Albania Prime Minister Fatos Nano and his socialist government continued to pressure independent and opposition media in 2004, using criminal and civil defamation complaints as a stick and politically motivated state advertising as a carrot.
Albania's 20 daily newspapers compete intensely for readers and advertising in this country of 3 million; analysts say most newspapers overtly support either the ruling Socialist Party or the opposition Democratic Party. The media are beholden to the government because they derive much of their revenue from advertising contracts with large state companies, such as telecommunications giant Albtelecom. The Socialist Party routinely uses advertising contracts as a lever to win favorable coverage.
The Socialists effectively run the state-owned broadcaster, Radio Television Albania, and appoint members to the broadcast regulatory agency, the National Council on Radio and Television (NCRT). While the NCRT did not exert much power in 2004, it has the authority to close media outlets for regulatory violations or nonpayment of fees.
In May, dozens of journalists gathered in the capital, Tirana, to protest the growing number of lawsuits against reporters, particularly those who criticized the business activities of the prime minister's wife, Xhoana Nano. Demonstrators stacked newspapers, televisions, and radios, wrapping them in chains to represent the strangulation of Albania's press corps.
The protest came shortly after a district court found Nikolle Lesi, publisher of the leading Tirana daily Koha Jone (Our Time), liable in a civil lawsuit for defaming Prime Minister Nano. A March article in Koha Jone alleged that Nano and two associates benefited financially when an Austrian company purchased a government-owned bank, the news agency Agence France-Presse reported. After a trial marred by procedural irregularities, the court ordered Lesi to pay Nano 2 million leks (US$20,200)—a sum 100 times larger than the average monthly salary in Albania.
Lesi, who is also an opposition member of Parliament, was charged with criminal libel as well for a series of articles that criticized Xhoana Nano's business record. However, Parliament rejected efforts to strip him of his parliamentary immunity, which protects him from prosecution.
A proposal to decriminalize libel has been drafted by the Albanian Media Institute, a Tirana-based media monitoring organization, and the Open Society Justice Initiative, an international group that promotes legal reform. Parliament is expected to consider the proposal in 2005, the institute said.
Civil defamation lawsuits also threaten press freedom, with at least 10 such cases pending against journalists, according to the institute. In June, a court in Tirana found Mero Baze, publisher of the independent newspaper Tema (Topic), liable for defaming Prime Minister Nano in a story that alleged favoritism in the compensation of former political prisoners. Baze was ordered to pay damages of 150,000 leks (US$1,500).
Along with the fear of politicized courts, many journalists say they avoid sensitive topics because angering the government might cost them their jobs. Few journalists have contracts with their employers—even though the law requires employment contracts—and most do not receive benefits.
Albania is seeking to sign a preliminary agreement to eventually join the European Union, but the economy has been stagnant; foreign investors still shun Albania's markets because of its fiscal instability. A series of opposition protests in February, at least one of which was violent, raised worries that the country may slip back into political chaos.