Transparency urges Albania to protect press freedom
Transparency International backed the staff of Tema newspaper who were evicted by the government.
A leading international anti-corruption group criticised the Albanian government on Thursday for not doing enough to protect local media that investigates graft in the country.
Transparency International backed the staff of Tema newspaper who were evicted by the government after it abruptly cancelled a 20-year lease on their office following reports in the paper that accused ministers of graft.
"The eviction of Tema ... is regarded by many as a sign of the growing political pressure against critical voices in the media," Miklos Marschall, Transparency's director for Europe and Central Asia, wrote to Prime Minister Sali Berisha.
"Your government should demonstrate that it takes the fight against corruption seriously and is ready to protect press freedom in Albania."
Tema and its editor Mero Baze, once close to Berisha but who turned a fierce critic after a spat last year, have often criticised government corruption.
Police have barred Baze and his staff from returning to their office despite a court order ruling in the paper's favour, saying they were obeying orders from their superiors. The paper's staff has continued publishing by meeting in Internet cafes and homes.
Baze told Reuters that the paper's equipment and printing press was being held hostage by police and added the government wanted to bankrupt them.
"Their aim was to block physically the publishing of the paper," Baze said, adding he and other owners were feeling the pinch. "They are trying to personalise this as a personal conflict between me and the government. It is not. This happened after my paper published three of the biggest corruption files of this administration," Baze said.
These included investigations of corruption on a bomb blast at an ammunition disposal site that killed 26 people, the real estate deals of a foreign adviser to the government and details of a big road contract.
Marschall said he been impressed by Berisha's "clear and well-articulated" pledge to fight corruption when he came to power in 2005 vowing to rule with "clean hands" after he ousted what he termed the Socialist Party's "kleptocratic" rule.
Reminding Berisha that a free and independent media is necessary to fight corruption effectively, Marschall urged Berisha to launch a probe into why the Economy Ministry stepped in to cancel the newspaper's lease.
The European Union has made it clear to Albania that it has to step up its fight against corruption and organized crime despite some progress. Albania wants to join the 27-member bloc and could apply for candidate status this year.
Reuters Last Mod: 23 Ocak 2009, 14:01