Mauling the Messengers

Berisha’s Government Scapegoats Albanian Press

Albania’s opposition press actively covered the collapse of the country’s ubiquitous pyramid schemes and the ensuing mass public protests. For bringing the Albanian people the light, these journalists wound up taking the heat.

Reporters who related the bad news about the fraudulent investments were the first to be targeted by angry mobs of defrauded investors, and journalists of all political persuasions have shown up on death lists circulated by various armed rebel groups. The government’s response to the media has been equally alarming. As part of the emergency rule President Sali Berisha imposed in early March to try to quash the armed rebellion, he imposed stiff restrictions on the press, adding to his government’s already onerous pattern of beatings, short-term detentions, and harassment of reporters–behavior that earned Berisha a spot on CPJ’s 1997 list of the top 10 Enemies of the Press.The independent and opposition media in Tirana are struggling to rebuild the necessary infrastructure for free media, but they have yet to receive credible guarantees of safety from the government or any promise of legislation to bolster their freedom.

Not surprisingly, Koha Jone, the flagship opposition newspaper, was the first focus of Berisha’s media crackdown. Late on March 2, police ransacked the unoccupied office of Koha Jone, Tirana’s largest daily. Although a security guard was on duty, police broke down the door and searched offices, apparently looking for compromising files. Early on the morning of March 3, unknown arsonists–widely believed to be linked to the SHIK, Albania’s secret police–set the Koha Jone offices ablaze.

CPJ board member Josh Friedman, in Tirana to cover the Albanian unrest for Newsday, visited the ruins of Koha Jone and recounted his impressions: “The building is not completely destroyed, but it’s clear that every room was deliberately torched. The office equipment is destroyed, computer keyboards are melted and distorted, and one smoke-blackened monitor is the only thing seeming to survive. Documents and papers are scattered all over the floor; the archives are damaged. An electric sign with the name of the paper is shot out, raked by bullets.”

Friedman’s March 18 interview with Nikoll Lesi, publisher of Koha Jone, appears below. Soon afterward, on March 25, Lesi was attacked at the Hotel Rogner in Tirana by a man in plain clothes, believed to be a SHIK member, who punched Lesi in the face several times and made verbal threats. The hotel had been a gathering place and information exchange for local and foreign journalists. Lesi’s beating and other warnings against those who would write critically about President Berisha were meant to be a message to discourage the press corps from meeting at this hotel–and the tactic worked. Albanian journalists no longer feel safe meeting the foreign press there.

In response to pressure from Western governments, the Albanian parliament formally eased emergency measures and lifted censorship in mid-April. A ban remains on public assembly, however. When Koha Jone, which resumed publishing in early April, ran a report on April 27 from the southern port of Vlora about calls for demonstrations, police seized all copies of the daily from distributors under provisions of the emergency rule, citing the headline of the article: “Tomorrow, 20 Towns on the Streets.”

Forced to work in temporary quarters, Koha Jone’s staff is struggling to put out daily editions of the paper. But the confiscations and threats to journalists by Berisha’s thugs mean the long-term prognosis for a free press in Albania is uncertain.

Josh Friedman, CPJ board member and Newsday’s U.N. bureau chief, interviewed Koha Jone’s publisher Nikoll Lesi for Dangerous Assignments.

JF: Tell me what happened.

LESI: On March 2, the night when the emergency powers were established, the secret police–the SHIK–came to Koha Jone’s offices with weapons. I wasn’t present, but our security guard was there. Everyone else had left. They hit our security man, set fire to the premises with napalm [or some flammable substance].

JF: Can you go back to work in your offices?

NL: There’s nothing left. Everything was destroyed.

JF: Are you going to start up again?

It’s so damaged, we don’t know how. We are trying to find financial support. The equipment was 80-percent destroyed. Koha Jone was the largest independent paper. It was one of the most trusted in Albania. I founded it May 1991, first as a local newspaper in Lehza, 70 kilometers from Tirana. It was a weekly, with 1500 copies. I did everything myself. Then I started to expand it. In 1991, we supported the Democratic Party, which was in opposition. In March 1992, we started to expand to surrounding areas, although kept Koha Jone as a local paper. We were the new guys. We felt that we should give something new–short news articles, ads…

JF: How did you finance the paper?

NL: We had no money. We started with $100. I was lucky. At first the editor didn’t ask to be paid. We got more money from ads. After the Democratic Party came to power, we started criticizing them. Then the state began attacking us. The state owned the television and radio. They said we were lying and making things up, but what the television said made people curious. Our circulation jumped. They kept attacking us. Our circulation kept increasing. They were advertising us without realizing it’

In March 1993, the editor in chief, Alexander Frangaj, was jailed for a month but was found not guilty. We published documents about corrupt government involvement in drug-smuggling. On Jan. 3, 1994, Koha Jone became a daily, and people became more interested. We were no. 2; Zeri i populitt [the Socialist Party daily] was in first place. On Jan. 31, 1994, Frangaj was re-arrested. Martin Leka, the deputy editor, was also sentenced to month in prison. He was found not guilty, but Alex was given three months in prison. They were accused of publishing military secrets. We published articles stating that the Defense Ministry was smuggling drugs using navy ships.

On March 15, 1994, we became the leading paper in circulation. We had lots of problems with the police; they tried to stop our materials. At this point we were publishing 65,000 copies a day, twice the combined total of all the other papers. We succeeded because we were the first paper to publish short articles, investigations of government corruption, economic news, articles for children, and cultural news. We had nearly 70 journalists working for us. The paper was distributed all over the country, and also in Greece.

JF:What would it take to start over?

To start again, we need a minimum of $65,000, because under the lease, we are obliged to the owner of the building to repair it. We would also need $70,000 for computers, or roughly a total of $135,000–or $165,000, if there were payment of salaries and other expenses.

Our money was burned up in the fire. We also owe money to companies who paid for ads that weren’t published. We have to give refunds…

In a word, what happened in those two or three last days [after the imposition of emergency rule] destroyed me.