Erosion of Media Pluralism in Albania By Stiv Mucollari
During the communist era in Albania, the Party of Labor controlled the media. Albania had only one-state owned television station and two daily newspapers, and foreign TV broadcasts were jammed. After the collapse of the communist regime, freedom of the press was guaranteed by law and a flourishing media market emerged. In only twelve years after the collapse of the communist regime, the Press Freedom Index in 2003 ranked Albania 34th in the world, with Albania receiving higher marks then Italy and Spain, two states who had transitioned to democracy earlier relative to Albania. Since then Albanian media pluralism has declined, with Albania being ranked as low as 102nd in 2012 by the Press Freedom Index, and most recently in 2018, it was ranked 75th. The decline in media pluralism in Albania is marked by high market concentration, missing regulatory standards, self-censorship, and attacks on the media by the government.
Analysis of the Current State of Albanian Media
In 2018, a joint research project conducted between Reporters Without Borders (RWB) and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania (BIRN) found that Albanian media pluralism is a myth and that despite wide-ranging media options for consumers, the market is highly concentrated. The Albanian television market can be divided into three main categories: pay-per-view, free on-air, and local. The Hoxha, Frangaj, Dulaku, and Ifran families control 89.6% of the free on-air television market and 94% of the pay-per-view TV market. The four families also control 86.5% of the print market. Data from the Abacus and Telemetrix research agencies also show that there is a high audience concentration, with the four families controlling 48.93% of the audience share according to Abacus, but with Telemetrix suggesting an even higher concentration of 58.6% of the audience share.
One reason for consolidation in Albania’s media market is the lack of a regulatory framework. The RWB and BIRN report pointed out that neither the Albanian Constitution nor the Albanian Civil Code contained provisions regarding media ownership concentration. General rules for regulating monopolies across all business sectors exist, but regulations specific to the media is limited to monitoring the actions of shareholders and the volume of advertising a media company can broadcast. The consolidated media market has allowed for the four families to pressure public officials into passing legislation that is favorable to them. For example, in 2017 parliament approved a law providing 6.1 million dollars for media outlets to switch from analog to digital transmissions. The Hoxha and Frangaj families benefited from the legislation, as they own the two main TV stations in Albania. Raijmaekrs & Measeele (2015) compared the three different schools of democracy with their corresponding media roles and stated that in the liberal model, the media acts as an intermediary between democratic institutes and the public. In representing the different views of the public, the media provides information about issues to the political elites, which in turn can address those issues through political institutes. In applying this model to assess the Albanian media scene, the interlocking between the Albanian media moguls and the political and financial elites serves as evidence that the media in Albania is not acting as an intermediary between democratic institutes and the public but instead serving as a safety blanket for the powerbrokers of Albanian society.
A consequence of the interlocking of political and financial interests with media moguls is the self-censorship that occurs amongst Albanian journalists. The RWB and BIRN report defined self-censorship as reporters themselves preventing the publication of information out of fear of injury to themselves or their families, fear of lawsuits, or fear of other economic consequences. An example of such outcomes journalists face is when the online news source reporter.al published a series of articles questioning the irregularities in asset declarations and professional vetting of Judge Gjin Gjoni, a judge on the Tirana Court of Appeals. He sued reporter.al for defamation, claiming more than $100,000 in damages for the articles questioning his irregularities. To quantify how often self-censorship occurs amongst journalists in Albania, BIRN surveyed 121 reporters and editors in 2015. 70% of the professionals involved in the survey believed that journalists in Albania avoided coverage of specific new stories, with 70% of them also reporting that stories involving political events are the stories most often avoided, and 60% of them reporting that stories involving organized crimes are avoided.
The connections between politics, business, and media have also allowed for media organizations independent of those controlled by the four families to face attempts by the government to restrict them. Prime Minister Edi Rama introduced a slate of anti-slander laws last year that require all web pages to register with tax authorities or face penalties. The Albanian Electronic and Postal Communication Authority claimed that most of the 44 sites that would have been affected complied with the regulation. The Prime Minister argued that the move was to put the webpages on a legal basis, but critics argued that the Prime Minister was trying to sideline websites that were critical of him and his policies. The argument of the critics is reinforced by the reaction of the Prime Minister to a Voice of America report on the role of criminal gangs in the electoral process. He called Voice of America the trashcan of Tirana media organizations and called the report fake-news.
Prime Minister Edi Rama’s attacks on Voice of America is a classic example of authoritarianism because as Levitsky & Ziblatt point out in How Democracies Die, authoritarian governments often try to bully or co-opt influential voices. Voice of America is more than a media organization, in Albania it is the equivalent of a political institution. In May 1990, before the collapse of the communist regime, Voice of America became the outlet for dissent of the Albanian people, and it countered the propaganda coming out of the communist regime. A June 2010 survey showed that nearly 45.6% of Albanians are reached by Voice of America, serving as a reminder of the influence that the United States has over Albanian society. In attacking Voice of America, Prime Minister Edi Rama is attempting to consolidate his power through weakening of what is, as mentioned, essentially a political institution.
In conclusion, the erosion of media pluralism in
Albania serves as a sign of the ongoing democratic erosion that is occurring in
Albania. The deterioration of media pluralism in Albania by itself would have
been worrisome enough, but it has been accompanied by fierce rhetoric from the Rama
government towards the media critical of his government, and at times, regulatory
and legislative measures. The illiberal politics of Rama towards the media shed
doubt on his commitment to strengthening Albanian democracy, and if Prime
Minister Rama continues his policies towards the media, Albanian democracy will
lose a crucial safeguard.
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