31 / 8 / 2011

The Unofficial View of Tirana (20)


Café Mero in Scheveningen, Holland

In retaliation for the fact that everyone kinda stopped caring about WikiLeaks, which is fighting some type of factional guerrilla war with OpenLeaks, HollywoodLeaks, BalkanLeaks, and Steve Jobs knows how many other open source hacker collective public secret information distribution channels, Mr Assange c.s. have been so friendly to dump a shitload of uncensored diplomatic cables on the interweb. That’s probably what happens when you’re not diplomatic enough to turn the tables successfully in an alleged rape case, perhaps he could learn a few tricks from Strauss-Kahn…

In any case, the Albanian news website Balkanweb already started producing an inventory (with convenient Albanian translations) of the juicy parts of the cables coming from the American embassy in Tirana, a heavily guarded complex down the street. Although I have my own little leaks here and there, among others from the orphan home across the embassy, I was of course wildly curious, as the American diplomatic staff in this country has the tendency to speak about internal politics in a manner that would guarantee a one-way ticket out of the country in the Netherlands. In fact, they have even managed to push the boundaries once, when the previous ambassador, Withers, was replaced after openly siding with PS leader Edi Rama and (perhaps) trafficking Chinese weapons to Afghanistan.

I’m still reading through all the 294 cables, but they already prove to contain some entertaining material. Allow me to quote one of the most recent cables, from Feb. 9, 2010, about the shutdown of the Gazeta Tema newspaper offices, written by ex-ambassador Withers. I publish this one first, because, curiously, BalkanWeb passed over it. The irony of my usage of “curiously” here will become clear soon.

Summary: Mero Baze, the publisher of the small circulation daily “Tema”, announced in a January 23 editorial that “Tema” was closing. Baze said that for over one year, the newspaper had made a valiant effort to survive after being evicted from its premises in 2008; however he said he cannot continue under such conditions. A January 27 statement by Albania’s four media organizations noted that the closing of “Tema” is disheartening to journalists. Other prominent journalists, however, said Baze’s use of the paper to harshly criticize the government, after many years of staunch political and personal support for Prime Minister Berisha, cast aspersions over “Tema’s” role and reputation. The truth is very likely a combination of both. In Albania, the “independent” media is more often than not little more than the public affairs arm of political parties and businesses, and practically all operate under the thumb of a political party or larger media company. Independent journalism in Albania is the exception, not the norm. End summary.

The protagonist of the story, Mero Baze, is one of the more well-known journalists in the country, in fact, some of my friends wrote a song about him with the lines (sing drunkenly): “Mero, Mero, të rrahën ty! Të lumtë tulla, i mposhte ata, por prapë ata të shajnë, Mero, o tullac!” (Mero, Mero, they hit you! Blessed be your bold head, you defeated them, but again they insult you, Mero, o boldy!). Two days ago, the general disposition of Albania’s media, sketched out above (and below), was once again confirmed to me, when I found the Shekulli newspaper offices down in Bllok were cordoned off by the tax police. Shekulli is known to be critical of the PD government, and published a critical dossier of new Tirana major Lulzim Basha during the municipal elections. Perhaps a link, perhaps not. Let’s read on…

On January 23, 376 days after its eviction from its previous offices by the GOA [Government of Albania], the now anti-GOA small circulation daily paper “Tema” announced it would cease publishing immediately. “Tema”, whose editor Mero Baze was once a close confidant of PM Sali Berisha, has had a rocky period since the GOA broke its lease with “Tema” in December 2008 and evicted it from its offices, purportedly to make way for a printing facility for the new biometric ID cards (reftel). (Note: The eviction occurred in defiance of a court ruling permitting “Tema” to remain in its original offices. The USG and European governments condemned the government’s action publicly, including in the 2008 Human Rights Report. End note.) The break, according to several sources, occurred when Berisha backed down from an agreement negotiated by Baze to support business interests of the wealthy owner of Tirana’s prime entertainment pavilion, the Taiwan Center. Several sources say that Baze was paid 500,000 euros to deliver a casino license but ultimately failed to do so. Taiwan Center owner Besnik Sula allegedly owns “Tema”, according to documents provided by the Ministry of Finance.

The eviction was only the beginning of Baze’s woes. Just weeks after the eviction, Baze’s car was burned and subsequently exploded (reftel). A police investigation determined the car had caught fire on its own, however the Albanian Helsinki Commission (AHC) said at the time the investigation was “hasty.” More recently, in November 2009, Baze was assaulted in a Tirana bar by businessman Rezart Taci. Taci is currently free on bail pending a trial.

Yet other prominent journalists tell a different story regarding “Tema’s” closure. Opinion writer Fatos Lubonja, in speaking at a private event to DCMs resident in Tirana several weeks ago, said “Tema’s” owners had important business interests. Other journalists noted that the paper closed because it was losing money and no longer served the needs of the owners. Lubonja and other journalists criticized the beating of Baze, but are careful to distinguish “Tema” as a once pro-Berisha paper that turned anti-Berisha once the lucrative relationship was no longer productive. Opinion writer Blendi Kajsiu on January 29 said in an editorial that “Tema” had closed because it lacked a political party or business conglomerate to back it. Kajsiu called “Tema” “Albania’s last independent paper” in that “Tema” was not under the thumb of the opposition, GOA or any larger business enterprise.

Comment: The story of “Tema” is the story of Albanian journalism in microcosm – Baze used his close ties to the PM to his advantage to build the paper and to attract financial backers for “Tema” and, according to some, to enrich himself. Baze’s relationship to Berisha dates back to the early 1990s when Baze was a Democratic Party loyalist and resolute critic of the Socialist Party, particularly its current leader Edi Rama. But “Tema” then suffered the consequences after Baze’s falling out with Berisha. However, it would be a stretch to say that GOA harassment alone drove “Tema” out of business. Although Baze was one of the PM’s harshest critics, the paper had a relatively small circulation. Almost no media outlets in Albania are truly independent, with nearly all of them answering to a party, business interest, or both. During TV debates in the run-up to the 2009 parliamentary elections, both PM Berisha and SP Chairman Edi Rama sent text messages to the on-air anchors of TV talk shows and debates, berating the hosts for showing perceived bias towards the other side. Both the opposition party and GOA consistently pressure media outlets to shade coverage and aren’t above using leases and licenses as leverage. Many newspapers also take money from businesses in order to write articles critical of competitors. In short, “Tema’s” closure puts a harsh spotlight on Albania’s unhealthy media climate where politics, the media and business are inseparable partners.

So much for an analysis of the Albanian media. Thank you, mister ambassador. Incidentally, both Mero and Lubonja wrote books about the events 1997 which I addressed briefly before. I recently bought Lubonja’s, as many of my friends advised against Mero’s. Yet, now I’ve become even more curious… In any case, more Tirana cables soon!

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