Got to get a message to you

The small band of BBC World Service journalists who broadcast to Albania have been labelled `living necrophiles' and threatened with death. But they carry on in the knowledge that seven out of ten people in the country tune in for a true account of what's happening around them. By Jack O'Sullivan

`History will never forgive the criminals the fact that they lined up alongside the bandits and the defilers of corpses." That is how the state-controlled newspaper Albania recently condemned the BBC World Service as rebellion raged in the south and claimed the lives of several secret policemen. "The day will come when these living necrophiles will be judged... The souls of the dead stalk the offices of... the BBC Albanian section."

The very act of reporting the war had turned them into the enemy. The office in Tirana had become a place of extreme peril. Even a windowless studio just off the Strand in London began to feel like the front line.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the BBC in the Albanian conflict. It actually seems to be true that at times rioting stops and the streets clear when, after a short burst of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" and a few Big Ben bongs, a calm voice declares Ju Flet Londara - "This is London".

Albania, still recovering from a long period of Stalinist government, has no domestic independent radio or television station. The Voice of America - carefully controlled by the US State Department and discredited in Albania as being too close to the beleaguered president, Sali Berisha - is not trusted. And so, starved of reliable information, seven out of ten Albanians tune into the BBC's thrice-daily broadcasts. London fills a vacuum or, as the service's motto proclaims, Ne shkrijme akullin informativ! ("We melt the information ice!").

The BBC's Albanian journalists clearly see themselves playing a major role. "It's a huge responsibility," says Arben Manaj, who reads the news at 2.15pm (3.15pm in Tirana) when the military curfew starts and Albanians traditionally stop for lunch and a siesta. "The Albania section are treated almost like heroes." His family in London has received death threats over the phone. Like colleagues, he has slept only a few hours a day since a state of emergency was declared on 2 March.

Several of his fellow staffers have had to flee Albania (three remain). Alexander Furxhi, 31, was personally named as one of the BBC's "living necrophiles". On the same day, the offices of the opposition newspaper Koha Jone was attacked by arsonists. Furxhi fled with his family to Italy. Two colleagues followed, one in a dramatic beach evacuation of refugees and British nationals. All three are now in the London office, which has nine staff.

This is a highly emotional time for everyone, says Tim Cooke, head of the Albania section, whose day, throughout the crisis, has started at 4.30am and finished at 7pm. "One of the worst days," says Cooke, "was last week, when there was intense looting in Tirana. Our correspondent there could hardly speak, he was so emotional. In the middle he said he had hoped he would never have to file this despatch. I left that bit in. The producer in the studio was crying so much, he could hardly see to cut the tapes."

Cooke is the sort of chap who makes you feel proud to be British. With a defiant tone characteristic of the last war, he speaks of how the service was not silenced on 2 March when Berisha switched off BBC's FM transmitter. The Albanian service moved to shortwave and to a signal that could be picked up by Albania's many satellite dishes. The news still got through.

But meeting Cooke in the bowels of the BBC, buried among the 44 other language services, you can't help feeling that you have entered a Pythonesque world. Tall, tweed-jacketed in stout brogues, his decent geniality suggests a public-school headmaster or country GP. Yet here he is, fluent in Albanian, editing a war, mediating a distant revolution in which a melee of gangsters, fraudsters, ex-Communists and idealists struggle for power.

He started up the service in 1993, after it had been off the air for 26 years, axed by Foreign Office cuts following the 1967 sterling crisis. A theme tune for the broadcasts is an instrumental section from "Mad About You", from Sting's 1993 album, Mercury Falling. "It sounds like the qiftali, an Albanian mandolin," he explains.

There is, however, no doubting the influence that the service has over this conflict. During one crisis government meeting, for example, the Albanian prime minister kept slipping away - to call the BBC correspondent to find out what was happening in the southern city of Vlore. And last week, when the justice minister, Spartak Ngjeoa, was asked what was the most significant event in the previous few days, he replied: "The BBC coming back on FM" (the transmitter has been switched on again).

The content of programming has also had to change to meet the needs of the moment. This month, the Albanians are getting value for the pounds 500,000 annual budget that funds their service. Where once they got five minutes of national news, followed by the latest on Charles and Di, EMU and the football results, the broadcasts now are all about the Albanian conflict. "Since 2 March, we've run only one sentence on the outside world, when John Major called the general election. There is just no room for anything else," says Cooke.

At the morning conference, staff discuss plans for the coming 24 hours (30-minute broadcasts go out at 6.30am and 2.15pm, with a 45-minute set of reports at 6pm). Today, they have an interview with Ngjeoa, the justice minister, who must envy Michael Howard the ease of his brief. Ngjeoa is trying to explain, under rigorous questioning, how he hopes to fulfil his commitment to restore justice. There is a problem, says the interviewer: the jails are empty and the guards have fled.

Staff discuss news that no fresh refugees have arrived in Italy overnight. "The American Sixth Fleet faxed to say the weather was going to be bad in the Adriatic, so poorly equipped boats shouldn't put to sea," says Cooke. "We broadcast a warning. It seems to have worked."

You can sense within the team the hope that the crisis will be over soon. These are not just a bunch of journalists addicted to a tale of misery. On the day I visited, the afternoon broadcast finishes with the triumphant roar of the first Albanian Airlines flight out of Tirana since the crisis began. The ecstatic reporter sounds as though he is reporting a landing on the Moon. Smiles all around the studio.

But the key task is, says Cooke, "to provide information and avoid panic". It must be hard for journalists so embroiled personally in this conflict, with families back in Albania, to remain neutral. But it is a hallmark of the World Service in all its broadcasts that it should maintain a measured Reithian caution, a reserve increasingly lost by domestic BBC broadcasts as they compete for attention against tabloid radio.

"We have to be careful," says Cooke, "that we do nothing that would inflame the situation. So, for example, there are currently rumours in Tirana of a rebel army coming from the south and a pro-presidential army coming from the north. We've just put one of the commanders from the south on air to say they are not planning to advance on Tirana".

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