Flash report: Albania

Flash report: Albania
Challenges to RTSH persist, mainly in the form of political pressure on regulatory bodies and programming, weak editorial independence, and financial sustainability.
Public Service Media Face Political and Financial Challenges
RTSH, the public service broadcaster, is composed of Radio Tirana and Televizioni Shqiptar (Albanian Television – TVSH). At present, RTSH broadcasts two national TV programs, two national radio programs, one radio program in foreign languages, one radio program for compatriots, four regional TV programs, and one TV satellite program. RTSH’s first program in analogue signal covers 87% of the territory and its second program covers 47%, as opposed to 69.8% and 62.1% for the other two commercial TV stations (1).  In Albania public data on audience of media outlets are lacking. While the public perception of RTSH’s popularity is generally negative, this cannot be proven by data. The transformation of RTSH from a state to a public broadcaster has been a difficult battle to fight. As time goes by, challenges to RTSH persist, mainly in the form of political pressure on regulatory bodies and programming, weak editorial independence, and financial sustainability. Recently these factors have been visible in the introduction of a new law and the ongoing digital switchover process.
The first regulation on electronic media was passed in 1998, with several amendments, until March 2013 when the parliament approved Law 97/2013 “On Audiovisual Media.” After six years of discussion, both political wings agreed on the law, except for the formula of election of the regulatory body and governing body of RTSH, the Steering Council. This disagreement has persisted through the years, leading to difficulties in implementing the law and thwarting the normal functioning of the institution. 
The new law made no difference. While public discourse has continuously paid lip service to the need to have an independent and professional Steering Council, in practice it has been difficult to establish trust between the two political factions. Continuous amendments to the formula and criteria of election of members, along with the formula in the new law, testify to a trend where political balance has been of higher priority than professional credentials. So, from 1998 to 2006 the Steering Council was composed of 15 members, voted in parliament based on proposals in equal numbers by the opposition, ruling majority, and civil society, respectively (2).  With amendment of the formula in 2006 the Steering Council went down to seven members, with proposals coming from civil society and academia, but elected upon proposals of the political wings in parliament (3).  With a political crisis that developed, it was agreed to take the number to 11. With the 2013 law the formula changed again, stating that the 11 members should come from professional associations of media and other relevant fields, elected in a manner that respects political balance between proposals of the ruling majority and opposition (4). However, the chairman of the body will be elected by simple majority if consensus is not reached, which has cast doubt on the political balance of the body (5)
Hence, political developments in the country have had significant impact on the formula, continuity, and functioning of this institution. Long periods of political tension and disagreement have led to situations where the Steering Council has been either incomplete or working without a mandate. In 2006 the new members of the Steering Council were elected only by votes of the ruling majority, as the opposition boycotted parliament for six months. With a crisis in the election of president that followed in 2007, the body remained incomplete for more than a year. In the current situation all members of the Steering Council have continued to work in spite of their term being over by more than a year now. “The mandate is over for all members of the Steering Council, but according to the law, as long as a new council is not elected, we continue to normally exercise our functions. The General Director also continues his functions, since the council has not yet been elected. We cannot leave the institution without a Steering Council, and, furthermore, it is not our right or task to discharge or appoint ourselves. (6)”  Since the approval of the law in March, no effort has been made to elect new Steering Council members. Hence, the normal functioning of the Council and its composition have remained significantly dependent on the political climate, which does not assist the overall transformation of RTSH into a genuine and reliable public broadcaster. The application of these formulas has been a legal way of dividing spheres of influence on the institution’s regulatory body and a continuous controversy in the media regulation debate.
While the program variety produced by RTSH has improved, its editorial independence has always been disputable, greatly tarnishing the credibility and notion of a public medium. “The state media, which are not yet truly public, are completely partisan, a permanent client of every ruling majority, and do not serve the public interest. (7)”  In June 2013 the election campaign was significantly balanced, providing 40 percent of news edition time to the ruling party, 6 percent to the government, and 41 percent to the main opposition party (8) . “However, a more positive tone was noted towards the DP and the government (45 percent for the DP compared to less than 1 percent for the SP), undermining its legal obligation of impartiality. (9)”  Criticism towards politicized criteria of the news agenda have persisted through the years, casting a continuous shadow over RTSH’s performance. This has led the RTSH management to emphasize other achievements of the public broadcaster rather than the political tone of coverage. “While I understand the discussion on politics, we should go beyond two hours of broadcasting and view the whole 24-hour broadcasting time… Then we see that there is a huge contradiction in what private and public media are offering to the public (10).”  However, in the absence of public national audience data and lack of public polls and surveys on the public broadcaster, the whole discussion remains a speculation, from both critics and supporters of RTSH.
RTSH’s funding comes mainly from license fee, advertising, services to third parties, and the state budget. The budget has increased significantly, from 8 million € in 2006 to 17 million € in 2012 (11).  The amount of state budget funding varies each year, with a tendency to decrease in recent years, not so much in quantity, as in the overall ratio to RTSH-generated income (12).  
However, RTSH’s financial future is far from rosy. A major problem, which was not addressed by the newly approved law, is the collection of license fee. Until 2011 the fee was very low (app. 4.5 € per household per year,) but it doubled in the last two years in order to increase funds for digitalization projects. Albanians pay the fee monthly with their electricity bill, but apart from the poor electricity payment rate, there are also problems with the electricity company passing on the amount due to RTSH. According to the General Director, in 2012 RTSH received only 30% of the license fee payments that it should get (13). Inadequate regulation of this financial transaction, along with existing informality in society, has led to financial obstacles for RTSH.
These obstacles become more intense in view of the obligation to switch to digital broadcasting. Albania has a specific context, since the first commercial multiplex appeared in 2004 and the second one appeared in 2008. The Strategy on Digital Switchover was approved only in May 2012 and its implementation was delayed, waiting for approval of the law on audiovisual media. Facing legal and financial constraints, RTSH has only recently embarked on digital broadcasting. “Due to delays in discussions by interest groups on the National Strategy for Digitalization and the fait accompli arbitrariness of private operators in the Albanian private media market, RTSH felt pressed to begin broadcasts on dedicated channels, as the first step toward shaping the new RTSH platform. (14)”  Since 2012 TVSH has also been available in HD, broadcasting on thematic sport, music, and art channels, mainly available in Tirana and Durres (15).  
According to the Strategy, RTSH should build two national multiplexes. Two months ahead of the June 23 general elections, the Ministry of Innovation, Information, and Communication Technology announced a tender for the building of these networks for the public broadcaster, which was condemned by the opposition and some media, who considered the timing inappropriate in view of the pending elections. Another criticism has been related to the fact that there was no plan on how RTSH would pay back a loan of 20 million €, but its management has declared that if the license fee is collected and properly passed on to RTSH, the funding is sufficient (16). While two winning companies have been announced, the terms of the contract have not been made public yet. This is certainly a process that will need to be monitored in view of RTSH’s ability to smoothly and properly transition to digital broadcasting in the near future, along with transparency of use of public funds.
(1) KKRT Annual Report 2012.
(2) OSI, TV Across Europe, 2005, Albanian report.
(3) Law no. 9531, 11 May 2006, Official Gazette 65, 2006.
(4) Law no. 97/2013 “On Audiovisual Media,” 4 March 2013, Official Gazette 37, 2013.
(5) Report by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, June 2013.
(6) Marian Braka, Steering Council member, Report to Parliament, 19 March 2013.
(7) Th. Goga, qtd. in IREX Media Sustainability Index 2013.
(8) OSCE/ODIHR Preliminary Findings 2013 Elections.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Petrit Beci, RTSH Director, Report to Parliament, 19 March 2013.
(11) P. Beci, TV interview “Shih Programin,” RTSH, 25 March 2013.
(12) OSI, Mapping Digital Media Albania, 2012.
(13) Petrit Beci, RTSH Director, Report to Parliament, 19 March 2013.
(14) Mirela Oktrova, TVSH Director, “Public Service Media and the Double Challenge of Digitalization,” April 2013.
(15) Petrit Beci, RTSH Director, Report to Parliament, 19 March 2013.
(16) Petrit Beci, RTSH Director, Report to Parliament, 19 March 2013.
Media Integrity
Public Service Media