Albanian press plans strike over sales ban

Albanian journalists are threatening to strike if city authorities in the capital, Tirana, carry out an order from the mayor to ban the sale of newspapers on the streets, which would in effect strangle the opposition and independent press.

The ban, which is due to come into force today, would deprive Albanians of their main source of newspapers and force them to go to a state-owned kiosk or bookshop instead. Not only would that severely restrict availability, it would also give the government the option of withdrawing a newspaper if it did not like its contents.

"If this order comes into effect, my circulation will go down from 7,000 to 1,000 and I will go out of business. The same will be true of the other independent newspapers. Our only option then will be to go on strike," said Carlo Bollino, editor of the part-Albanian, part-Italian paper, Gazeta Shqiptare.

The ban is the latest stormy episode in relations between the free press and the nominally free-market government of President Sali Berisha and has heightened political tension as the country gears up for general elections early next year.

Opposition parties accuse Dr Berisha of intimidation and point out that the restrictions were announced after a decision by the ruling Democratic Party at a congress last week to concentrate on propaganda in the run- up to the election.

Sali Kelmendi, the mayor of Tirana and a Democratic Party stalwart, justified the ban as a way of bringing order to the capital's chaotic streets, where prefabricated cafes and kiosks as well as stalls have proliferated.

But journalists are in no doubt that his real aim was to crack down on the overwhelmingly anti-government press. The only titles that support Dr Berisha are three government and ruling-party papers, which between them sell just 3,000 copies. The most popular independent title, Koha Jone, sells up to 10 times that number.

"Newspapers in Albania live on the brink. We pay exorbitant taxes that do not exist anywhere else in Europe. Now the state wants to control us physically, too," Prec Zogaj, president of the Albanian Association of Professional Journalists, said.

The day that the mayor announced the ban, police began harassing street vendors and beat one of them up, even though the order was not due to come into force for another week.

Following protests from journalists, Teodor Laco, the Culture Minister, called for a compromise that would give street vendors time to obtain licences before any ban was introduced. But the mayor was on holiday and unable to sign any modification. "We don't know what will happen, but we are ready to go on strike if the ban is not dropped," Mr Zogaj said.

Press freedom was one of the first achievements of the revolution that ended 46 years of hard-line Stalinist rule in Albania. But since Dr Berisha came to power on an anti-Communist programme in 1992, the tensions have been mounting.

Journalists complain that government officials are reluctant to co- operate, and that their finances are crippled by separate taxes on paper imports, circulation and advertising revenue.

The state, meanwhile, has maintained a monopoly on television and radio, which broadcast non-stop propaganda for Dr Berisha.