Media And Journalists Under Fire
In the early hours of March 27th 2023, a car pulled up outside the premises of Albania’s Top Channel TV in Tirana and sprayed the building with automatic rifle fire, killing a 60-year-old security guard - one of the most serious attacks against a media outlet in the past decade. Following the incident, which the TV station called a ‘terrorist attack’, the Prime Minister, the President, the speaker of Parliament and many public figures in Albania denounced it and called for those responsible to be brought to justice. However, months later the assailants had still not been identified, while the authorities had provided few or no information on the progress of the investigation.
One month earlier, a three-member reporting crew from the investigative TV show ‘Fiks Fare’ on the same television station, were physically attacked and threatened at gunpoint while filming a show on illegal quarrying on the river Zezë, some 30 kilometers northeast of Tirana. It took a police patrol nearly an hour to respond to the incident. In January 2023, TV journalist Elvis Hila and his wife were violently attacked by two men whose court case the reporter had earlier covered. In May 2023 the suspects were arrested and later sentenced to five months imprisonment.
Although physical attacks against journalists and their relatives remain limited in Albania, the cases that are reported are not always thoroughly investigated. Otherwise, harassment and intimidation, verbal abuse and smear campaigns, both online and offline, remain quite common and often come from the highest echelons of power, undermining the very fabric of free speech and freedom of the press.
According to the Mapping Media Freedom Database, 64 media freedom violations were registered in Albania from 2020 to 2023, of which three fifths were verbal attacks, including intimidation and threats, attempts to discredit journalists, insults and abuse, bullying and trolling, while the rest included physical attacks, legal threats, censorship and attacks on property. The number of incidents recorded in 2023, almost doubled compared to the previous year. The database is run by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism, which tracks, monitors, and reacts to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries.
One infamous example of this type of attack came in July 2023 from the mayor of the Albanian capital Erion Veliaj, who called a journalist from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, Ola Xama, a “contract killer” when she contacted him for comment on a public interests investigation into waste management contracts.
Xama had reported on an official investigation from the Special Prosecution office Against Organized Crime and Corruption. The investigation also detailed the role of the municipality of Tirana in a controversial public-private partnership, which has turned into Albania’s biggest corruption scandals for decades, with one minister in prison and another an international fugitive.
Following this insult, for weeks pro-government media outlets in Tirana defended Veliaj and used derogatory and negative language to denigrate Xama for her publication. When Ricardo Gutierrez, the head of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), defended Xama, he was attacked too and the EFJ was called an irrelevant organization.
This is not the first time that Tirana mayor Veliaj is criticized for his attacks against journalists and the media. Only a few months earlier, he publicly announced the name and the surname of a woman he claims is behind the popular Facebook satirical page called ‘Lolita’, which often target government officials like Veialj, and said she had two children, before accusing her of blackmailing bus companies without offering any evidence. In a second statement, Veliaj threatened the influencer and the administrator of another online outlet ‘Jeta osh qef’ [Life is Fun] - both critical of the mayor - , with criminal prosecution, even though he had no authority to order any such prosecution.
In March and July 2022, Prime Minister Edi Rama banned journalists Ambrozia Meta and Klevin Mukaj from government press conferences, after they asked pointed questions that were in the public interest. Rama claimed the journalists had acted unprofessionally and needed three months of ‘reeducation’, a term used during Albania’s communist regime for intellectuals demoted to doing manual labor after falling foul with the authorities.
Not only journalists are under pressure from the government but also critical media outlets. In March 2023, Ora News TV and News 24 TV claimed the tax authorities had slapped them with hundreds of thousands of Euros of fines for allegedly paying salaries “below the average market rate.” Both media outlets claimed the fines were meant to silence them and their critical reporting of government scandals. The government responded that it was defending journalists’ labor rights.
Attacks against journalists and critical media in Albania do not only come from the ruling Socialist Party but also from the center-right opposition. In July 2023, former Prime Minister Sali Berisha published a report that attempted to discredit articles from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network written nearly a decade earlier. Hee claims they were used by the UK government to declare him persona non-grata for alleged involvement in corruption. Berisha and his family members were sanctioned by the US State Department in May 2021 “for involvement in corrupt acts”. On 22 July 2022, he was barred from entering the United Kingdom because of alleged links with criminal groups and corruption. Berisha claimed BIRN’s reports against him were not true and were financed by the Jewish Hungarian-American financier George Soros, a hate figure for some rightwingers.
Independent media and journalists are important pillars of free speech in a democratic society and provide significant checks and balances by holding those vested with public office and political power to account. Attacks and smear campaigns against journalists attempt to undermine public trust in journalism and media, making it easier for disinformation and conspiracy theories to spread. They also pose a risk for the security of journalists and media workers, having a chilling effect on their reporting and pushing them toward self-censorship.
European Center of Press and Media Freedom, Mapping Media Freedom Database, Tirana Mayor calls BIRN female journalist a contract killer (2023).
Accessed on 22.08.2023
Reporter.al, Projekti i inceneratorit të Tiranës u propozuar nga Erion Veliaj, thotë SPAK [The Tirana incinerator project was proposed by Erion Veliaj, says SPAK], (2023). Accessed on 22.08.2023
Top Chanel, Top Channel TV’s statement on terrorist attack with an employee killed at its main headquarters, (2023). Accessed on 22.08.2023
Skullaku, Gutirrez and BIRN journalists created the ghost federation for the protection of journalists and use it for victimization as in the case of Veliaj (Reporter a fuse of Arben Ahmetaj, (2023). Accessed on 22.08.2023
Abc News, Ja kush janë Lolita dhe JOQ”, Erion Veliaj zbulon emrat: Mos paguani gjobat e tyre [This is who Lolita and JOQ are",Erion Veliaj reveals the names: Don't pay their blackmail], (2023). Accessed on 22.08.2023
ECPMF, Mapping Media Freedom Database, Albanian PM bars second journalist from press conferences, (2022). Accessed on 22.08.2023
Reporter.al, Gjykata e Lezhës dënoi dy të akuzuar për dhunën ndaj gazetarit Elvis Hila [The court of Lezha sentences two suspects accused of attacks against journalist Elvis Hila]. Accessed on 22.08.2023
ECPMF, Mapping Media Freedom Database, Filming crew attacked and threatened while reporting on illegal mining. Accessed on 22.08.2023
Safe Journalists, Threats against media outlet – BIRN Albania, 17/07/2023, Tirana, (2023). Accessed on 22.08.2023
US State Department, Public Designation of Albanian Sali Berisha Due to Involvement in Significant Corruption, (2021). Accessed on 22.08.2023