Iron bars, automatic gunfire and impunity stalk Albania’s journalists


A small protest by journalists and citizens after the attack on Klodina Lala’s parental home. Credit: Fjori Sinoruka

In the early hours of 30 August, investigative journalist Klodiana Lala’s parental home was sprayed with bullets. Luckily no one was injured.

Lala, a crime reporter for Albania’s News 24 TV, connected the incident with her work as a journalist, saying that neither she nor her family had any personal conflicts that would spur this type of incident. The attack drew rapid condemnation and calls to bring the perpetrators to justice from concerned citizens and politicians, including the country’s prime minister, Edi Rama, who described it as a “barbarous” act. He pledged that the authorities would spare no efforts to investigate the attack.

Rama’s fine words about this attack belie the reality of most crimes against journalists in Albania: identification and prosecution rates of perpetrators are near zero.

When City News Albania’s editor Elvi Fundo was brutally assaulted at 11am in crowded central Tirana, he too received solidarity from the country’s politicians and press, including a note from Rama. But 17 months later, those expressions of support haven’t translated into action from prosecutors.

The attack on Fundo, in which he was beaten with iron bars by two men in hoodies just metres from his office, left him unconscious with serious injuries to his head and an eye.

To add insult to his injuries, Fundo was told on 31 August 2018 that prosecutors were suspending the investigation into his assault because of the lack of suspects.

“This is a grotesque decision. Investigations are not conducted thoroughly. I had to force authorities to seek out more footage from the bars around the area after I left the hospital. They didn’t seem very keen to do so,” he said.

Fundo’s lawyer challenged the decision in court, emphasising that he has given prosecutors information, he said, that can lead investigators to those that ordered the attack.

“I will never stop pushing them to bring the authors of the assault on me to justice since this is not a case lacking in information. I believe the police and prosecutors are just afraid of those who ordered the attack on me,” he said.

While intimidation is a criminal offence in Albania and is punishable by a fine or up to two years in prison, journalists find themselves without much support when they are threatened due to their professional duties.

Very often, prosecutors are reluctant to even open a case and when they do are eager to drop the charges, as was the case against a man who threatened a journalist on Facebook.  

Dashamir Bicaku, a crime reporter who acted as a fixer and translator for a Daily Mail journalist, received an anonymous threatening message on June 17 2018 via his Facebook account. The threat came two days after the Mail published an investigation into Elidon Habilaj’s fraudulent asylum claim and subsequent career in British law enforcement, for which Habilaj was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in absentia.

“I’ll come straight to the point! I’ll come and get you so that there’ll be nothing left of you and yours!”, the message read. He reported the incident to the police the next day, alleging to law enforcement that Habilaj was the only person who would have a motive to threaten him.

But on 31 July 2018, he received a letter from the Vlora prosecutor’s office telling him that they had decided not to open an investigation into the case. According to Bicaku, the prosecutors said that Habilaj had denied sending a threatening message to the journalist and — even if he had — the message was not serious.

A few days later Bicaku learned that a close relative of Habilaj was working as a prosecutor in the same unit.

“What happened is a clear signal about the connections that those involved in organised crime have with people in the justice system,” Bicaku said.

Even when the aggressor has been clearly identified, negligence by the investigating institution makes appropriate punishment difficult.

Julian Shota, a correspondent of Report TV, was threatened with a gun by Llesh Butaku, the owner of a bar in the town of Lac where an explosion had taken place. When the journalist identified himself, Butaku demanded that he leave and not report the incident. When Shota refused, Butaku loaded a gun and pointed it at the journalist’s head.

Shota said he was saved by Butaku’s relatives, who grabbed his hand to prevent him from shooting. The journalist immediately reported the incident to police, but three hours passed before they arrived to detain Butaku.

“In three hours you can hide a rocket let alone a handgun,” Shota said. “The prosecutor received me in his office telling me clearly that I should not expect a lot since no gun was found on him.”

After seven hours Butaku released and the charge for illegal possession of firearms, which could have carried a prison sentence, was dropped.

“Instead of being investigated for attempted murder, Butaku is only being investigated for making threats,” he said.

Artan Hoxha, a prominent investigative journalist with over 20 years of experience, remembers tens of case when he was threatened because of his job, but that “every single case was suspended without any success”.

“I rarely report the threats that I receive to the authorities anymore. I know it is not worth even to bother doing so,” he said.

Part of the problem is that the Albanian judicial system is considered one of the most corrupt in Europe. It is currently undergoing a radical reform overseen by international experts in which all the country’s judges and prosecutors are being put through a vetting process.  

As of August, 45 judges and prosecutors have been evaluated. Twenty-one failed and will be unable to continue to work in the judicial system.

Dorian Matlija, attorney and executive director at Res Publica, a centre for transparency, considers the prosecution the most problematic branch of the judicial system.

“Journalists are right, the prosecution is infamous for its bad work and it is one of the less scrutinised institutions over its decisions despite having a lot of power within the system,” he said.

According to Matlija, when journalists received death threats or are sued, they often find themselves alone.

“They have difficulties accessing and navigating the judicial system while the media owner is often the first to abandon them to keep trouble at bay,” Matlija said.

To remedy this, he said that is very important to create free legal help for journalists, not only when they face prosecution, and also to push for employment rights.

Journalists consider the lack of judicial protection a big obstacle in continuing doing investigative journalism in Albania.

“Is very difficult to investigate organised crime in Albania, since you don’t have the minimum protection and media owners can throw you out in the first place,” Bicaku said.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1537456192915-fc339c8f-4676-3″ taxonomies=”6564″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Lawsuits are discouraging quality journalism in Albania

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Albaia MMF October 2017

Albania’s mainstream media outlets have been reluctant to cover and expose corruption in the country, and observers blame vexatious lawsuits for the hesitancy.

In June 2017, Gjin Gjoni, a court of appeals judge in Tirana, and his wife Elona Caushi, a businesswoman, filed charges against BIRN Albania along with its journalist Besar Likmeta and Aleksandra Bogdani, and separate charges against the newspaper Shqiptarja, along with its journalists Adriatic Doci and Elton Qyno.

BIRN Albania, which specialises in investigative reporting, publishing and media monitoring, along with Likmeta and Bogdani were accused of causing the couple reputational damage and anguish, for which Gjoni and Caushi are demanding 7 million Lek (€54,000) in compensation.

The BIRN Albania journalists had written about the closure and subsequent reopening of an investigation, carried out by the High Inspectorate for Declaration and Audit of Assets and Conflicts of Interest, into Gjoni for concealing wealth, falsifying official documents and money laundering.

In another article, BIRN Albania listed Gjoni as one of the ten richest judges in the country.

In a separate lawsuit, Gjoni and Caushi, based on the same reference, are asking for 4 million Lek (€30,000) in compensation from Shqiptarja, Doci and Qyno.

Kristina Voko, the executive director of BIRN Albania, considers the lawsuit malicious in nature. She pointed to the high journalistic standards held by the organisation for the work it produces.

“We are confident we will win the case because our reporting has been in public interest and solidly based on facts,” she told Index.

Doci wrote on Facebook that he was honoured by the lawsuit and that he would not remove anything in his article about Gjoni because he considers it to be accurate.

Media organisations within the country and internationally have expressed solidarity with BIRN Albania and Shqiptarja. Many think the cases will further discourage investigative journalism, which is already scarce.

Flutura Kusari, a media lawyer, said in an article published at the website Sbunker that the Gjoni lawsuits fell under the category of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP), which she believes are being used to intimidate Albanian journalists.

“In the SLAPP lawsuits you can see prima facie that are not based in facts and they are going to be unsuccessful in the court. With them the plaintiff does not aim to win the case, but aims to frighten and discourage journalists from further reporting issues of public interest, making them pass through long and costly court processes,” she wrote.

The Union of Albanian Journalists called for Gjoni to stand down while the case is ongoing as his position in the judicial system may influence the decisions.

Blendi Salaj, the vice chairman of Albanian Media Council, considers the case as one against investigative journalism that also aims to keep the media silent.

“There are no grounds for this case but the fact that true journalism and the dissemination of information goes against the interest of subjects whose shifty activities are revealed in the press,” he told Index.

Salaj also pointed to the large damages requested as compensation by the plaintiff.

“The amount of money they request is meant to scare, worry and intimidate journalists and outlets that expose facts they don’t want out there,” he said.

Kristina Voko also agrees that lawsuits are being used as a form of intimidation.

“It is true that during the last year, there has been an increased number of lawsuits against Albanian journalists or media outlets from judges or private companies involved in different concessionary agreements,” she told Index.

“This poses concerns related to media freedom in the country,” she said.

Investigating private companies also poses difficulties for journalists in the country. It is already a rare practice in the mainstream media as result of advertising contracts and strong ties that some of these companies have with politicians.

Albania has begun the implementation of an important judicial reform after almost two years of adopting laws that aim to clean up corruption in politics.

The reform was strongly pushed by the European Commission and the United States, and is considered crucial for Albania to advance in its bid to join the European Union.

A vetting process for all judges and prosecutors in the country supervised by an international body is underway as the first step to reform the system. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1506959873796-92fda719-8e40-6″ taxonomies=”6564″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Albania: TV channel fined for exposing minister’s sex demands

A Tirana court has ordered Albania’s Top Channel TV to pay €400,000 compensation to Ylli Pango, the former Minister of Culture, Tourism, Youth and Sport after broadcasting hidden camera footage of him, asking a female job applicant to remove her clothes. Investigative programme, Fiks-Tarif, had sent undercover reporters to investigate allegations that, whilst in office, Pango was offering employment in return for sexual favours. When giving judgement, the court said they found in favour of Pango because the recordings had been obtained illegally.

Junket journalism is taking off in China

Twenty-three years after writing his best known work, Red Star Over China, Edgar Snow returned to China in 1960 to investigate claims that a radical agrarian reform programme had resulted in devastating famine. “I diligently searched, without success, for starving people or beggars to photograph … I do not believe there is famine in China,” Snow wrote

Snow was wrong. The famine in China was both real and devastating. It is estimated as many as 30 million died in it. Snow’s bias lens had ghostly echoes with Walter Duranty’s reporting from Ukraine, during the Holodomor, the mass famines engineered by Stalin. Only when faced with overwhelming evidence did he eventually concede that the genocide occurred, “to put it brutally – you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs” he said.  

In information vacuums, common during times of conflict such as the civil conflict in Syria, as well as in areas controlled by authoritarian regimes, reporting from independent journalists can quickly define or redefine the public’s perception of a regime or situation. While journalists can play a powerful role in challenging censorship and propaganda from the state, they can also act as the state’s servants. Such was the case for both Snow and Duranty, whose rose-tinted views of the countries impacted global perceptions. Herein lies the point – those who claim to be independent reporters can be incredibly useful to the state, sometimes more so than those working within state media, because the notion that they are independent carries with it a level of authority and weight. 

The use of “junket journalism” to obscure reporting on crimes against humanity has only grown in prominence and sophistication. Nowhere has this been more evident than in China where the government has co-opted a range of journalists and social media influencers to help strengthen the CCP’s control over its narrative and obscure legitimate scrutiny of a number of important issues, most notably the genocide of the Uyghur population. Recent party documents and officials have emphasised the need to bolster the CCP political line, and inject positivity into the CCP and China’s image. Current President Xi Jinping said, “Wherever the readers are, wherever the viewers are, that is where propaganda reports must extend their new tentacles”. 

A recent International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) survey confirmed that “China is conducting a media outreach campaign in almost every continent” with the 31 developed and 27 developing countries that participated in the survey similarly targeted. The researchers told the Guardian, “China is also wooing journalists from around the world with all-expenses-paid tours and, perhaps most ambitiously of all, free graduate degrees in communication, training scores of foreign reporters each year to ‘tell China’s story well’”. 

While many other countries, including established democracies, have sought to influence and shape independent reporting through tours, capacity building opportunities and other tactics, the CCP’s overt prioritisation of journalism that “depends upon a narrative discipline that precludes all but the party-approved version of events” raises significant concerns as to its intentions.

In this effort to shape global news, the CCP is advantaged by its huge pockets. It has spent around $6.6 billion since 2009 on strengthening its global media presence, supposedly investing over $2.8 billion alone in media and adverts. Sarah Cook, NED reporter and researcher, emphasised that “no country is immune”. 

This ambition is best summarised by the Belt and Road News Network (BRNN), which includes 182 media organisations from 86 countries as members, and a Council, which includes 26 countries, including Spain, France, Russia, Netherlands and the UK. The launch of the BRNN was announced in a paid advertorial in The Telegraph produced by People’s Daily. In September 2019, BRNN hosted a workshop for international journalists in Beijing as part of the 70th anniversary celebrations of the People’s Republic of China, which was organised in partnership with the State Council Information Office of China. It included a visit to the offices of People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency and other “central media units”, as well as trips to “Shaanxi, Zhejiang, Guizhou and Guangdong provinces for interviews and researches in order to personally experience China’s unremitting efforts and fruitful results in poverty alleviation, ecological civilization, big data industry, urban planning, and independent intellectual property rights.” 

While the workshop was attended by representatives from 46 mainstream media outlets from 26 Latin American and African countries, it would be overly simplistic to suggest that China is only focusing on countries from the global south. Since 2009, the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF) has taken 127 US journalists from 40 US outlets to China. This foundation has been identified as working with China’s United Front as highlighted by US Senator Ted Cruz, in a letter to the President of the University of Texas at Austin, who stated that “[t]oday, CUSEF and the united front are the external face of the CCP’s internal authoritarianism”.

The IFJ report notes that “the Chinese Embassy has sought out journalists working for Islamic media, organising special media trips to showcase Xinjiang as a travel destination and an economic success story.” Xinjiang and the treatment of Uyghur communities is a prominent area in which the CCP has focused its efforts. After a visit to Xinjiang, Harald Brüning, author and director of the Macau Post Daily, stated that “the anti-China forces’ allegations of genocide are preposterous judging by what the Macao journalists, most of whom had not visited the region before, saw and heard in Xinjiang.” In his piece, Brüning did not disguise the genesis of his trip, exclaiming in the third paragraph “[t]he extraordinarily well-organised tour took place at the invitation of the Office of the Commissioner of the Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China in the Macao Special Administrative Region.” The piece is heavily framed around rebutting existing reporting – labelled in the piece as lies – including the use of forced labour in the cotton fields of Xinjiang, as well as decrying the “brutality the religious extremists and separatists [have] resorted to”. 

However an all-expenses paid junket does not guarantee full control of a journalist’s coverage. Olsi Jazexhi (below), a Muslim Canadian-Albanian journalist and historian sought a way to travel to Xinjiang because he was sceptical of the dominant narrative in the West that Muslims were being oppressed in China. He approached the Chinese embassy in Albania who invited him on a trip to Xinjiang with other “China-friendly journalists”. Once in Xinjiang, Jazexhi was shocked by the detainees’ testimonies of having been jailed for simple expressions of their religious identity, such as reading the Quran or encouraging others to pray. In Urumqi, he was lectured by state officials who equated Islam with terrorism and was shocked by the number of empty mosques or those repurposed into stores. 

Olsi Jazexhi (right) listens to a handler during a tour of a mosque in Aksu city, Xinjiang in August 2019. Photo: Provided by Olsi Jazexhi

Other journalists who have tried to move away from the organised tours have faced a number of difficulties. When journalists have attempted to film camps that the government has not previously cleared for access, they have been turned away by local authorities. Road works or car crashes suddenly block their way and when the journalists attempt to return the next day, the roadworks suddenly reappear again. Members of a Reuters crew reported being tailed by a rotating cast of plain-clothed minders and “within an hour of the reporters leaving their hotel in the city of Kashgar through a back gate, barbed wire was erected across the exit and fire escapes on their floor were locked.”

While influencing journalists can sometimes be difficult, the expansion of blogging and social media influencing has opened up another avenue for state intervention. Travel vloggers who visit authoritarian countries say they just want to educate their viewers and avoid politics. Irish travel vlogger Janet Newenham told Al Jazeera after a controversial visit to Syria that “every country deserves to be shown in a different way and in a positive light even if most stuff about there has always been negative”. However, what can seem innocuous can take on more explicit political implications. “A lot of these vloggers are saying they’re apolitical in this and I’m sure that they are but the issue is, when you’re entering a conflict zone, your direct presence there becomes political,” researcher and adjunct professor, Sophie Kathyrn Fullerton told Al Jazeera. 

A similar trend is increasingly evident in China. “I’m here because lots of people, right now, outside of China, want to know what Xinjiang is like,” says British vlogger, The China Traveller, at the start of a video, which focuses on him sampling a variety of local food while Uyghur women appeared to spontaneously dance behind him. Videos of this genre can be seen as part of what has been labelled the CCP’s project to “Disneyfy” Xinjiang. Uyghur culture has been co-opted by the state and amplified as a tourist attraction to change the narrative and drown out reports of genocide against the Uyghur community. In another video, The China Traveller praises the central government for rebuilding sections of the city, while failing to address the government’s other influence on the Xinjiang skyline: the mass demolition of religious institutions. 

While Chinese culture is celebrated by The China Traveller and other vloggers in Xinjiang, French photographer Andrew Wack had a different experience when he returned to the region in 2019. Speaking to Wired a year after his trip, Wack commented on the stark absence of “men aged 20 to 60, many of whom had likely been rounded up and herded into indoctrination camps”. Throughout his visit, he was followed by plain-clothes police officers “and at checkpoints he was sometimes asked to show his photographs. On one occasion, he was asked to delete images”.

Many vloggers and journalists obscure any coordination or funding from Chinese bodies, or underplay how it may affect their coverage. Lee Barrett, a British vlogger, states in a video, “we go on some sponsored trips to places … our accommodation is paid for, our travel is paid for … nobody tells us what to say, nobody tells us what to film”. Due to the opaque nature of these relationships, it is impossible to interrogate the influence this type of support has on the vloggers’ reporting. However at times this veil is lifted. In a number of popular videos, minders sent by the Chinese state to monitor another vloggers’ trip can be clearly seen monitoring their behaviour.

When the BBC’s lead China reporter, John Sudworth, was invited into Xinjiang’s ‘re-education’ camps, he was presented with a highly choreographed and Disneyfied presentation of Xinjiang culture, which apparently even moved the Chinese officials accompanying the BBC crew to tears. However, Sudworth’s commitment to “peer beneath the official messaging and hold it up to as much scrutiny as we could” led him to scrutinise everything, including scraps of graffiti written in Uyghur and Chinese. This approach has had lasting consequences; he now reports on China from abroad, having had his visa revoked. 

In modern day China, independent reporting from foreigners is one of the few avenues left in order to scrutinise power beyond the dominant state narrative. However, through the funding and coordination of junkets, training opportunities and other tactics, the Chinese state has followed in the footsteps of Assad’s Syria to try and control the message these foreigners send out into the world. This turns the principles of journalism against itself and manipulates the free expression environment in favour of the state. 

Edgar Snow remains venerated in China. In 2021, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying proclaimed on Twitter: “China hopes to see and welcome more Edgar Snows of this new era among foreign journalists”. John Sudworth provides a powerful counterweight, reminding us that we must “peer beneath the official messaging and hold it up to as much scrutiny as we could”.

  • The authors approached The China Traveller and Lee Barrett for comment for this article. No response had been received by the time of going to press.