Truth and lives

Journalists - local and foreign - who battle to cover the Albanian crisis risk not only trigger-happy rebels but also a vicious, concerted government campaign. Emma Daly reports from Tirana

Emma Daly
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:47

Journalism is a dangerous profession in Albania, not only for the locals who dare to criticise the powers that be, but also for the foreigners who cross the line in pursuit of the stories that will fill the pages and airwaves abroad. As usual, the local media is most at risk from violence targeted specifically by the state - if you analyse the figures for reporters killed each year, the natives outnumber the visitors in every authoritarian country in the world.

Albanian journalists know the score - but in the past week or so the situation has deteriorated radically, and many of those who survived the transition from Stalinism to the free market are now trying to leave. "It's my life," says Mentor Nazarko, editor of Dita, an opposition tabloid. "Yes, it's security of life," agrees Enton Abilekaj, who is the political correspondent of Koha Jone, the largest daily in Albania, and a staunch opponent of President Sali Berisha. The two men are sitting in the bar of a luxurious hotel in Tirana because they are afraid to go home.

This being Tirana, the table next door is occupied by several secret police informers, whom the journalists know well. "The police and the secret service, Shik, are blaming all the anti-government protests on Koha Jone," Mr Abilekaj explains. "They burnt down our offices; they captured some of our journalists and beat them." Koha Jone was torched by unknown gunmen last Sunday night; since then, at least three staff on the paper have been arrested and beaten.

Mr Nazarko, too, has had his troubles. "My house was attacked on Tuesday night by armed men - so I'm living in a hotel," he says.

Several other reporters, including those employed by foreign media, have taken the same precautions.

"I'm staying where I can, with friends, moving around," Mr Abilekaj adds. His paper had two correspondents in the mutinous seaside town of Vlore, where the government has lost official control but where the Shik still operates clandestinely. One reporter has reached Italy safely; the other has not been heard of for several days.

The same is true of the people who ran independent Radio Vlore and its new channel, Teleblu. They may be fine - but nobody knows: they seem to have disappeared.

"There have been dangers in the past, but it's been workable," says a Western diplomat. "Now it's tough." Another analyst agrees that the stakes for Albanian reporters are high: "Right now, it's their lives - they're convinced."

Very few papers have come out in the past week, since President Berisha declared a state of emergency because of the rebellion in the southern cities of Vlore, Sarande, Tepelene and Delvine, where thousands lost their life savings in pyramid schemes. "First, because of fears for me and others working for Dita, because a flame might find us all in the office," Mr Nazarko says. "Second, for technical reasons - we do not have enough time to prepare the newspaper."

Under the new decree, all businesses are supposed to close at 3pm, and all media are supposed to submit all stories to official military censors pre-publication. Koha Jone, of course, has no office from which to publish, while journalists from Gazeta Shqiptare, another independent paper, have removed for safe-keeping all telephones, computers and faxes for fear of another visit from the mysterious arsonist. But the pro-government daily Rilindja Demokratike has managed to keep going, printing each official pronouncement in full. The Albanian Daily News, an English-language digest of the main stories, is also on the stands, judiciously submitting itself to the censor - and then telling readers briefly what stories, if any, have been banned.

State television and radio continue to broadcast mostly propaganda, but almost every Albanian house seems to have a satellite dish, and most people watch Italian television news. They also listen avidly to the BBC, to Albanian language broadcasts on the World Service. Around half the population is thought to listen to the BBC each day - which is presumably why the government shut down its FM frequencies.

About 30 of Koha Jone's 80-odd staff are seeking political asylum, but no Western embassy in Tirana is willing to take them for fear of opening the anti-Berisha floodgates, a diplomat said. Intimidation and harassment are not always easy to prove: one tactic is to denounce the journalistic target in the pro-government media, a sign to the regime's thugs, freelance or not, that they should target the unfortunate victim.

But the threats are not limited to locals. "It's dangerous for foreigners, too," Mr Abilekaj says. "They watch; they know your face. But at least you have the protection of a state. We don't have that protection."

The foreigners are also running the risk of crossing front lines at a time of high tension. Although the citizens rebelling in the south are generally happy to see foreign reporters, they must first be convinced that the strangers arriving in four-wheel drives are not Berisha partisans. Even then, it is not all plain sailing. The "rebels" - as they have become in journalese, despite the fact that "they" are not really a single bloc with any clear aim - are at times disorganised and confused. Journalists who visit the world's trigger-happy areas are well used to "happy fire" - the rounds loosed off to celebrate Christmas, or New Year, or a good football result - but in Albania they must deal with "stupid fire". The "rebels", who looted military barracks and are thus extremely well-armed, are making the most of their toys, firing into the air with abandon. And what goes up must come down. One television crew and a reporter, all seasoned war reporters, were almost killed, probably by accident. Someone got angry at some point, and fired his weapon on automatic, into the air. But he lost control and the barrel slid down towards the crew, who crashed to the ground immediately, and survived. The next day, the same crew were arrested - this time by government forces - after they had taken a back road in an attempt to evade a police roadblock. Another photographer, with cameraman, was ordered to stand spread-eagled against his car by a gunman, who stole a flak jacket. The same photographer had been shot at the day before, while talking to soldiers in positions facing the "rebels".

In Albania the front lines have not solidified, and it is impossible to tell when you are crossing from government-controlled territory to land held by rebellious civilians - both sides, for example, are using plain-clothes volunteers, armed with Kalashnikovs, to man checkpoints. And often there are miles of empty road between the two sides, which means there is a danger of the enemy appearing, which means that we journalists may be the enemy, which means we must approach with extreme caution, hoping that the stickers plastering our cars - TV, BBC, foreign press, etc - are visible to the gunmen.

Many of the foreign reporters here are veterans of Bosnia and other wars, who have some experience in trying to minimise the risks and the fears of violence. But these skills are often overshadowed by the frustration of finding a telephone line. "Logistics" occupies our minds as much as the story does: how will we get there with the equipment we need, with food, water, etc; and how will we file? From the mutinous town of Vlore, for example, it seems to be possible to call anywhere in Europe except London - my copy was sent by e-mail to a number in Vienna, passed on to Time magazine in New York and then faxed back to London. Fortunately for us lowly newspaper hacks, the television companies and news agencies are shipping in satellite phones, which we can borrow (for a fee) to file on by modem. Four-wheel drives loaded with such equipment are now charging up and down Albania, trying to cross hostile checkpoints.

What no foreign correspondent can control, sadly, is the idiocy of editors back home, who think Albania is Essex, only farther away. Like the BBC editor who asked a radio correspondent to "infiltrate the secret police and spend a day going around with them". At least he had not asked it of the BBC crew who had been beaten up by the secret police

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