Date sent: Mon, 12 May 1997 06:00:06
From: Geert Lovink

The Media situation and the general atmosphere in arts in Albania

Eduard Muka

Following the elections of May 26, 1996 ó widely denounced as irregular by the international community and the national independent media ó the situation in Albania deteriorated very quickly. Seeking political benefit, the government of the Democratic Party (the ĎDPí, which illegitimately won about 90% of the seats in the Parliament) allowed the rise of strange structures called "charity foundations". These structures were get-rich-quick schemes, initially little more than money laundering. The political euphoria spread very quickly to all levels of Albanian society, and in a few months time almost everybody was putting money (mainly their savings) into these get-rich-quick schemes. Promising fabulous returns (three times more than the original investment), the schemes swallowed almost all the savings of the Albanian people ó building a sort of castle in the sky where everybody could have money without working. Trying to maximise their benefit, the DP avoided any information about the functioning of such structures ó in the beginning they ignored, and later forced the governor of the Albanian National Bank to stop his warnings about the dangers of such structures. Of course the danger was imminent. After a while the first scheme started to fall and became bankrupt. In a couple of months almost all schemes had fallen, swallowing the money of the Albanian people. Having been assured in advance by the government and the President about the legitimacy of the schemes, peopleís anger towards the government and the DP started to rise. With the fall of one of the important schemes involving the south of Albania, the revolt burst out and sparked the political and social crisis.

Despite Albania being an underdeveloped country there are still media structures: only one TV channel covers the entire Albanian territory, and this channel is controlled by the state (i.e. government, ruling party); recently several local TV stations were set up which cover the city or its surroundings; there is only one national radio station, controlled by the same structures as above; and a couple of (relatively recent) independent radio stations that can be received on FM frequencies located in Tirana. There is no law at all concerning electronic media. For this reason most of the independent structures do not give any news, information, comments, or analysis at all, especially if it is has any political content. There are several independent and political newspapers, the distribution of which only covers the main and secondary cities and leaves out the villages, where over 60% of the population live. There is an e-mail system in Albania but there is no free access and it can only be used if one belongs to an institution. Most people use the UNDP server to get into the system.

The relationship of the Albanian people towards the electronic media is typical of ex-communist countries. For 50 years all media structures were mere propaganda which was received in three different ways. Not having capitalist structures, the middle class did not exist. The society was and is still divided into three main groups (not related to the economy but to favourable or otherwise living conditions). The first one includes people living in more culturally developed centres, the second are people living in secondary cities, and the third are those in the villages. The attitude of the first group towards the media was one of absolute rejection. Rather than the propaganda coming from the TV screen, they searched for other sources of information such as western radio-stations and TV channels (those few that could be received secretly). The second group, that generally had both possibilities, was indifferent to both of them but submitted to the psychological effect of the propaganda. The third and largest group received and understood only the national media and was totally under its influence.

The overthrow of the communist regime in 1991 was supposed to change this situation totally, and in the years to come improve the change. But expectations fell short. The media infrastructure didnít change at all and its management worsened. For strictlypolitical reasons the alternative spaces and ways of thinking were marginalised, and the opposite viewpoint was almost physically eliminated. The only space that allowed free thinking to breathe was the independent newspaper "Koha Jone". The electronic media controlled by the DP continued their propaganda, totally ignoring the opposition and the alternatives. Strangely enough this was supported by European politicians who seemed to have two very distinct ways of looking at democracy. The attitude of the Albanian people towards the electronic media became even more rejective due to the rise of some independent papers, and BBC and Voice of America radio programs in the Albanian language. And last but not least is the e-mail system.

The first warnings about the upcoming crisis came from the independent newspapers. Parallel to their continuous critique of DP policies, they began to analyse the so-called "pyramid schemes", and publish the warning by the IMF to the Albanian government. Their publishers and journalists received the first serious threats. But this was not enough to stop people from putting their money into the schemes. Only when the first scheme collapsed did people begin to demand their money back. Being unable to do this, one scheme after another started to crumble. The civil protest began to rise. But the TV channel, still in the hands of the DP, remained indifferent to these protests and called the hundreds and then the thousands of protesters all over Albania "communists and terrorists". This increased the already large gap between the television and the people. In this period the role of the foreign radio stations became crucial. They reported real events and analysed the causes of the crisis. International TV broadcasters also began to show an interest, and Euronews and CNN started to broadcast stories about Albania. Since it was possible to get these two news satellite stations in the main towns, people could compare those images with the ones being broadcast on Albanian TV. The hate against state TV increased.

The situation worsened and the DP, instead of calling for new elections, declared a state of emergency. With this, they completely isolated Albania from the rest of the world. They decided to ban the frequencies of the radio-stations, close all newspapers and take over all the previously mentioned local TV stations. Fortunately, the closure of the satellite frequencies lasted only 48 hours, but it was not the same for the radio-stations. People started to look for them on the short-wave frequencies, which cannot be banned. But the newspapers remained closed for more than one month, and the office of the biggest independent newspaper "Koha Jone" was burned down by the secret police. During this time, e-mail remained one of the most important sources of information, unfortunately with very little access.

The only existing server in the country, UNDP, was part of an experimental program meant to give NGOs and universities access. Independent persons cannot make use this from their homes. Few institutions make use of an AOL account, which is very expensive as they have to make an international call to Switzerland. In the early nineties the telephone system was in a disastrous state, but the joint venture with the Italian Telecom brought some improvements. One Italian company offered to build a net, but that was rejected as it was thought better to let Albanian Telecom do it. On the political side, net systems are a possibility to escape the control of the DP and thatís why they did not allow such a thing to grow, or to make a law for the electronic media. It is believed that outgoing e-mail from the UNDP server is monitored.

E-mail was one of the important news sources during the first days of the state of emergency. Anyone who could make use of it passed the information to others, who passed it on and so forth. Because of the fear of control there was more information coming in from outside of the country than information going out.

With the spread of weapons the situation quickly escalated and the DP decided to back down just a little. There is now the Government of National Reconciliation, which the DP constructed many obstacles for. The ban on the press was lifted, and schools were re-opened by the end of April in most parts of the country.

The situation in the arts and culture continues to be sad, as most intellectuals and artists ó old and young ó have fled Albania. It is difficult to start school again, not only because itís difficult to talk to students about art now, but also the lack of equipment is more evident than ever.

Anyhow, we are trying to bring the students together again, to create the necessary atmosphere for them to work. It is an effort similar to that of a doctor trying to bring life to a patient in coma. Of course we will succeed some day, but it is hard for the moment.

One can easily imagine a Neanderthal looking at his people amazed, drawing the obvious conclusions and saying: "Iím out of here!"