A German company had videos criticizing the Albanian government deleted from the Internet, in particular Facebook. As a reason it cites alleged copyright infringements. Independent media and activists are also affected. They make serious allegations: Acromax Media is helping the Albanian government restrict the freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
The company denies the accusations. However, a joint investigation of netzpolitik.org and ARD FAKT shows that it could have considerable influence in the country.
„We are forced to be uncritical of the government. This prevents us from doing our job,“ says Viola Keta, editor-in-chief of Faktoje. In October, the Albanian fact-checking portal reported on the Botanical Gardens of Tirana, one of the last remaining parks in the capital. The future of the gardens is uncertain: They belong to the university, but the city administration wants to take over.
The dispute is actually a classic local topic: When a high-ranking local politician claims that only those who bribe the security guards can enter the park, Keta and her colleagues check the statements and find out that he is not telling the truth. They present their findings in a video on their Facebook page.
The recordings are embarrassing for the city administration. On the very day of publication, Faktoje receives an email from Facebook. It says, „Your video has been blocked because it contains 26 seconds of music, sound or video owned by Acromax Media.“ The journalists upload it again later, this time to YouTube.
Acromax Media has apparently triggered a wave of deletions
Neritan Sejamini, editor-in-chief of Exit News, has experienced similar problems. The news website critically reports on the work of the government, including plans of Tirana’s mayor Erion Veliaj, one of the country’s most powerful politicians. During his election campaign, he had promised on television to hold back on granting new building permits. Since he took office he appears to have changed his mind.
Exit News has uploaded several videos to Vimeo in which the mayor’s earlier statements are juxtaposed with current pictures of major construction sites. The message is clear: The mayor broke his promise. But these posts are also flagged and disappear from the Internet. „There are many cases in which Acromax Media has intervened to take videos offline that held politicians responsible,“ Sejamini says.
Videos on the Facebook pages of activists opposed to the government’s plans have been deleted as well. It is no longer possible to determine how many posts were affected. Nisma Thurje also complains about restrictions. In Albania, the organization is fighting corruption. According to a 2014 report by Transparency International, corruption is a serious problem in the country. Hardly anything has improved since then, according to an assessment from last year.
„We want to promote democracy in Albania,“ says Baroel Feza, one of the spokespersons for Nisma Thurje. Now many of his colleagues‘ Facebook profiles have disappeared — because of alleged copyright infringements.
Netzpolitik.org and ARD FAKT have obtained numerous messages in which Facebook has informed page operators about deletions. One name keeps appearing over and over: Acromax Media.
The company signed contracts with almost all of Albania’s major television stations
The company is located in a commercial building on Hamburg’s most expensive shopping street. No doorbell panel or mailbox with the company’s name is visible there. There is nothing to suggest that one of the most powerful companies in Albania’s media landscape is located on the second floor of an office rental.
Acromax Media has been granted far-reaching rights for the Internet use of television broadcasts and also obtains permission to take action against copyright violations on its own initiative. This is all clearly stated in a contract the company has signed with one of the largest Albanian media companies, which was obtained by netzpolitik.org and ARD FAKT*.
In this specific contract, Acromax Media secures half of all revenues generated by the content on the Internet. How much money the company really earns through its business with the Albanian broadcasters is something it wants to keep to itself.
The company states it has contracts with more than 95 percent of all Albanian TV stations. This market position position seems typical for the country — in the eyes of Reporters Without Borders, this is a problem. „Something like this opens the door to the misuse of media power for political and economic interests,“ says the organization’s German CEO Christian Mihr.
He says Albania’s most important media are in the hands of just a few people, most of whom have close ties to politics. Many of the owners also make their money in the construction industry, which is dependent on government contracts.
Reporters Without Borders observes these conditions with concern. „All the more important are independent online media publishing information that is a thorn in the side of those in power,“ Mihr says.
Reporters Without Borders accuses the company of abusing copyright
The organization is also aware of the accusations against Acromax Media. „In our view, this is a case of clear abuse of copyright to restrict journalism and independent information.“
Aldor Nini welcomes us with a white shirt and dark jacket in a conference room with a view of the Alster river. The CEO of Acromax Media is 36 years old. He tells us that he actually comes from the IT industry. Today he is also active in the German entertainment industry. He sat on the jury of the discontinued music award ECHO and was invited to the Miss Germany pageant.
Nini has a German passport and was born in Tirana. With his company, he runs the channel ArkivaShqip, according to the Otto Brenner Foundation among the hundred largest German YouTube channels in 2018. The Albanian music videos that Acromax Media uploaded have been viewed more than 5 billion times.
Is it a coincidence that the company had posts critical of the government deleted? He doubts that his employees are able to tell to what extent content is political, says Nini.
Netzpolitik.org and ARD FAKT talked to him about some of the videos his company had deleted. The CEO explains that none of those cases were debatable. „In some cases, our client’s logos were removed, no sources were named or there was no examination of the context, as required by the German right of quotation,“ says Nini. The videos had simply violated copyright law.
What he says is at least partly true. Some of the videos actually did not name a source. But doubts about this justification remain. The video by Faktoje, for example, is an original post for which the journalists also conducted their own interviews. In the short excerpts, which the fact-checking portal did not shoot themselves, the name of the Albanian station Top Channel can be seen throughout the video.
In an article published by Exit News on Tirana’s controversial building policy, the excerpt used was also shown in context. In addition, the Internet address of Top Channel is clearly visible on screen. Nevertheless, it was deleted.
Acromax Media worked for the Albanian governing party
Nini asserts that all this has nothing to do with politics. After all, he says, his company has also reported copyright infringements in videos that portray the work of Prime Minister Edi Rama in a positive light — in total it processes millions of videos. According to him, a relationship with the government „actually does not exist at all“.
In fact, the connections to the country’s powerful begin with his partner Anxhela Faber. She also works for the company, as Chief Operating Officer. Some reports of alleged copyright infringements bear her name.
Faber’s stepmother is the Albanian ambassador to the United States, proposed by Rama’s government just a few months after his election. A photo shows Anxhela Faber during her stepmother’s inaugural visit to the Oval Office, next to then US President Barack Obama.
In 2019, the company had another important client in addition to the media companies. During the same period in which the deletions of critical content became known, Acromax Media worked for Rama’s Socialist Party (PS). Tirana’s mayor Veliaj is also a member.
According to Nini, PS is the only political party his company directly worked with. Allegedly Acromax Media had only advised them on copyright issues. In a few cases the company itself had reported infringements.
Fight against „fake news“ on behalf of the governing party?
As recently as August of last year, Nini had indicated a further field of activity. At that time, he had claimed that Acromax Media was in a business relationship with PS for the purpose of reporting so-called fake news about party members on Facebook. Netzpolitik.org and ARD FAKT have obtained messages that he sent to a journalist from Exit News.
A misunderstanding, he says today. Nini claims that his company has never gone after „fake news“ on behalf of the governing party and that he also has „no idea“ why he wrote this — it was a long time ago.
Neither PS nor a spokesperson for Prime Minister Edi Rama responded to questions regarding Acromax Media. Nini says, the party is no longer his client. „There was no economic basis for further cooperation.“ According to him, PS paid a maximum of 500 Euros for his services.
According to Reporters Without Borders, however, the small sum does not change the sensitivity of the issue. „The structural problem remains the same“, Christian Mihr says.
In his view, when a media company like Acromax Media receives orders from a governing party, it is possible to exert politically motivated influence. „Corporate and political interests are almost inevitably in conflict with each other.“
Threats of legal action against critical media
Exit News called the company the Albanian government’s tool for online censorship. Since then, Aldor Nini has been on the offensive. He sees the media’s coverage of the deletion wave on Facebook as an attack on his company.
Last summer, he therefore announced that he would sue 21 media outlets that had reported on the deletions, including Exit News. Apparently nothing of the sort has happened yet. Nini now even claims that he cannot take action against the medium at all: He doesn’t have a summons address to send a lawsuit to.
In order to determine such an address, representatives of his company even drove to an alleged address of Exit News and asked neighbors about editor-in-chief Sejamini. „Nobody knew him or the company,“ Nini says. He paints the picture of a mysterious medium with dishonest intentions.
Netzpolitik.org and ARD FAKT checked the address that Exit News had listed on its website at the time of Nini’s threat — and found Sejamini there in his office. We also have obtained a cease-and-desist letter that Acromax Media seems to have sent to that same address*. According to Sejamini it was successfully delivered — by mail.
Nini makes another claim that seems puzzling. An allegation so serious that it could ruin the credibility of Exit News if true.
Smear campaigns against journalists
Shortly after the first article about the company, a meeting between Nini, Anxhela Faber and a representative of Exit News took place in a café. Nini told netzpolitik.org and ARD FAKT that this person eventually blurted out that someone had paid the journalists to publish the article.
But editor-in-chief Sejamini says that he himself represented Exit News at the meeting. „We weren’t paid anything, neither me nor Exit News.“ We also spoke to the author of the article. He denies having received any money as well.
Two days after our conversation with Nini in Hamburg, he suddenly sends us an email. In it he suggests that his claim be removed from our reporting. He writes that he cannot prove it.
„It’s a popular pattern to defame media exactly in this way,“ says Christian Mihr. According to Reporters Without Borders, there are regular smear campaigns against journalists in Albania. He says, the fact that the company has been threatening with a wave of lawsuits for some time now also fits the picture.
This case not only affects Albania
The Acromax Media case concerns Albanian media. But it also has an international dimension.
Acromax Media earns money from the advertising that accompanies it’s clients videos on the Internet. For this reason Aldor Nini wants to prevent unauthorized distribution of the content, he says. It may be produced by television stations in Albania, but allegedly there is hardly any money to be made from them there.
The bilingual contract with a media company specifically states that Acromax Media will be granted rights of use „without regional restrictions“. There is a reason for this.
Because even if Acromax Media has Albanian-language videos deleted, the company is targeting a different national advertising market. „Most of our revenue is generated in Germany. That is why we mostly refer to German law,“ says its CEO.
According to which laws does Facebook judge?
In fact, it is not always entirely clear what laws the platforms follow when they agree to the removal of content. This becomes apparent from a search in the Lumen database, a research project at Harvard University that documents complaints with platforms.
According to one entry, Vimeo has made its decision regarding several violations reported by Acromax Media based on US law. When asked, Facebook did not want to provide information about which national laws it might follow in such situations.
This could be relevant, because US law provides for so-called fair use, which allows relatively far-reaching exceptions to copyright law.
Adam Holland of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University, who is overseeing the Lumen project, did not want to comment specifically on the allegations against Acromax Media, but states: „With all that in mind, a journalistic organization taking some video clips from a politician’s TV interview and placing them in dialogue with statements from others in a longer framing video, has all the hallmarks of a straightforward fair use — although again, every case is unique and fact specific.“
Facebook remains silent on its relationship with Acromax Media
It also remains unclear what role Facebook plays in the deletions. Netzpolitik.org and ARD FAKT have sent the social network a detailed list of questions. The only reaction was a general statement. It says that the company takes intellectual property rights seriously.
In one specific case we confronted Facebook with the reports of individual posts that were allegedly valid. Facebook did not want to answer questions about its relationship with Acromax Media.
Yet Acromax Media seems to be very well-connected in the world of platforms. Facebook invites representatives of the company to conferences.
Baroel Feza of Nisma Thurje accuses Facebook of helping the Hamburg-based company in its activities. „The main problem is that Facebook allows these people to get away with it,“ says Feza.
Germany bears a share of the responsibility
While government critics are fighting for freedom of the press and freedom of speech in Albania, Reporters Without Borders is observing a new level of escalation. In the past, Edi Rama has made no secret of his aversion to journalists, referring to them as „trash cans,“ among other things.
Now the head of government apparently wants to take the next step. „We fear terrible developments, because the government has announced a law to punish fake news — or what it considers to be fake news,“ says Christian Mihr.
According to this law, state authorities in Albania are to judge the truthfulness of news and impose draconian punishments in the future. Media professionals see the plans primarily as an attack on independent online publications — such as Faktoje and Exit News. The Council of Europe has asked the Venice Commission to evaluate the planned law. Its assessment will ultimately determine whether the Albanian parliament will pass it.
Especially against the background of the accusations against Acromax Media, Mihr now sees a responsibility on Germany to exert influence on Albania — particularly in view of possible negotiations on the country’s accession to the European Union. In the EU Progress Reports, for example, the attacks on the freedom of the press would have to be named more clearly.
The German Federal Foreign Office has stated that it has no knowledge of the Hamburg company. Therefore, it cannot evaluate its activities at this present time.
A deactivated Facebook page suddenly back online
More than half a year has passed since Exit News reported on the wave of deletions. A page of Albanian activists, which had been deactivated in August as a result of the news, has become available again mid-March — shortly after our inquiry to Facebook.
Faktoje had also made the meddling by Acromax Media public in the fall. Two days after the interview with netzpolitik.org and ARD FAKT at the beginning of March, Aldor Nini seems to be eager to reach out.
According to a screenshot, he wrote an e-mail to Faktoje. The man, who sees no fault in his own doing, would like to discuss how the journalists could avoid such incidents in the future.
Nini tells us that he would possibly also talk with Exit News and the other portals — „despite the parallel legal dispute“. The Hamburg company will apparently stick to the lawsuits against Albanian journalists.
Faktoje’s editor-in-chief Viola Keta, however, suggests that Acromax Media should itself check the criteria according to which the company works — and reconsider its own actions. „I am a journalist and I doubt everything — and there are many reasons why I doubt,“ Keta says. „And there are many colleagues who say that Acromax Media works for the government and against the media.“
This was first published at Netzpolitik.org