Sunday, 27 June 2010

Albanians suffer from a history of media misrepresentation in Europe

By Kate Holman
Albania-Bruxelles Newspaper

A double killing in Brussels, and another Albanian hits the headlines.
Except this time the media got it wrong.


The alleged murderer of Judge Isabella Brandon and her assistant, André Bellemans, in a courtroom of the Palais de Justice on 3 July, was not Albanian at all, but a 47-year-old Iranian who subsequently confessed to the crime.

And yet, within hours of the shooting, the killer was being identified by media across Europe as Albanian.

`Fusillade à la Justice de Paix à Bruxelles : un Albanais?' Le Soir was already demanding just hours after the event.

La Derniere Heure took as its source Le Monde in France: `Selon lemonde.fr, il s'agirait d'un ressortissant albanais mécontent de son jugement,' it declared. Indeed, the story had spread well beyond Belgian borders.

Just as Le Monde's confident identification of the culprit as Albanian was being picked up elsewhere, La Repubblica – usually one of Italy's most reliable news sources – was claiming the killer to be an Albanian man angered at losing custody of his son, while in the UK the Daily Mail quoted a Brussels policeman as saying "We are looking for an Albanian immigrant."

No wonder such false reports solicit widespread indignation in Albania and the Albanian diaspora, where people have grown tired over the years of being demonized as lawless, violent and
vengeful.

Why would journalists leap to report such a conclusion apparently based on rumour and
hearsay?

The answer is linked to years of stereotyping of Albanians in many European countries – and indeed further afield. Journalists write about Albanians when they are involved in drugsmuggling, people trafficking, robbery or prostitution.

They don't find them newsworthy as writers, or musicians, or philanthropists (unless they're Mother Teresa) or doctors or politicians. You don't have to look far to find the evidence.

A quick Google search reveals numerous examples. Within the last two or three weeks, Le Soir has featured stories about arms caches in the Albanian community in Brussels, Albanian heroine smugglers, the alleged killing by `Les Albanais d'Arlon, and the imprisonment of Idajet Beqiri in Namur for organising bomb attacks in Macedonia.

The picture is similar in the UK, with recent articles in the Sun and the Evening Standard about an Albanian torturer living and claiming benefits in London, or a `gangster' arrested in Essex and wanted for murder in Tirana.

Top Channel's London correspondent Muhamed Veliu has been monitoring coverage in the UK for over a decade, and has observed this persistently negative imagery at first hand.

Of course there is some crime among Albanians, he says, just as in any community, but these criminals work with other nationalities and are not the main players.

The media, however, give them high visibility. "The tabloids love Albanian gangsters, and people read these articles," he argues, adding that the Albanian diaspora in the UK includes bankers, barristers, doctors, lecturers, and students achieving high results in their studies.

Yet in 10 years he only remembers one really positive article.

He even found that when he revealed his nationality, some people asked at once if he was a pimp. Recently, he drew attention through Top Channel to an article in The People claiming that "Britain's streets are swarming" with Kosovar assassins selling their services for "just £500 a pop". The wild allegation elicited a fiercely indignant response in Tirana.

In December, in the context of the build-up to the 2012 Olympic Games, the Sun ran an article claiming Albanian pimps are selling girls for thousands of pounds on London streets.

In fact, the single offence took place in 2005, and the culprits have already been sentenced and imprisoned. "The Sun gave the impression it happened yesterday," says Veliu, commenting that he would perhaps like to see the Albanian community in the UK not only organising language courses, but also reacting more forcefully in defence of its reputation.

Muhamed Veliu remembers in particular the notorious article by A.A. Gill in the Sunday Times in 2006 – `The land that time forgot' – a text so packed with bias and venom that the Albanian Embassy issued a formal
protest. Veliu has been monitoring Gill every since, and finds he is still targeting the country.

2006 was also the year I made my first visit to Albania, and it was through talking to people there that I became aware for the first time of the utterly unfair way Albanians are portrayed abroad, and the sense of anger and injustice it arouses.

Since then I have written a number of articles both in Belgium and the UK which – while aiming to avoid propaganda or an unrealistically rosy picture – attempt to put the record straight.

The stereotyping is not confined to news media. One of the most popular `sitcom' comedy shows on the BBC recently, entitled Outnumbered, follows the entertaining exploits of a family with three precocious children. It is a well written and amusing show.

In a recent episode, eight-year old Karen, the youngest child, recites the superstitious sayings she has learnt from her grandmother:

"Don't put a hat on a gypsy, and never give money to Albanians…." Such off-beat exhortations (which are totally fictional, by the way, and in no way part of British lore!) might have gone without remark, had it not been for the following week, when Karen is involved in a car accident and asks her mother:

"Was the man who ran me over Albanian?" "No," replies her mother, as if it needed saying. "Albanians are not responsible for everything bad that happens."

What is interesting about these exchanges is the fact that the writers assume a shared perception among their audience, which enables them to get away with `jokes' that would be considered shocking if applied to many other ethnic minorities.

It is hard to identify the exact source of this discrimination.

It certainly stems back as far as the 1990s, when images of frantic emigrants packing into small boats, to escape the economic and civil chaos that reigned in Albania at that time, created a lingering perception in EU countries of Albanians as miserable, desperate, and prepared to do anything to secure their survival.

Up to that time, little was known or understood of the country.

Even the left in Europe wrote Albania off as a primitive and isolated enclave with a regime so extreme as to be beyond the comprehension of even the most dedicated Maoist.

Of course, the phenomenon of national stereotyping is not confined to Albanians by any means.

I used to work during the 1980s as London correspondent for an Irish national newspaper, the Irish Press. At that time, `the Troubles' in Northern Ireland were bringing violence to the streets of Britain on a regular basis.

This was just one of the factors contributing to a rabid anti-Irish prejudice that permeated British culture for a couple of decades.

The Irish were not only vilified in the media as brutal and unruly, they were also– paradoxically – seen as stupid and naïve; the frequent butt of acerbic humour.

The `Irish joke' became so familiar that the advent of political correctness and a more critical attitude to racial stereotyping, coupled with greater confidence among the Irish themselves as their nation achieved unparalleled levels of growth and prosperity, generated a backlash that made the telling of Irish jokes no longer acceptable.

Ironically, many Britons picked the Belgians as their new whipping boys – andthe Albanians.

Thus, national stereotyping by journalists does not exist in isolation. It depends for its survival on a pool of prejudice within its audience – often reinforced by fear and ignorance – so that the two viewpoints become mutually reinforcing. Despite the element of fear, it is usually the larger, `stronger' populations that target smaller ones.

But as soon as that complicity begins to seep away, the stereotype can no longer be applied.

Is there any sign that this is happening? It is true that not all media took up the false Albanian claim after the Brussels shooting.

On Friday 4 June, for example, The Metro's front page carried a restrained lead story reporting the facts and avoiding the more exaggerated speculation.

Equally, the BBC in the UK omitted the alleged identity of the killer.

British media have also been broadly sympathetic to the plight of 29 year-old chef and father-of-three Edmond Arapi, an Albanian living and working in Staffordshire and married to an Englishwoman.

He faces possible extradition from the UK to Italy, where he has been tried and convicted in his absence, and without his knowledge, of a stabbing his supporters say he could not have committed.

Fair Trials International insists it is a clear case of mistaken identity.

The comment threads that followed the inaccurate reports of the Brussels shooting contained their fair share of racist rant, it is true – both in Belgium and the UK.

Unexpectedly, some of the most vitriolic reactions seemed to come from sources in the United States:

"The Albanian immigrant is on his way to British shores as we speak," writes a woman in Tampa, Florida, "secure in the knowledge that as soon as he arrives in the UK he will be welcomed with open arms by social workers, receive housing benefit, and will never have to work another day of his life, compliments of the British tax payer." Yet a more measured reaction comes from some:

"I feel sorry for Albania and Albanians, because more often than not the Albanians seem to be accused of crimes they never committed," writes `Fred', from London. "I think the media should be more sensitive when they speculate as to who did it, because it is certainly not fair to blame Albanians for crimes they never committed."

In November 2009, Peter Preston, the distinguished former editor of the Guardian newspaper in London, penned an enthusiastically positive portrayal of Albania.

"There's an energy and a sense of progress here that catches you by the throat," he wrote of Tirana. "If this is the 28th or 29th state of the Union, then there'll be something to celebrate: the continuing power of an idea [European unity] that we, immured too deep in tabloid ignorance, have lost the imagination to embrace.

Albania," he concluded, "tells us something slightly shaming about ourselves and our smug insularity." Quite.

All of which leads me to hope, after some five years of monitoring the British and Belgian media, that there is some progress being made.

Perhaps it is interesting to ponder the Irish example, and speculate that as rapid development and growth advances in Albania itself, and the country moves towards EU membership, a growing confidence will make itself felt around Europe.

But before that happens, there needs to be a settlement to the political stalemate in Tirana, to avoid yet more serious damage to the image of Albania abroad.

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