By Gjergj Erebara
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, already under fire from international media watchdogs over restrictive media legislation, has accused the US Congress-funded Voice of America of broadcasting “from the garbage bin” after the outlet’s Albanian service published an investigation into how his party allegedly manipulated hiring in the prison system.
Rama spoke out on his official Twitter account within hours of the investigation being published on Monday evening by VOA and BIRN Albania, declaring it “babble” and an “attack on those who are working their utmost against wrongdoing.”
“The day has come when Voice of America speaks from the garbage bin of Tirana, telling tales on others based on trivial phone calls,” Rama tweeted. “Go and verify the documents of the competition,” he wrote, and signed off with a vomiting emoji.
The report was written by Aleksandra Bogdani, an investigation journalist for BIRN Albania, and published simultaneously by VOA and BIRN Albania.
It was based on the leaked transcripts of recorded conversations between the former director of Albania’s penitentiary system, Arben Cuko, a number of MPs of Rama’s ruling Socialist Party and other state officials who appear to discuss how to fix hiring in the prison administration in favour of Socialist Party supporters.
In one such conversation, Cuko, who is also a former Socialist Party MP and who was arrested in October on corruption charges, is heard telling another person that the party sends him lists of candidates for vacancies in the prison system.
“Gerti, everything is currently blocked at the office of the Prime Minister and I don’t know when I’ll be able to move forward,” Cuko says, according to the transcript.
“Keep in mind that Lushnja [prison] has no vacancies, Fieri has 20 but they sent 200 people. In the test 1,358 people took part and they were all from party lists.”
Rama has repeatedly used epithets and insults to dismiss local media reports or criticism of his government.
In December, four international media freedom organisations sent him an open letter demanding he withdraw proposed legislation designed to tackle what Rama says is media ‘defamation’, saying the planned measures would have a “chilling effect on online media.”
Attacking Voice of America, however, risks hitting a nerve with many Albanians, who consider the United States their country’s greatest ally.
Lulzim Basha, head of the opposition Democratic Party, called Rama’s tweets “shameful”.
“The attack against VOA is a shameful and desperate act by someone who is degraded by corruption and links with crime,” he said. “To protect money and power he is ready to attack and denigrate anyone.”
‘Vitjona has been recruited’
According to the transcripts, in one case, on April 30 last year, an employee of the prime minister’s office called Cuko on the orders of Rama’s chief of staff, Vali Bizhga, asking him about the procedure of hiring one recommended person.
“I spoke with Ms. Bizhga about half an hour before and I told her, Vitjona [sic] has been recruited,” Cuko said, according to the transcript.
Bizhga confirmed the content of the conversation, but told the journalist, Bogdani, that she had intervened in the hiring only at the request of a group of nuns from the Mother Theresa order who were trying to find jobs from disadvantaged young people.
Sister Tereza Maria from the Mother Theresa mission in Tirana confirmed for BIRN that such a meeting took place the prime minister’s office.
“The meeting was private. I asked for help for a group of jobless youngsters,” said Mother Tereza Maria. “Vitiona was the only one that got a job.”
Rama’s office did not reply to a written request for comment on the rest of the allegations in the story.
Four other Socialist Party MPs were also named in the transcripts and appear to ask for favours from Cuko, who is currently under house arrest awaiting trial.