VOA News Executive Elez Biberaj Retires After 43 Years

WASHINGTON — For a generation of Albanians, there is no more precious memory than that of a rally attended by some 300,000 people on June 22, 1991, to hear the visiting U.S. secretary of state, James Baker, congratulate them on emerging from decades of communist rule.

But what came over the loudspeakers was not the voice of Baker but that of his translator, Elez Biberaj, who retires this week after a 43-year career at the Voice of America during which he served as an Albanian-language broadcaster, service chief, Eurasia Division director and for six months as the agency’s acting director.

“Of course, the voice they heard very well was one they were very familiar with, Elez Biberaj’s voice, who had broadcast on VOA’s Albanian Service,” said Chris Hill, the current U.S. ambassador to Serbia, at a retirement party for Biberaj this month.

“I remember … the great things you have done for the United States, the great things you have done for our relationship with all the countries of the language services’ broadcasts,” Hill said.

Ervin Bushati, Albania’s ambassador to the United States, shared his own memories of the historic appearance by Secretary Baker in Tirana’s Skenderbeg Square.

“I was a kid in that big square. I walked away from school without my family knowing it, and it was the biggest place I had ever seen. And listening to your voice, which was the sound of light, because the Voice of America was the light during our darkest times during the communist regime,” Bushati recalled.

“People were glued to the radio listening to your voice in short waves, with weird sounds on and on coming, and there was the sound of history. Because to us, history, apart from what we learned during the communist regime, history was in the VOA sound,” Busahti continued.

“Elez is an icon of Albania, he is an institution to us. I am very proud to be here and to say that [it was] this voice, this sound, which brought light to us.”

Biberaj joined VOA’s Albanian Service as an international radio broadcaster in 1980, and from 1982 worked in the Press Division of the former U.S. Information Agency as a senior writer/editor, specializing in Soviet and East European affairs.

He returned to VOA as Albanian service chief in 1986 and for the next 18 years helped transform the service into one of VOA’s most successful broadcasting units. For more than a decade, he served in a dual capacity as chief of the Albanian Service and director of European Division writers and researchers.

He was named the Eurasia Division’s managing editor in 2004, was appointed acting division director the following year, and director in 2006. Under his leadership, the division built audience and influence throughout eastern Europe, sending highly professional journalism content to more than 100 affiliate news outlets across Russia, Ukraine, the South Caucasus and Balkans.

Over his career at VOA, Biberaj earned the respect of his colleagues for his dedication to the agency and its mission, and to the highest principles of journalism.

Biberaj “has made an enduring impact, creating a dynamic and adaptive work environment and a results-oriented, forward-looking culture. That’s part of his legacy,” said Eurasia Division Internet Managing Editor Alen Mlatisuma, who worked with Biberaj for the past 15 years.

“Elez not only encouraged us to think creatively and stay ahead of the curve but also fostered an environment where voicing opinions and contributing to a culture of innovation was not just accepted but actively encouraged,” Mlatisuma said. “This commitment to embracing diverse perspectives became a cornerstone of Elez’s leadership philosophy.”

Biberaj “was all about continuous learning and self-improvement,” said Irina Van Dusen, chief of VOA’s Russian Service, who worked with Biberaj since joining VOA 20 years ago.

“Everyone who works for him quotes him at work and at home — we need to move the needle, think outside of the box, stay ahead of the curve. … He always had our back and told us to remember the mission. We will carry his legacy as best we can, while he will for sure be rooting for us from the sidelines.”

Biberaj enthusiastically returned the loyalty and appreciation of his staff, speaking frequently of his love for VOA, his commitment to its mission and his appreciation for the talent and dedication of the Eurasia Division staff.

“It has been the highest honor of my life to have worked for the Voice of America,” said Biberaj at his retirement party, where he recalled listening to VOA as a child in Albania.

“As with many of my colleagues here, my family came to this country from a repressive, communist society, where most basic human rights were denied, and the government made every effort to extinguish the flames of freedom. …

“What a thrill for me to have had the opportunity to play a tiny role in advancing VOA’s mission in the service of truth and dissemination of America’s democratic values.”

Biberaj’s commitment to those values was tested in 2020 when a new chief executive of VOA’s parent agency, USAGM, announced a repeal of the so-called “firewall” that had long secured VOA’s editorial independence and protected it from political interference.

In his capacity as acting director of VOA at the time, Biberaj put his own career at risk with a message to the staff that heartened the agency’s journalists.

“It is my position that the repeal does not allow government officials to tamper with or otherwise distort VOA content,” he wrote. “The importance of the firewall remains at the heart of VOA’s operations.”

Also present at Biberaj’s retirement party was current USAGM chief executive Amanda Bennett, who commended him for his service during that period.

“We all hopefully have learned and will continue to learn what it looks like to be brave and principled in the face of pressure and opposition because Voice of America is the symbol of that,” she said.

In his own parting words, Biberaj pointed to the new challenges facing the forces of democracy and freedom in Eastern Europe and his vision for VOA in addressing them.

“Our mission has never been more critical than it is now,” he said. “I am confident that with such exceptionally talented journalists, VOA is well positioned to serve its strategic audiences with unique, relevant, value-added content and, simultaneously, disseminate America’s democratic values and promote U.S. national interests worldwide.”

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