Free press makes full use of lax libel laws

Independent (This Europe), Thursday February 13, 2003

Top Channel is Albania's newest, slickest, state-of-the-art TV station. It reaches 75% of Albania's population and is set to be nationwide when new TV licences are granted next spring.

Journalists at the channel are hoping that its progress isn't interrupted by the Albanian parliament, whose Commission on Media is considering a raft of proposed new media laws.

Set up just under a year ago by Dritan Hoxha, whose fortune was made in coffee, Top Channel broadcasts a mixture of news, chat shows, soap operas and sports programming, including the Premiership and Formula 1. And like the rest of the media in Albania, it operates with little fear of that beast of English law, the claim for libel.

Albanian law guarantees the right to freedom of expression. When the Hoxha regime's last incumbent, Ramiz Alia, was ousted in 1992, foreign consultants were retained to recreate a legal system that had been emasculated by nearly fifty years of communism. The result: a hotch-potch in which though technically there is a law of libel, the media can say what they like, when they like, with virtually no risk.

'Sure, sometimes the media get sued, but nothing ever comes of it', says a prominent lawyer working in the capital, Tirana.

Recently, a journalist on one TV channel alleged that the wife of Fatos Nano, the prime minister, was working for the Greek secret service. The allegation hasn't been repeated. Nor though has the channel been sued, and nor is it likely to be.

In the press, it gets even better. A newspaper alleged that a bank was involved in money laundering. The bank sued, and the court found in its favour. But no damages were awarded, and the bank had to pay for the space in the newspaper for an apology.

But it's not all a bed of roses. Journalists at Shekulli, Albania's largest-selling newspaper, say investigative journalism is still a problem, in a society where the government and police can compel disclosure of sources, and whistle-blowers are routinely fired.

With a new law set for January 2003, journalists are keeping a weather eye on parliamentary debates. Top Channel and Shekulli just wouldn't be the same if they had to worry about the law of libel.