Albania

Flag_of_Albania.svgBy Antonia Mac Crossan

Introduction

Albania has made very small steps toward a free and democratic press over the last ten years. Its score given by Freedom House (where 0 is the most free and 100 is the least) has increased from 51 to 49. Reporters Without Borders has ranked the nation 82nd out of 180 countries, a steady improvement since 2012, when it ranked 102nd out of 178.

Historical Background

Albania has had a political past marked with sudden regime changes. This started in 1924, when former Minister of the Interior Ahmet Zogu, coming out of exile in Yugoslavia, led an army of feudalist landlords, White Russians, and Serbians into the capital city of Tirana and took Albania by force, quelling a democratic communist revolution which had almost come to fruition. Benito Mussolini of Italy had become interested in an empire, and managed to convince Zogu to accept subsidies for Albania’s economic growth (and a new palace for Zogu) in exchange for access to Albanian ports and the stationing of Italian troops within the country, in order to “preserve the status quo in Albania, politically, juridically, and territorially.” Zogu’s parliament grew frustrated with Italy’s growing presence in Albania, and in 1928, Zogu had the parliament officially dissolved, and crowned himself King Zog I. This only made it easier for Italy to further occupy Albania, and by 1936, tens of thousands of Italian colonists were promised homes in Albania, and any native Albanian who demanded that their land be kept sovereign and defended from Italy’s invasion were jailed by Zog’s forces. In 1939, fascist Italy’s invasion was complete, and King Zog went into exile, leaving Mussolini’s forces in charge. Albanians yearning for their rights and their homeland had little choice but to turn to their neighbor Yugoslavia’s communist ideas for guidance.

At first, the Communist Party’s fledgling 130-member Albanian group—led by one Enver Hoxha—had little appeal to the Albanian people. Most were illiterate farmers who cared little for Marxist ideas—until, that is, the Albanian communist movement rebranded itself as the National Liberation Movement, dedicated to overthrowing Mussolini’s forces and regaining Albania’s sovereignty. This time, they would not allow the exiled King Zog to retake power, but rather institute a Marxist-Leninist government. Hoxha’s guerrilla fighters were stopped, however, by German paratroopers before they could take Tirana. Allied forces, led by the British, sought to free Albania from fascist occupation by sending arms to communist fighters and chasing the Germans from the capitol city with repeated air assaults. When Albania was finally declared “free”, it was still under treaty with Yugoslavia that essentially made it a pseudo-colony. The Communist Party was its only political party, and Albania relied on the Soviet Union for political guidance and aid until the death of its leader, Joseph Stalin, in 1953. Suddenly, Nikita Khrushchev gained power, and proposed sudden new changes to the very platform of the Communist Party. Albanians reacted negatively, and soon the country severed its ties with the USSR. The Soviets proceeded to publish anti-Albanian propaganda that turned much of the Western world against the small, isolated Balkan nation—but not the East. Mao’s China, too, had become disillusioned with the USSR following the rise of Khrushchev, and China and Albania reached an agreement that China would provide the interest-free aid that had been cut off by the Soviets. On the surface, Hoxha’s socialist vision for Albania was a prosperous one—literacy jumped from 20 to about 90 percent within two decades, there was free healthcare available in every town, and women finally enjoyed social and economic rights nearly equal to Albanian men. Though it never became a world power or even particularly prosperous, Albania enjoyed a much higher quality of life than it ever had before. This was not to last, as this newfound freedom was to rapidly unravel beginning in the 1960s. Following in Mao’s footsteps, Hoxha began an Albanian Cultural Revolution that emphasized isolationism and atheism, shutting down churches and mosques across the country. The Albanian people’s trust in Hoxha and his socialist ideals was wavering, and they complained of technological inferiority and constant grueling work. Concurrently, Hoxha’s health was declining, and he feared that, as the USSR did after the death of Stalin, Albania might stray from its path to a socialist future after his passing. He ensured harsher laws were enacted to more precisely keep the people in line and keep the Albanian government from forming any ties to capitalist or Soviet revisionist nations.

As U.S. President Nixon set foot in Beijing for the first time in 1972, Hoxha felt betrayed. He wrote that China had essentially sold out and given up on the socialist cause, saying they fell in with bourgeois America in an effort to combat Khrushchev’s Soviet revisionism “not… from a genuine Marxist-Leninist platform, but from a chauvinist platform which smacks of a great-power policy.” He went on to decry China’s dangerous “secret diplomacy” with the United States that “must be condemned.” Hoxha died in 1985, having named his successor, Ramiz Alia, a few months before his death. When Alia was no longer bound to Hoxha’s vision, he very gradually began to loosen some of the laws that kept the Albanian people from discussing problems in their government. Under his rule as chairman, political prisoners were released as their terms ended, rather than being reconvicted of political offenses without trial as they had been under Hoxha. But Alia’s emphasis on slow and steady change was overtaken by revolution once the Soviet Union had fallen, and thousands-strong student demonstrations forced his hand to a peaceful transition from a socialist, pseudo-Stalinist state into a multi-party democratic government. Alia would serve as the first president of Albania, but resigned in 1992 as the opposing Democratic Party took the majority in the People’s Assembly. In a severe economic depression exacerbated by the corruption and illegality of early free-market activities, unrest still grew in the country as thousands of Albanians, especially young men, fled to Greece and Italy in search of jobs—even turning to prostitution and the drug trade to escape. Lawlessness as military and police personnel deserted their ranks was on the rise, and civilians even captured military bases in order to arm themselves as protests came to a head, the government collapsing in 1997 after Albanian citizens demanded back the money they had lost in government-sponsored pyramid schemes which had funded smuggling operations. The current regime, led by Socialist Party leader Edi Rama, focuses on partnering with foreign consultants in order to help with modernizing and rebuilding Albania.

Free Speech

Under the still-new Communist government in the 1960s, the Albanian people enjoyed a peculiar custom that allowed for complete criticism of all public officials—the flete-rufe. Albanian for “lightning-sheet,” the flete-rufe was a bulletin board, many of which could be found in every town—at workplaces, apartment buildings, and public schools as well as town squares. Upon the flete-rufe, anyone could post a notice criticizing Albanian officials and authorities. Anyone who happened to be the target of this criticism could do nothing to remove the notice, and faced legal penalties for retribution against their critics, but had to post their own notice responding to the original concerns within three days. But this freedom declined with most others as Hoxha grew paranoid about Marxism-Leninism losing its hold over the Albanian people. In its second constitution, passed in 1976, freedoms of speech, press, and assembly were classified inferior to an individual’s duties to their society as a whole. This opened the door for people to be punished for criticizing the government or its actions under the guise of “keeping society peaceful” and unquestioning of its government’s goals.

The current state of freedom of speech in Albania is not entirely clear, though citizens seem to generally be free to say whatever they like about the government and its officials. Libel laws may only really be applied in situations where it is clear that more than seven or eight people heard or read the allegedly libelous remarks, which does not tend to apply in the context of individual speech. Article 20 of the Albanian Constitution states that “no law can be issued that restricts in advance freedom of speech… [and] everyone has the right to express opinions in speech… but is answerable under the law for abuse of this right.”

Free Press

Pro-feudalist leader President Zogu basically counted on the illiteracy of his constituents to ensure that unrest could not travel far. His dictatorial power allowed him to censor Albanian press strictly, suppressing civil liberties and having any opponents of his regime murdered. He continued this suppression of free press as King Zog in the 1930s. Hoxha’s regime continued the silencing of political dissenters, especially in the media, which was heavily monitored along with other literature to ensure that it measured up to the “socialist realism” quality that Hoxha, in the footsteps of Stalin, encouraged to keep all Albanians in a socialist mindset. The only funding journalists and authors received came from the state, so self-censorship was common in order to keep publishing. But being freed from its harsh totalitarian regime in 1990 did not necessarily ensure a free and democratic society, especially when it came to the media. The majority Democratic Party passed a law in 1993 outlawing “unprofessional journalism” that actually allowed them to arrest and convict journalists critical of their actions and their own political rivals. In 1995, the government proposed a statute which would ban newspaper sales in the streets and sidewalks, limiting newspaper availability to state-owned bookstores and newsstands. This caused a press strike that made the government backtrack on the plan. Throughout the 1990s, reporters and publishers who printed critical articles were victims of violent attacks by unknown assailants (generally thought by human rights and free press watchdog organizations to be affiliated with the government). This trend continued into the 2000s, though some attacks were more outright. In 2005, a journalist from Albania’s Top Channel TV was badly beaten by Robert Damo, the mayor of Korça, for filming a public debate held before Damo’s reelection. Also in Korça, the chief of police physically assaulted a journalist for filming police activities in 2004. Throughout Albania strong criminal libel laws are enforced, and Section 119 of the Albanian Criminal Code states that libel on a public (not private) scale is a “criminal misdemeanor punishable by a fine or up to one-year imprisonment,” though it does not define “insult.” Courts in Albania have defined it in a case-by-case manner to mean “humiliating, immoral, or ridiculing words, images or gestures.” Section 120 of the ACC further defines libel, and a person may be sentenced to up to two years imprisonment if they are proven to have knowingly put out false statements that “damage the honor and dignity of a person” or are “detrimental to another person’s public esteem.” (Only in 2012 were prison terms removed from this statute.) The Albanian Criminal Code on Crimes Against the Authority of the State applies these same definitions and punishments to libel against public officials—a term defined very loosely as people “who perform a state function or a public service”, which extends the law to protect teachers in the public education system and medical professionals in the public healthcare system. It is considerably easier for public officials to file libel charges, due to the difference in the legal classification (one being a general criminal law and the other being a Crime Against Authority).

Although the media today is not muzzled outright by the Albanian government, it depends heavily on the government and government-affiliated organizations like political parties for its funding. For those publications not subsidized by political parties, a heavy reliance on advertising revenue exists. Much of this revenue ends up coming from government organizations—more than 50% in just the Gazeta Shqiptare, a newspaper having the second biggest circulation in the country. This essentially places much of Albania’s media in the hands of the government unofficially, making newspapers and television networks rely on government advertising to stay in publication, a situation easily and commonly abused by politicians and government agencies, who require publications to compete with one another for their advertising money, which can be tens of thousands of dollars in value. These bids are combed through meticulously, and any small mistake may be used to disqualify a publication that has criticized the agency offering revenue. In 2001, Albania’s National Privatization Agency invited bids for a 10 million lekë ($70,000) advertising deal, selecting three winners only to suddenly disqualify one for omitting the phrase ‘per issue’ from one of the application papers—rather coincidentally, just after that publication published a piece concerning corruption within the National Privatization Agency. Albania’s rural population (namely, those outside the capital city of Tirana) are generally unable to access the Internet, and many newspapers are not distributed to the country’s more sparsely populated areas.

Critical Comparison

Libel is treated very differently in Albania than it is in the United States (according to the precedent set in the landmark Supreme Court decision in New York Times v Sullivan (1964)). American courts place the burden of proof that statements are libelous (i.e., intentionally false and damaging) on the plaintiff, whereas Albanian courts ask the defendant to prove that they are innocent of making libelous statements. A lack of Fourth Amendment-style search and seizure laws have historically allowed the Albanian government to violate the privacy of its citizens and their communications at will. The Albanian Constitution does not, as the United States does, require the use of a warrant, stating in Article 34 only that “personal searches may be carried out only by the state authorities.” In the United States, the revenue of most media is almost entirely collected from private advertising, rather than public. Though prior restraint (see Near v Minnesota (USSC 1931) and New York Times v United States (USSC 1971)), it can be used in Albania (though technically made illegal) when an article is perceived to constitute a “risk to peace, high treason, treason against the country, risk to the democratic juridical state and risk to internal security”, all vague categories that have not been clearly defined by Albanian court precedent.

Conclusion

Albania has long been an embattled country. Multiple generations of its people have suffered fear of their own government and punishment for expressing that fear or asking for change. But the small Balkan nation is slowly making changes for the better, as evidenced by its removal of criminal punishment for libel. While reporters are by no means safe from government threat or even harm, and independent newspapers are difficult to operate due to government funding pressure, the Albanian people are more free to express their opinions about their leaders. Though Internet access is mostly limited to the capitol, 60.1 percent of the population have the almost completely unrestricted ability to see others’ opinions about Albanian and world issues and even contribute their own. Albania is slowly but surely moving in the right direction when it comes to freedom of expression, but it has a long way to go before the Albanian people can truly have no fear of punishment for speaking out against injustice.

(Last updated April 30, 2016)

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