The media in the Balkans, including Kosovo, has played a key role in the democratic development of the countries since the bloody wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, started by former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Political parties and governments have always wanted to intervene in the media and use their influence, and they have always succeeded. They have often pursued nationalist agendas at odds with other nations in the region. In Kosovo, most of the pressure has been on the public broadcaster RTK, which for many years served in many ways the ruling Kosovo Democratic Party of former President Hashim Thaci. Otherwise, private independent media have been able to do their work, albeit under economic and political pressure, and hold those in power to account. In Albania, nearly 90 per cent of the media have been linked in one way or another to the ruling Socialist Party of Prime Minister Rama for more than a decade, while the situation is even worse in Serbia, where only 3-4 media outlets out of hundreds are outside the control of President Aleksandar Vucic and the ruling SNS. In northern Macedonia, the media enjoyed a new sense of freedom after Nikola Gruevski of the VMRO DPMNE fled the country following an arrest warrant issued against him on corruption charges.
SELF-REGULATORY SYSTEM IN THE KOSOVO MEDIA
Hundreds of media outlets operate in Kosovo, most of them registered as businesses, some of them NGOs. There is no state control of the media in Kosovo. The Independent Media Commission, an independent body elected by the Kosovo Assembly, monitors TV and radio content and deals with complaints. The Kosovo Press Council is a self-regulatory body that monitors the content of online media following the closure of all print media in the country. The current Kosovo government appears to be trying to gain control over the public broadcaster, RTK, by cutting its annual budget from €16 million to €8 million.
VERBAL AND PHYSICAL ATTACKS ON JOURNALISTS
The work of journalists and media in the Western Balkans, including Kosovo, is under constant scrutiny and attack from politicians, governments and interest groups of all kinds. In recent years, the Safe Journalist Regional Network has recorded nearly 2,000 attacks in six Western Balkan countries and Croatia.
Attacks range from physical assaults, as in northern Kosovo this year, to all forms of threats, intimidation and online harassment. Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo recorded the highest number of attacks, while Northern Macedonia recorded the fewest. Most attacks come from the ruling parties in each country, with the president, prime minister and MPs organising smear campaigns against journalists. This is most common in Serbia and Albania, and more recently in Kosovo.
We see the attacks on journalists as an attempt to undermine freedom of expression and media freedom in Kosovo. For example, Valon Syla, a journalist and founder of the online news portal ‘Gazeta Metro’, was physically attacked in April for mocking the luxurious life of Muslim imams in Kosovo in a Facebook post. This is a clear example of how freedom of expression is under attack, and civil society in Kosovo has consistently raised its voice in defence of this freedom.
In the five-week period from 26 May to 30 June, the Kosovo Journalists’ Association recorded 29 attacks on journalists in Serb-majority North Mitrovica, Leposavic, Zveçan and Zubin Potok. Journalists and media teams were physically assaulted by masked gangs while reporting, their equipment was destroyed and their cars set on fire. The worst attacks took place on 16 June in Leposavic, where 9 media workers were assaulted and RTK cameraman Bardh Bekteshi was kicked to the ground.
AJK and journalists have been in contact with institutions to express our concerns about the safety of journalists in the country. We have asked the government to adopt a strategy with concrete steps on how journalists can best do their work in a safe environment. We ask the judiciary to consistently prioritise cases of attacks on journalists, recognising that the work of journalists is of the highest public interest. We have seen some small steps, mostly from the prosecutor’s office, but not much has changed in practice.
Many media outlets, including in Kosovo, often practice self-censorship rather than censorship. Due to different economic interests, the media tend to avoid reporting on certain topics or issues related to people or institutions with which they are associated. Censorship appears to be practised in Serbia, Albania and the Republika Srpska of Bosnia and Herzegovina. For example, opposition protests in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, were ignored by most of the pro-regime media.
In each country, different actors are trying to intervene. Russia and then China are the main malign foreign actors trying to use their influence. Again, this is most visible in Serbia and Sputnik, which is based in the country.
MULTILINGUAL AND MULTICULTURAL MEDIA
- Kosovo has a variety of news organisations broadcasting in Albanian, Serbian, Roma, Bosnian, Turkish and other languages. Serbian-language media are concentrated in northern Kosovo (Kossev, Radio Kosovska Mitrovica, Radio Kontakt Plus. TV Mir, TV Most and others). Various studies show that the majority of the 60,000 Kosovo Serbs use the Serbian media in Belgrade as their main source of information. So they are the target of propaganda not only from Serbia but also from Russia, with Russia Today opening RT Balkans in Belgrade.
Unfortunately, in recent days and in the age of social platforms, we have seen that the media, including the mainstream ones, have often shied away from the process of respecting ethics in reporting. This is the era of “clickbait”, which sometimes leads to inaccurate reporting by the media. However, there are still 2-3 large, reputable media outlets in each country that preserve the essence of journalism for professional reporting in the public interest.
Xhemajl Rexha is the Chairman of the Board of the Association of Journalists of Kosovo (AJK), which has more than 900 members in Kosovo. From 2005 to 2020, he worked at the national private broadcaster KTV (Kohavision) in various positions, including editor-in-chief, and presented the programme Interaktiv, dealing with current affairs. Since 2020, he continues to be the Information Director and host of the “Prime Time” programme at Channel 10.