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Governments Clamp Down on Freewheeling Media Also moved in advance Dec

December 20, 1993

Governments Clamp Down on Freewheeling Media Also moved in advance Dec. 13 as b0277 With PM-Press-Glance

TIRANA, Albania (AP) _ Albania’s first democratically elected leader used to say there is only one law for news media: that they be free. But in October, President Sali Berisha signed a law restricting the freewheeling newspapers.

It was a move symptomatic of the problems being encountered by supposedly free media across post-communist eastern Europe. Nations struggle to define the limits of state control while the new public debate often lends equal weight to rumor, innuendo and fact.

In Poland, independent journalists and human rights groups are incensed over a law requiring that news media adhere to vaguely defined Christian values.

Across the former Yugoslavia, politicians have blatantly manipulated media, especially television, to whip up nationalism for war.

Albania’s vaguely worded law allows officials more accustomed to instructing than informing to withhold information and censure the press for perceived excess. For example, it forbids disclosure of secrets but does not define secrets.

Since last summer, three journalists have been charged with offenses ranging from financial irregularities to treason for reporting tank movements toward the Yugoslav border. All were acquitted.

At least two others have suffered house arrest - although brief and laxly enforced - and some journalists have been fired or harassed.

Dirt-poor newspapers can be fined up to the equivalent of $8,000, a fortune in a country where the average person is lucky to make $30 a month.

″People are afraid,″ said Bashkim Koci, a journalist at the former communist newspaper Zeri i Popullit. He was put under house arrest after prosecutors interpreted an Oct. 6 article as implying Berisha had a mistress.

Berisha and state-run media describe the law as an unpleasant but necessary curb on newspapers that were too free with insinuation. They also note that it removed some restrictions, such as requiring a license to publish.

″The law will improve the relationship between the truth and the press, and this will be good for the press,″ Berisha said.

He contends that some people have refused appointments to official posts for fear of smears by lurid opposition newspapers.

Perhaps the biggest controversy surrounds three Americans who came to Tirana in July to help Albania’s first journalism students turn out a newspaper.

After a warm welcome, they went to work, and the first issue of Reporteri appeared Oct. 20. Its lead article reported on the press law, as did an unsigned opinion piece and unsigned cartoon depicting a boot about to crush men made of newspaper.

Four days later, the trio arrived at Tirana University to find their office locked.

A bureaucratic runaround ever since has not unlocked the room, with its $10,000 worth of computers and scanners donated by the U.S.-based International Media Fund. The three Americans, financed by Columbia University and the George Soros Foundation, still hope to work again with the demoralized students.

Asked about the case, Berisha declared: ″No newspaper has been closed, and no newspaper will be closed.″

But so many officials have offered so many excuses that it is hard to avoid thinking the government suddenly got scared of the freedom Reporteri might have.

The student newspaper, planned as a monthly with a circulation of 2,000, would be the only journal in Albania not ultimately dependent financially on the state or a political party.

Marianne Sullivan, one of the Columbia trio, does not understand why Albania would pass up such aid and training for students.

″Here we have two major foundations and a major university willing to help,″ she said. ″It’s really crazy they’re pushing us out.″

All across eastern Europe, however, the habit of control is proving hard to kick.

In much more developed Hungary, 15,000 people recently protested government attempts to tighten control of state television.

Romanian journalists are protesting a bill, already approved in one house of Parliament, that prescribes jail terms of up to 10 years for insulting officials. But there also is widespread agreement in Romania that something must be done about a irresponsible journalists.

Poland’s Communist-era penal code is still in force, allowing sentences of up to eight years for slandering ″supreme organs of state.″

In Bulgaria, as everywhere else in eastern Europe, the government has kept control of TV, radio and the official news agency. The four best-selling dailies are privately owned, but are taxed more heavily than publications owned by political parties.

Slovakia’s prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, has been widely accused of threatening the media by urging ″self-regulation″ by journalists, and his allies run radio, TV and the state news agency. Yet, Milan Markovic, a comedian, has an hour-long TV show each month with biting criticism of Meciar, his party and the government.

In the Czech Republic, the government runs radio, television and the news agency, but also permits private radio stations. A private TV station is scheduled to start in February.

In Albania, emerging from almost 50 years of Stalinism and centuries of clan hierarchy, the habit of control may overcome a newfound love for the West.

″In my opinion, Berisha does not have the courage or capability to face an open dialogue,″ said Arben Imami, an intellectual who broke with the president last year. ″So he fights from a distance, through TV.″

State television and radio are the only media for most of Albania’s 3.2 million people, who are too poor or isolated to get newspapers.

They and the state-run news agency focus on foreign rather than domestic news. The agency’s chief, Ilir Zhila, says poor communications and inadequate local reporters hamper domestic coverage.

Albanians have voted with their antennas. Tirana bristles with satellite dishes, all pointed toward Italy to catch its video diet of soft porn, music and flashy discussion programs.

End Adv for Mon PMs Dec 20

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