In its surveillance of the media market, Audiovisual Media Authority (AMA) has failed to prevent the broadcasting of commercial content in news programs, paving the way for the “pressure” of economic interests from businesses linked to the ownership structure or other associations, which damages fair and independent reporting for the benefit of the public interest.

A research conducted by the Albanian Center MediaLook – which has carried out a three-month observation of main news programs in official channels on YouTube of the three national TV channels TV Klan, Vizion Plus, and Top Channel during the period October 1st – December 31st 2018 – found that a considerable number of the so-called “commercial news” have been broadcasted.

The research focuses on the broadcasting of news events with commercial content “to the advantage of certain trade associations or businesses directly or indirectly linked to the partners or shareholders of the audiovisual media”, which is prohibited by Law no. 97/2013, Article 45/4 “On Audiovisual Media” and Sub-legal act “Broadcasting Code on Audiovisual Media”, approved by decision no. 288, dated 11.12.2017 by AMA.

MediaLook’s three-month observation of 276 news programs scheduled at 19:00 and 19:30 o’clock on the three national TV channels has found a total of 51 “commercial news”, 20 of which broadcasted on TV Klan, 18 on Vizion Plus, and 13 on Top Channel. The total time dedicated to these news events during the observation period is 35.59 minutes on Vizion Plus, followed by 35.19 minutes on TV Klan, and about 13 minutes on Top Channel. The data on the latter are doubtful because the news stories of this TV channel were uploaded partially in the official page on YouTube and the news events on cinema have been taken for granted to be 45 seconds.

Although AMA monitors news programs and presents the data on its periodical bulletins, it has failed to notice the problem with “commercial news” in news programs. In the annual report for 2017, this institution claims that it has observed “about 2100 news programs in national audiovisual companies”, but it does not report cases of this type of news. Nor have the latter been identified in the latest detailed monitoring for the second half of 2017, even though it involves detailed analysis of topics and length of news programs. (AMA, Bulletin No.4).

Meanwhile, the Albanian Parliament, in its assessment of AMA’s performance for 2017 requires this institution, among other things, to continue working “on treating issues of the content broadcasted by Albanian Audiovisual Media during 2018, in compliance with the Law and the Broadcasting Code on commercials and commercial information …”.

Biased commercial content in news programs of national TVs

There are at least two types of “commercial news” identified during the research: First, news events reporting in favor of certain businesses in different economic sectors, part of the group of shareholder of these national TVs; and, Second, news stories reporting in favor of certain businesses which are not directly or indirectly liked to the owners of these TVs, according to data from National Business Center (NBC).

While detailed data can be accessed in the database created by Albanian Center MediaLook, we are illustrating each of the above-mentioned types with examples of news events broadcasted on these TVs.

The first category includes, for example, the group of news events about Imperial Cinema on Top Channel, which present the films that will be screened. At first glance, they contain information of certain interest for viewers who are looking for entertainment alternatives, but it’s not allowed to broadcast them in this way, if we take into consideration the “Broadcasting Code on Audiovisual Media”. In section 4 on “broadcasting news programs”, sub-section 4.15 and 4.16 it is emphasized that “the information must not be used for other direct benefits by the owners of audiovisual media” and the Audiovisual Media Service Providers (AMSP) are required to “avoid unfair promotion in broadcasting information with commercial content, using the principle of proportionality in order not to favor certain companies or businesses directly or indirectly linked to the shareholders of audiovisual media”.

This means that, in order for this types of news to be broadcasts for the viewers –regardless of the connections of the TV shareholders with the Empire Company, which enables the purchase of the movies and their screening on the cinema – the news event, in addition to the information on Imperial Cinema premiers, must also include information on films screened on other cinemas in the market such as, Milenium Cinema, and  Cineplexx. On the other hand, the research found that only one of the “commercial news” on a business had no direct or indirect connection to the owners of this TV, according to data from NBC.

What is more, this category also includes some news events broadcasted on Vizion Plus, for example, the news event dated December 21st entitled “A new residence in the capital city: “Concord” and “Edil” set a new standard in the construction of dwellings”. Based on data from NBC, the companies which are said to set a new standard in construction business are two companies belonging to the same group of owners. Despite this fact, what makes this type of commercial news reporting biased is that the journalist does not refer to any unbiased source to avoid the conflict of interest. On the contrary, the journalist, to explain these new standards, interviews the marketing director of one of the construction companies, whose primary duty and purpose is to advertise and increase the sales of new apartments of the company where she is employed. Similar problems were also noticed in other news events identified during the observation.

The second category of “commercial news” identified during this research includes news stories reporting in favor of certain businesses which are not directly or indirectly liked to the owners of these TVs. This type of news has been identified in TV Klan which, however, has not broadcasted any news of the first type during the observation period. It is quite evident that almost all the news events with commercial content, such as “Globe showroom opens in Toptani Shopping Center: Over 1 thousand products up to 50% off”, or “GoTECH offers discounts up to 55%: Super offers and presents until January 6th ”, etc., do not use the typical “language of news reporting”, but the language of marketing, including the continuous presentation of trade marks, logos, or individual products. In almost all the cases, the people interviewed are employees of the companies being advertised, in the position of marketing or sales managers, who do not give information or data on other competitor companies in order to meet “the principle of proportionality”, and “not to favor a certain company”.

The observation confirmed that both the first and the second category of “commercial news” were more frequent during the year-end festivities, when companies and businesses make campaigns of offers to increase their clients. In some cases, in addition to promos for their products on Facebook or YouTube, the companies list the links of “commercial news” made by the TVs.

Facing these forms of news reporting, MediaLook contacted journalists and former-journalists of national televisions, but they refused to comment on these types of news stories. In our off-the-record communication, some of them said that the videos and texts for this news are almost ready-made by the marketing offices of the companies being promoted, and the reporters are left with little or no space to edit them into a more professional news reporting form.

Does access to public funds influence news reporting?

On July 10th 2018 – at the peak of protests, public blogs, reactions of a wide group of actors and intellectuals against the demolition of the National Theatre, but also reactions from another group of actors and intellectuals in favor of the Tirana Municipality project – MediaLook  published an opinion entitled: “The Theatre is about to be demolished! What is the editorial stance of the national media?

This article pointed out that, in addition to the supposedly fair and unbiased daily reporting on current affairs and the Theatre, the national televisions, which report in the name of the public interest, could have transmitted an editorial note (which is completely different from news stories), where they could publicly express their opinion for or against, as elsewhere in the world, on one of the major historic event in the Albanian culture. But such an editorial note was not made, even though this is a practice known by Albanian media, including those with a national broadcasting license.

The reasons for not taking a stance on this issue can be variable, maybe even ethical or philosophical!

However, while gathering data for the research, MediaLook found that only during 2018 one of the companies linked to one of these televisions has received from the Ministry of Culture an amount of 1.98 million ALL for the construction control of buildings belonging to this public institution. 1.14 million ALL out of the total sum were allocated from service contracts at the time when the protest against the demolition of the National Theatre had just started, a resistance that continued for several months. There are also data that companies linked to the televisions win tenders from other public institutions, as well.

The problem is not related to these contracts or the funds benefited, which can be in compliance with the law, but to the wide public concern, which is the main primary issue of this research:

– First, how much space is left to the journalists of all televisions to report in a fair and unbiased manner in a time when, according to data from NBC and AMA, the shareholders of these TVs are interconnected in a range of services and areas including telecommunication companies, banks, construction, private universities, hospitals, oil, drinking water, etc.?

– Second, is it likely that this centralized ownership structure, including local private televisions and national televisions, will further damage news reporting and information as a public good, as provided by the law, and as described in the contemporary western literature?

Televisions like Top Channel, TV Klan, and Vizion Plus are a national treasure

The aim of this research is not to “investigate” into violations or mistakes in news programs of televisions, or the amount of money benefited by businesses linked to their shareholders. The primary aim of this research is to point out, as we are going to analyze below, that the deviations produced in the above-mentioned news events with commercial content also result from a regulatory authority, which apparently is not powerful enough to impose the rules on these televisions.

Having said that, what must be pointed out is that the tree operators Top Channel, TV Klan, and Vizion Plus are definitely considered as a national treasure for at least four main reasons:

First, these AMSPs operate in a limited specter of frequencies, which is a public asset, and they practically administrate this asset of all Albanians. That is why the law requires AMA to monitor the quality and program offers depending also on the criteria set for in the licenses that have been issued;

Second, for historic reasons: these televisions have had an exceptional contribution not only to the development of the technological and media sector in years, which has turned out to be among the most highly developed in the Balkans and beyond, but also to the democratization of the whole society. Here we should also mention the difficult social, politic, and economic conditions in which these AMSPs have operated since 1995, when the first Albanian private television was established (E.Luku, the birth of private televisions in Albania, Tirana 2012, pp.182-194);

Third, for the capital they circulate: these operators among other private televisions circulate a total sum of money estimated to be about 1/25 of the Albanian public budget, creating job positions, development of the capital, investment on innovative technology, etc. According to a recent research, the revenues circulated are “about 100-120 million Euros from advertising, the sale of broadcasting rights to local cable operators, as well as card subscription of television audiences”. (Department of Journalism & Communication, Economic models of the television industry in Albania, Tirana 2017, p.11);

Fourth, because the news that is broadcasted is a public good: as stated in the note in section 4 of the “Broadcasting Code on Audiovisual Media”, Sub-legal Act of the law “On Audiovisual Media” one of the essential principles is that “the audiovisual informative activity, regardless of the provider of the audiovisual media service, is in all cases a service of general public interest …”. What is more, the best-known contemporary authors – winners of “Pulitzer” prize in journalism such as Alex S. Jones (A. Fuga, Metamorphosis of metacommunication, Tirana 2017, pp. 314-326), or experts of media and journalism economy such as Victor Packard, Mark Cooper (McChesney & V. Pickard, “Will the last reporter please turn out the lights: the collapse of journalism and what can be done to fix it”, The news press 2011, p.174, pp.315-316), and Gillian Doyle (G.Doyle, Media Economy, Tirana 2015, pp. 24-27) etc. – analyze the news not only as a “commodity” of specific nature, but also as a public good.

In the “trap” of media monopoly, the solution is …

MediaLook’s observation found that Audiovisual Media Authority (AMA) has “little authority” over private national televisions and is not able to make them stop broadcasting news events with commercial content.

The reasons for that can be variable, but one of them is the amendment of the law “On Audiovisual Media” following the abolishment by decision no. 56, dated 27.07.2016 by the Constitutional Court of paragraph 3 of Article 62, which stipulated that “no natural or legal person, Albanian or foreigner, shall have more than 40 per cent of the total capital of a limited company that has a national license for audiovisual broadcasting”.

As stated in this decision, the legal changes occurred after a legal proceeding that started with the request of the Albanian Electronic Media Association, which followed the futile attempt in the parliament to vote the so-called “Balla Amendment”. The latter faced a strong resistance from the representatives of the European Union, OSCE, and Council of Europe, who raised the alarm “on the risk of the concentration of media groups and the creation of monopoly in the market”.

What should be pointed out is that AMA was in favor of lifting such a limitation on the quota, considering this paragraph of Article 62 as “incoherent with the changes of the media market”, and claiming that it can apply other legal mechanisms for the surveillance of operators:

AMA, in a summarized manner, presented the following arguments:

The limitation criterion set forth in paragraph 3 of Article 62 of the law on Media regarding the percentage of shares is not in coherence with the changes in the media market.

The limitation is aimed at guaranteeing the diversity of the audio and audiovisual market, which is in fact guaranteed by means of a range of other mechanisms, such as the limitation in the number of licenses that a business entity can possess, the limitation in the number of programs depending on the type of license possessed, for an operator with a license in digital broadcasting or in providing audio or audiovisual service, as well as the limitation in the percentage of advertisements.     

This limiting criterion may also be discriminating for there is no such stipulation on media service providers that offer audiovisual services on the internet. (Constitutional Court, decision no. 56, dated 27.07.2016)

AMA, the regulatory body in the area of electronic media, has practically expressed in Court its arguments in favor of media monopoly for private national televisions, and the above observation confirms that “the other mechanisms” are not successful in guaranteeing operators’ compliance with the “Broadcasting Code”.

With the above-mentioned decision of the Constitutional Court – an institution which is currently out of function due to the suspension of most of its members during the vetting process – the law is not likely to change.

However, media experts propose some way-out from this “monopolistic trap”, and the way-out starts first of all by strengthening AMA’s authority towards the operators.

A research conducted by the Department of Journalism and Communication of Tirana University entitled “Economic models of the television industry in Albania” recommends that “throughout the process of license renewal, AMA must impose new requests on the quality of television broadcasting content; on respecting the quota for the production of films, Albanian art and culture documentaries; on the creation of contents for digital platforms; on increasing pressure so that advertisement financing is not done within television companies of the same group of shareholders; on increasing transparence of the financial statements on expenditures and income per broadcasting time unit or the internet coverage of the whole Albanian territory in order for the audience to access television offers via digital services, as well.”

Until these recommendations are put into effect, the public opinion and the AMSP expect from the regulatory body of the television market to implement a code which it has approved itself.

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