27 Oct 1
Media Abuse Becomes Strategy of Choice in Albanian Politics
As Albania’s prime minister slammed journalists in an attempt to deflect scrutiny after parliament blocked the arrest of the former interior minister, reporters were also verbally abused in the street – a development that could have consequences for press freedom.
Authorities had four years of interceptions outlining the logistics for thousands of kilos of cannabis and implicated Mr Tahiri in the trade.
All 420 pages of the Italian court documents were published on opposition leader Lulzim Basha’s Facebook page causing a political storm.
The gang, from a village near Vlora in Albania’s south, spoke about Tahiri as one of their friends, claimed to control the police in town and had spies in a military radar station to help direct their operations.
The intercepts document conversations involving a kind of jealous rivalry between the gang members and the MP, including boasts that even though Tahiri can make 5 million euro a month, they still have more money.
The gang also spoke about „giving Saimir 30,000 euro“ and having purchased bracelets worth 2,000 euros for his wife and “their mother” [it remains unclear on whom they were referring]. Italian police also noted that at one time the criminals used a car owned by Tahiri.
Besides the transcripts of one member claiming the police chief helped to carry their drugs in person, the evidence against Tahiri sent shockwaves through the political establishment and wider society.
Tahiri denies the charges, claiming the gang members’ comments were just empty boasts about having influence over him. He also claims he sold them his car but the transaction was never finalised. Overall, the criminals are just „his cousins of the tenth grade,” he says.
Tahiri is born in Tirana but his family hails from the same area as the Habilaj brothers, the suspected leaders of the drug ring. Thus, Tahiri is allegedly related by blood with them and he says that the relation is very remote.
But Tahiri’s position is further complicated by the fact that eight months after selling his car to the gang, he borrowed it while on holiday in Greece.
Prosecutors say that a car in Tahiri’s name was useful to the criminals as a way to protect them from police controls and that its loan after the sale confirms their close relations.
Trolls, ‘jammers’ and nitwits
MPs from his party have dismissed the case as baseless and say there is a “political agenda” behind the charges.
On the internet, an army of trolls has attacked every person that said the prosecutors were doing their job by asserting the authorities came from former Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s region of Tropoja, and are therefore his puppets.
The journalists that were critical of the government’s stance saw abuse in the comments under their articles and on social media reach an all-time high. On TV both the government and opposition used various propaganda and disinformation techniques to support their cases.
And then came the “jammers”. This is the term Albanians have invented for party activists that go on TV to support difficult causes not through the force of their arguments, but by derailing serious discussion with insults and yelling to jam the argument, often without offering an alternative view.
Forget fake news or alternative facts. Here, in Albania, the concern is factual based reporting. We should be concerned with the journalist’s right to ask questions.
On Saturday, this right was rejected. When Tahiri spoke to journalists in front of the parliament gates, they had questions. But his supporters shut them down with abuse.
„Nitwit“, „ugly devil“ and „garbage“ were some of the offences used, followed by threats like „let’s throw her out by her clothes“, while others applauded. Deaf to the abuse, Tahiri thanked and kissed supporters.
With the trolls now turned lynching mob, the atmosphere felt dangerous.
Rama weighs in
The controversy grew later this week after MPs from the ruling Socialist Party voted on Wednesday to deny prosecutors’ requests to arrest Tahiri, citing lack of evidence but raising serious concerns.
As a rule, members of the parliament have immunity from arrest or police search in order to protect those in opposition from possible government abuse.
But parliament has no right to judge the quality of criminal proceedings or the evidence supporting them.
And by blocking the prosecutors warrant for Tahiri, the Socialists may be creating a dangerous precedent whereby charges against any MP can be dismissed without providing any evidence that the charges are politically motivated.
And this is where Prime Minister Edi Rama joined the fray. Supporting his vote, he said Albanian MPs do not have full immunity from investigation and that prosecutors can still work to support their case despite his decision.
He further emphasised that parliament had allowed prosecutors to raid his house but not arrest him.
But journalists wanted answers to more serious questions about whether the constitutional system had been damaged by a parliament acting as judge of both the evidence and the legality of the prosecution’s request.
But in an apparent attempt to avoid the discussion, Rama preceded each of his arguments with rants against the journalists.
„You and all those like you that have not yet understood what we are discussing should be ashamed, because you are putting the millet [an Ottoman term for the people] into disarray with such senseless questions,“ he told journalists….
After days of silence, US Ambassador Donald Lu has responded to the Tahiri–Habilaj affair. During a speech at a conference on fighting corruption in higher education, the US Ambassador said the following: But first,…