Dr. Blerjana Bino —
Part of this interview with Sandra Maksimović was published by European Western Balkans – “Western Balkans media during COVID-19: Reporting on corruption became even harder”
- How do you evaluate the quality of information about COVID-19 in Albania?
The Institute of Public Health (IPH) has provided daily information to the public basis since March, 09th, 2020. This information is provided in the form of a press release and streamed online and on other mediums: television channels, radio and live on official Facebook pages of the Prime Minister, Minister of Health and Social Protection (MoHSP), Mayor of Tirana and other senior governmental officials. This press release is issued by doctors, who at the same time hold senior positions either at the MoHSP or IPH. This press release contains only statistical data about the pandemic in Albania referring to the day of reporting and overall data (number of infected persons, number of hospitalised, number of victims, number of recovered patients, number of medical staff infected / cured, number of tests, geography of infection). The press release is usually closed with an awareness raising call to the public to respect the rules regarding the COVID-19 crisis.
However, doctors from IPH issuing these press releases everyday do answer questions from journalists or the public. It is the Prime Minister, Mr. Edi Rama, who answers questions directly to the public via his Facebook page. In addition, Mr Rama also communicates via ERTV, through Facebook text status or video the decisions of the government addressing the situation ranging from the shopping timetable for citizens to relief measures for business. The official legal acts (Decision of Council of Ministers, ordinance of Minister etc.) have been published in the Official Gazette afterwards. Basically, the Prime Minister has monopolised not only the information (what we learn and think about the crisis), but also the framing (in what ways do we think about the crisis) and the mediums (how we receive the information).
The news media in Albania, amidst many challenges and difficulties, has regularly covered and reported on the crisis. However, most of the reporting is simply broadcasting ERTV video streams, reporting on PM’s Facebook statuses and communication with his followers and pre-prepared footage by public relations staff of line ministries. The primetime debates and other TV shows have attempted to analyse and debate the government’s measure, the impact of the crisis on various fields and also compare the situation with other countries. However, priority has been given to the so-called analysts and opinion-makers, who are not public health experts or doctors and who usually maintain a certain angle of the argument depending on their vested political interests. Same as in the case of the deadly earthquake in November 2016, during the COVID-19 crisis, the media outlets have provided space for experts to voice their opinions regarding the crisis, how it is managed, its impact and the way forward. Particular space has been given to public health experts, doctors and economic experts. However, their expert opinions and analysis still remains marginalised.
Most media have utilised some basic features of data journalism regarding the statistics and information on COVID19 in Albania by publishing some visual data analysis. Open Data Albania provides the most comprehensive information regarding COVID19: statistics, measures taken by the government and legal acts, and related advice. Other online media platforms such as Exit.al, Monitor.al and Reporter.al have provided in-depth analysis regarding the COVID-19 crisis and also attempted to critically asses the measures introduced by the government. However, journalists and experts who question or criticise the measures taken by the Government find themselves exposed to accusation of “spreading panic in a time of war”. “spreading panic in a time of war”. Various recent analysis show that a concerning issue remains the risk of the disproportionate use of measures against persons or media outlets accused of spreading panic.
- How would you asses media freedom in Albania during the pandemic?
The COVID-19 crisis has made even more visible the persistent challenges of media freedom in Albania. While accurate and reliable information is paramount during the crisis and media is expected to play a key role, in reality the independent media in Albania is weakened due to a combination of factors such as limited quality and professionalism of journalism, symbiotic relations between media, politics and business, low trust level in public institutions, low media literacy and lack of financial sustainability. As a result, the media is in crisis with newspapers going out of print, TV shows cancelled, newsroom curtailed, advertising in decline and journalists risking their health, security and their salaries. Reporting from the field is becoming even more difficult and there is a lack of know-how and clear procedures for journalists how to report during the pandemic and protect themselves and the others. The online media seems to do better in this regard, but it is difficult to estimate given that it is highly unregulated.
During the COVID19 crisis, the media finds itself between two fires: on one side, there is a lot of expectations from the media to inform the public and provide unbiased and ample coverage of the crisis. On the other hand, the media is being undermined by the Government and in particular by Prime Minister Rama. On the very first day of lockdown, he urged the Albanian people to stay home, to respect measures of personal hygiene and physical distancing and added: “protect yourself from the media”. This adds to his denigrating the media by calling them “trash bins”. With this Rama continues his fight against independent media as the recent report of RWF finds and there is a clear pattern of personalisation of power. Media and human rights organisations have criticised the government of monopolising information and hindering media freedom. Reporters without Borders Media Freedom Rankings (2020) and the Annual Report by the partner organisations to the Council of Europe Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists (2020) both have pointed to the dangers of media freedom in time of COVID-19 crisis.
- If there were any topics related to corruption or certain misuse of power by the authorities during the COVID-19 pandemic, did they reach the public and the mainstream media?
The BiEPAG Report argues that the COVID-19 crisis represents a critical juncture that has overshadowed other developments. This holds true for Albania. For more than 2 months now the “only game in town” is COVID-19. Journalists and media professionals claim that it has become very difficult to cover other topics, including major issues of public interest such as corruption. However, the media has covered the issues raised by the opposition in Albania. The opposition has focused on three main issues: criticising the Government for not taking measures earlier; asking for more testing for COVID-19 and demanding the cancellation of multi million private-public partnerships and using the money to subsidise small business and support the health system in the country. Nonetheless, the Government is using successfully the narrative of “being at war with COVID19” and as such “the fight with this invisible enemy” justifies all. In addition to this, the situation created by the COVID-19 exacerbates the political crisis with threats to human rights and freedoms, media freedom and independence and adds the prospect of an even bigger economic crisis. All these issues deserve to receive the adequate public scrutiny.
- How transparent is the government during the pandemic in Albania?
The transparency of the government is hindered during the pandemic: first, the crisis has demonstrated an increased role of the executive vis a vis other branches of government. For instance, the Parliament suspended its activities for about 6 weeks and only in late April started with online and remote working. The crisis with the President continues and the country has no Constitutional Court yet. What is more, the crisis has provided the Prime Minister with the opportunity to strengthen even more his personalisation of power and dominating the public discourse regarding the crisis. What is more, the state of emergency is in place till the end of June 2020, therefore it is more difficult for civil society, media and other actors to hold the government accountable.