At the beginning of November, Prime Minister Edi Rama and Top Channel, the second largest television in terms of revenues in Albania (private station with a national broadcasting license), have had a public conflict. From one side, Prime Minister Rama accused Top Channel of blackmailing the Government with negative coverage. On the other side, Top Channel argues that the Prime Minister is attacking the media due to the change in its editorial line – having become now one of the most critical media of the Government in Albania.
In a series of tweets (here, here, here, here, here and here and here), Prime Minister Rama argued that Top Channel had requested illegal favors, basically large amounts of money for favorable coverage. When not provided with this, they changed their news coverage, thus clearly blackmailing the Government with negative coverage – Rama argues. He accused the media of “#DavaRublash” (negative connotation – persons being paid by the Russian Government), alluding to connections with Putin’s regime, and “gjobaxhinj” (negative connotation – people that use blackmailing). He initiated the #DavaRublash (An Affair of the Russian Ruble) and #MeFakteJoMeRubla (Based on facts, not on the Russian Ruble), both refer to the allegation that part of the opposition and some media (referring mainly to Top Channel in these tweets) are paid by Russia. On the other hand, Top Channel criticized Rama’s attacks and claimed they came “after airing the news chronicle that worried the public.”
This case raises questions about the professionalism, integrity, and credibility of one of Albania’s most prominent, if not the largest, national television. Top Channel has been an apparent government supporter for the past nine years until two weeks. For nearly 15 days, this national television has started to report with a strong “dose” of criticism on the country’s current social, economic, and political developments. It even did a feature piece with the headline “Albania is becoming an autocracy,” followed by much other critical coverage of the Government, demonstrating a shift in their editorial policy towards the Government and Prime Minister. What also stands out is that this television is not necessarily aligning with the opposition because Top Channel generally continues to broadcast intact the ready-made PR materials of the Mayor of Tirana. So, there is no evidence that there is a substantial professional change in the editorial line, but an apparent conflict only with Rama.
Using media to blackmail has been underlined as a growing concern in international media freedom reports, including Safe Journalists Indicators on the Level of Media Freedom and Journalists’ Safety. Earlier this year, Top Channel owner and senior managers exchanged mutual public accusations with the author of a weekly investigative show (Top Story) for using blackmail in exchange for favors and money. In September, the Prime Minister and Top Channel also had a public conflict regarding the hacked TIMS system (here), which has escalated in the past weeks.
The case clearly illustrates how the Government, and the media operate in Albania – an issue referred to regularly in international media freedom reports, including Safe Journalists Indicators on the Level of Media Freedom and Journalists’ Safety and European Commission. Advertisements from state bodies in Albania are currently awarded without prior notice and transparency regarding costs, based on a government decision of 2007. The Socialist Party, then in opposition, criticized the practice as “a corruptive one” and promised to end it when they took power. The European Commission Progress Report of both 2021 and 2022 underlined that Albania “has made no progress” on freedom of the media and urged the Government to “introduce legislation to strengthen transparency in public advertising.”
At the same time, it shows the problems with the quality of media, professional standards, and watchdog journalism, particularly when considering that Top Channel is one of the three national televisions in Albania. This also affects citizens’ trust in the media.