Return Albania’s public broadcaster to the public!

A commentary by Leon Menkshi, Journalist in Residence, ECPMF

Albania’s public broadcaster (RTSH) is at risk, and should in no way stay out of focus! They are undergoing technology transformations related to the digitalisation and the quality of content.

Rtsh Broadcaster, Tirana Rtsh Broadcaster, Tirana

At a time when ‘fake news’ is undermining trust in media across the globe and is threatening the stability of both consolidated and fragile democracies, defending the truth is not just a challenge for the new media. Surely it also becomes as much of a challenge for the mainstream public service media (PSM) across Europe. 

At the moment many such mainstream PSM outlets (mostly radio and television stations) are struggling to maintain their quality, credibility and independence, handling pressures from all sides as well as political and economic threats. Besides, they are also faced with changing consumption patterns and the ultimate need to do more with the same or even less resources, in order to reach all audiences.

The focus of my article will be on Albania’s public broadcaster – Albanian Radio Television (RTSH), which is the oldest PSM outlet in Albania, and still maintains the privileges of the countrywide signal-coverage as well as the financial benefits from the Albanian taxpayers’ money. However, such privileges assume a high quality of the public service, transparency and accountability, which unfortunately Albania’s public broadcaster–RTSH, does not guarantee to its nation wide audience.

Since 1999, RTSH has been a member of the Eurovision Broadcasting Union (EBU), which is world’s leading alliance of public service media, comprising 73 active members in 56 countries. EBU’s members are mainly government-owned public service broadcasters or privately-owned stations with public service missions. They initially joined EBU for program-exchange purposes as well as counting on it for mediating technical disputes between them, that were mostly concerned with frequency and technical interference issues. However, nowadays the mission of EBU is not just about  supranational legislation and regulation, but it also encompasses real support to its members in re-defining and re-positioning their offer to the audience. 

In that kind of spirit, the EBU recently launched a Quality Journalism Initiative, pressing for quality and freedom of reporting among PSM members. Quality Journalism is the very heart-beat of Public Service Media, and crucially important not just for the future existence of PSMs as such, but also for the future of democracy! The Quality Journalism Initiative was launched by EBU with the publication of a report in July 2017, looking at the challenges facing public service media in Europe, and how broadcasters are responding to such challenges as:

  • Political pressure and competition, 
  • Trust and impartiality, 
  • Threat to local and regional newspapers, 
  • Prioritising and allocating resources, 
  • Becoming multi-platform, editorially and technically.

In this article I will address only the first two challenges, as they are directly related to the freedom and the quality of reporting. I will argue that such challenges mirror the Albanian public broadcaster’s current stance.

Political pressure and competition

The political pressures start with the election of RTSH’s managing board members, who are all political nominees approved by Albanian Parliament. The intention is to keep RTSH under control; not to let it be free in the hands of media professionals. RTSH’s General Director (GD) has always been an appointee of the ruling political party-majority; the ‘transparent’ recruiting and electing procedures by the managing board have always been manipulated for the sake of selecting the ‘right guy’ for the GD post. 

In such settings, RTSH has never been competitive in the media market, faced with private/commercial television stations, which since the mid-1990s have grabbed the audiences by more quality, speed, accuracy and controversy, as far as programing and reporting are concerned. This aspect still remains unchanged!

Trust and impartiality

With government appointees in managerial positions, RTSH can never be a trusted source of news and information. Although news consumers in Albania tend to trust TV and radio more than social media and the written press, that does not apply to RTSH’s offer to the public. RTSH’s news and reporting focuses too much on national politics and does not tackle issues that concern taxpayers across the country. The news is still wrecked by cronyism and propaganda, and far from the real concerns of the ordinary people. Although it has the infrastructure, RTSH makes little use of its local branches, when it comes to reporting Albania, beyond the capital city.

Impartiality it has been and still is the struggle of the public broadcaster, when it comes to using all means to verifying the sources of the story-. That is even more awkward with regard to political reporting, with extended time allocated to the premier’s activities and justified under RTSH’s statute as non-political reporting. They call it ‘government activity reporting’ instead. Besides, news and the thematic programs are interrupted every Thursday on both the primary and secondary national TV channels, for the sake of live-broadcast from the Parliament, even though it must by law be strictly kept only on one channel (the secondary one) in respect of those tax-payers who should not be robbed of their rights to watch RTSH’s regular programming instead. 

These are just a few of many stumbling-blocks on the way to free RTSH and return it to the public. This should be a top priority of Albania’s socialist government, when it comes to twinning Albania’s standards with those of the EU member states, while aspiring towards the opening of accession talks with the EU. 

On the other hand, the freedom and the quality of Albania’s public broadcaster should be overseen more closely by the EU and OSCE Presences in Albania, in their efforts to help and assist the country on its way towards achieving future EU membership.

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