Who is afraid of the media funding sources?

Who is afraid of the media funding sources?

By Carlo Bollino

How are media funded in Albania? Where does the money that sustains 35 newspapers, 200 web portals, 100 radio stations and 90 televisions originate from? Who really funds the super-investments and the super-salaries paid by Albanian publishers in contrast with the very scarce income that is being declared officially? This is a mystery that has been going on for over 15 years but no public institution has ever attempted to solve.

A first signal arrived these recent days when AMA (regulator Audiovisual Media Authority) approved a regulation on issuing of licenses for radio stations broadcasting religious content, article 14 of which envisages the right to investigate, through specialized institutions (starting from the General Anti-Money Laundering Directory), the origin of funding for such radio stations. The reason is simple: at a time when religious integralism funds wars, one needs to be vigilant so as not to allow money that funds religious media for the purpose of recruiting fighters or simply nourishing religious hatred.

Why not extend the very same financial controls over other media, as well? Is it not just as dangerous that criminal interests (or dirty money) may serve to direct public opinion by clandestinely funding media outlets that are seemingly free?

The origins of media finances remain a taboo even for politics, including international factors. The parliament is being decriminalized; efforts are being made to decriminalize Justice; even the FBI is arriving to investigate the corruption of politicians, but no Prime Minister, from 1993 to date, has had the courage to apply any form of transparency whatsoever on the funding for newspapers, radio stations and television stations.

The number of these outlets has in fact, during more than 20 years of democracy, multiplied in an extraordinary manner, and the same is happening recently with online portals, another black hole.  Neither the funders, nor the owners and often not even the names of reporters working in them are known. And, most of them are not even registered with tax authorities. Meanwhile, recently, during an international forum on information, the BBC signaled that during the next five years, 80 percent of information will be passing through smartphones and not only through television, thus allowing even these totally anonymous and tax-evading kiosk-sites to turn into strategic media outlets.

The motives for suspicions about the origin of funding in the media are not scarce. The advertising market in Albania too is in a profound crisis, with budgets often reduced by 50 percent; yet, this does not seem to be affecting the balance sheets of some television stations that continue to invest in super-luxurious buildings, very high salaries, vehicles fit for top managers provided to their employees and endless lavishness. There are even television stations that are lifeless and whose shareholders put no penny into. However, mysteriously they begin to invest in state-of-the-art technology and spend hundreds of thousands of Euros for human resources. This is like a homeless person buying a Ferrari.
There are web portals that employ journalists and pay them salaries twice bigger than their value in the market while their homepages feature no shred of advertising. There are media outlets blacklisted by banks because they cannot pay their debts but that continue to find resources to purchase technology, invest in infrastructure and pay salaries of millions. Let’s not talk about the newspapers, which are at their historic minimum in terms of sales, but still continue, without any entrepreneurial strategy or logic, to print and add daily to their unseen loss levels.

Where does the money for such super investments come from? Who covers the losses for these media outlets that are technically bankrupt?

Not all use dirty money, but it is legitimate to suspect that not all can afford to invest clean money. That is why the principle of transparency, requested by AMA for religious radio stations, would be right to extend over all other media outlets. This is no call for persecution, because whoever can justify the origin of their funding has nothing to worry about. Yet, nor should we turn a blind eye to an obese market where almost all publishers survive in spite of the crisis: a special market because it produces a unique product, called information, on which the culture and public opinion depends. And, after all, the quality of democracy of a country, and even its political class, depends on information.  

There is no worth in the smearing campaigns launched by former Prime Minister Sali Berisha against media outlets criticizing him, or in current Prime Minister Edi Rama’s sound bites about the information swamp.  On the contrary, these statements, too, contribute to discrediting the credibility of all journalists, just as the fog covering the source of funding. In the meantime, what is needed, precisely to dry up the media “swamp” and restore dignity to information in Albania and to honest newspapers and publishers is a serious, sober and profound operation of financial transparency.

(This editorial is republished from Shqiptarja.com, with author's permission)

Translation: Altin Fortuzi

Carlo Bollino is an Italian journalist and writer who has founded several media outlets in Albania after the '90s. He has been the director of the Gazeta Shqiptare daily newspaper, which resumed publication in 1993, and founder and director of Radio Rash and Balkanweb online news agency. Currently he is the director of daily newspaper and online website Shqiptarja.com, as well as the news channel Report TV.

For more on state-media financial relations in Albania, see the research report published here.

Media Policy and Reforms
Media Ownership and Finances