but made cuts in import duties on newsprint, ink, and spare parts, and eliminated the tariff on new printing equipment.

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