Police block newspaper staff from entering offices

New York, January 9, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists is disturbed that the Albanian authorities today blocked the offices of the daily Tema, which recently published stories alleging official corruption.

Police in the capital, Tirana, surrounded the premises, barring journalists from entering the building, the daily’s publisher, Mero Baze, said in a statement posted on Tema‘s Web site. Baze said he called Tirana’s police chief, who told him the order to bar the staff from the building was issued by Albania’s Ministry of Interior.

On December 16, Albania’s economic ministry severed the paper’s lease on offices in a state-owned building without notice; Tema had held the offices for 20 years, said Balkan Insight, the news Web site of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. In his statement today on Tema‘s Web site, Baze said the daily won a lawsuit to regain their lease on January 6. Despite the court’s ruling, Tirana police barred journalists today.

On December 31, Baze’s car caught fire and exploded, the Tirana-based Albanian Media Institute reported. Police said the explosion was an accident, caused by a short circuit, while Baze claimed it was retaliation for Tema‘s critical journalism, the Balkan Insight reported.

“Police should immediately allow Tema journalists to enter their offices and do their job,” said CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “Instead of harassing the reporters, authorities should investigate the recent explosion of publisher Mero Baze’s car. Such methods of intimidation of a critical news outlet are incompatible with the democratic path Albania has chosen.”

In late fall, Tema, a pro-opposition newspaper that specializes in investigative reporting, published a series of articles alleging high-level government corruption. Prime Minister Sali Berisha has personally rejected all allegations, accusing Baze of opposition bias, the local press reported.