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Kosovo: Violence Raises Questions About Media Responsibility

  • Jeremy Bransten

This week's deadly interethnic clashes in Kosovo have raised many questions about why the violence spread so quickly and easily across the province. One spark seems to have come from the way local media reported on a particular incident in the divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica. Should the media follow special guidelines when reporting from an ethnically charged region, and do they bear a special responsibility for maintaining stability?

Prague, 19 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Tensions had been simmering in Kosovo for some time. This week, ethnic Albanians demonstrated in several of the province's cities over the imprisonment of a former rebel commander, union members announced a picket over privatization plans, and Serbs protested against the shooting and wounding on 15 March of a teenager in an incident of ethnic violence.

In this context, Kosovo television's 16 March nighttime broadcast of an interview with an ethnic Albanian boy was the last straw. The boy said he had barely survived an attack by local Serbs that left at least two other children dead. Violence between the Albanian and Serbian communities soon flared across the province, in the worst set of clashes since 1999.

The boy -- identified as 13-year-old Fitim Veseli -- said he had been playing along the river that divides the town of Kosovska Mitrovica into ethnic Albanian and Serbian parts on 16 March with his brother and two friends. Veseli told Kosovo television that when two Serbs unleashed their dogs on the group, the boys jumped into the river in an attempt to escape and swim to the other side.

"I think it's all a matter of tone and a matter of context. If you only screen the boy's story, then that becomes the whole narrative. If you screen the boy's story but then you also screen other people saying that this was an isolated incident, or people calling for peace or people giving a fuller version of the story, then you can put it in context."
Veseli said he was the only one who managed to ford the swift current. The bodies of his drowned brother and another boy were later found by the authorities. The fourth boy remains missing and is presumed dead. Veseli's harrowing account was broadcast repeatedly by Kosovo television, fanning outrage in the community and helping to ignite mass violence, which has now claimed 31 lives.

UN authorities today said they are continuing to investigate the incident. There is no doubt two children were killed, but the circumstances in which they died still remain unclear. The UN says it has not been able to confirm Veseli's story.

The question therefore arises -- did Kosovo television act improperly? Should the television station have withheld its interview with the boy -- aware that its report could fuel more violence -- since it was not able to confirm all the details? Or did it act ethically, as a purveyor of available information, nothing more and nothing less?

Robert Gillette is the temporary media commissioner for Kosovo for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The body is responsible for licensing and overseeing local media. Gillette met with the heads of Kosovo's three television channels today and asked them to provide videotapes of their broadcasts over the past two days for detailed analysis.

Gillette told RFE/RL today from Pristina that he does not want to pre-judge the stations' coverage before seeing the tapes. But he said that if the tapes reveal that the broadcasters -- through their coverage -- helped to ignite interethnic violence, sanctions could be taken against them.

Regardless of what the OSCE concludes, the larger question remains. What responsibility does the media bare when reporting from an ethnically charged or religiously divided region? Thomas De Waal, of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), told RFE/RL that the media -- when broadcasting to such regions -- do have a special duty because lives are often at stake.

"The media should be extra super vigilant in a time of crisis, and they should apply their professional standards even more carefully," he said. "Even a big organization like the BBC has indirectly -- not intentionally, obviously -- caused deaths. For example, in India, when they broadcast archive footage of ethnic violence which had happened months before between Hindus and Muslims. And people watching it in India thought that the footage was from the same day and went and retaliated. And people died as a result of that."

Sometimes, local media outlets are all too aware of what is at stake, and they fan the flames of ethnic hatred intentionally. The best-known case in recent times was that of Rwanda's Radio-Television Libre des Milles Collines (Free Radio Television of the Thousand Hills), whose broadcasters in 1994 incited ethnic Hutus to slaughter their fellow Tutsi countrymen.

Rwanda quickly turned into a gigantic killing field, with an estimated 800,000 people losing their lives before the carnage was halted. Almost a decade later, in December of last year, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda convicted the radio station director and sentenced him to life in prison for his role in inciting the massacre. Two newspaper editors were also sentenced to life and 35 years in prison, respectively. They were the first convictions of media workers by an international court in more than 50 years.

The Rwanda case most powerfully illustrates the potential influence of the media when it is operating in an ethnically divided environment. In the case of Kosovo and Fitim Veseli's testimony, what should local television have done?

The IWPR's De Waal said, "I think it's all a matter of tone and a matter of context. If you only screen the boy's story, then that becomes the whole narrative. If you screen the boy's story but then you also screen other people saying that this was an isolated incident, or people calling for peace or people giving a fuller version of the story, then you can put it in context."

Dramatic personal accounts attract big audiences. Ordinary people relate best to such stories. But De Waal says the failure of local broadcasters to put their stories into proper context often leads to one-sided reporting. "What often happens in these ethnic conflicts -- and one sees this in the Caucasus, particularly in Azerbaijan and Armenia -- is that one side mythologizes personal stories," he said. "They fill the news, and there's absolutely no political context to it. And I think [the importance of not doing this] has to be inculcated into the news reporters who are reporting on things like this."

Aly Colon teaches ethics at the respected Poynter Institute for journalists in the United States. He echoed De Waal's comments. "You can gather the information -- in other words, you can take information from witnesses who were on the scene. But I also think it's best to make sure that you know all the information you possibly can gather at that time so that you can put it in some sort of context -- so that people can see it from a variety of perspectives, to have a fuller picture of what's going on. Just one source is only one piece of the story -- not an unimportant one, not necessarily one that's not factual, but you need as much detail as you can so that people can see this in perspective," Colon said.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer yesterday called on the news media in Kosovo to exercise caution in their reporting, to avoid fanning further hatred. "I have called on the media, as well, to show restraint in reporting because this [violence] should stop," he said.

NATO has increased its peacekeeping presence in the province. Despite isolated incidents today, the situation appears to be calming down.
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