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Yugoslavia: For Press-Freedom Advocates, Kosovo Is A Special Case

  • Don Hill

The Kosovo Mission of the OSCE has ordered news outlets to provide what it calls "accurate and balanced" coverage to all political groups in the final 45 days before municipal elections in October. News coverage is to be judged by the Central Election Commission, a grouping of OSCE officials, and Kosovars, including some representatives of political parties. Ordinarily, the world's free-press watchdogs would protest a system that sets even a small group of politicians as enforcers over journalists. RFE/RL explains why there have been fewer complaints than usual in the Kosovo case.

Prague, 28 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Three years after international powers forced Serbia to abandon a campaign to drive ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo, citizens of that uneasy province are seeking to hold democratic municipal elections under the supervision of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE. With Kosovar Albanians the new majority there, and the memory of killings and atrocities by both Serbs and Albanians still fresh, the situation is tense.

In the run-up to the elections, the OSCE has issued straightforward orders that Kosovo's newspapers and broadcasters "are to provide fair access to all political entities running in the municipal elections to ensure that voters can make an informed choice on 26 October."

The announcement goes on to say that the news media must "ensure accuracy, fairness, and impartiality in all reporting." To this end, Kosovo media must give free broadcast time to political entities certified by the Central Election Commission and equal access and pricing for newspaper and magazine advertising.

Nearly everyone, citizens, governments, and journalists' organizations alike, would recognize fair access as a worthy goal. Where free-press advocates and well-meaning officials typically disagree is over the question of who decides what is "fair access" and what constitutes "accuracy, fairness, and impartiality."

In Kosovo, under the OSCE's directives, the judge of fairness in news coverage is to be the Central Election Commission, or CEC. The CEC was created by a United Nations regulation before the province's first municipal elections in 2000. It comprises three international members and nine Kosovar members. None of the Kosovar members can hold high party office or stand for elections, but four of the nine are nominated by political parties.

Ordinarily, the press-freedom agencies of the world would be outraged by any system that sets up a government agency or any group that includes politicians to oversee news organizations. But in the case of Kosovo, where newspapers and broadcasters are highly politicized and often unabashedly biased, there has been little protest from the free-press community.

Poul Smidt, recently appointed press and public-information spokesman for the OSCE's Kosovo Mission, is himself a veteran of the press-freedom wars and a longtime news broadcaster for Danish radio. He said the OSCE's intent is to encourage news reporting, not limit it. "I think it would be totally unfair to say that these rules and regulations are to suppress any kind of the media. It is a question [of asking] the media to behave in a balanced way in the last 45 days before the election," Smidt said.

Smidt said that the CEC, as the oversight body, doesn't intend to measure column inches or broadcast minutes in judging reporting fairness. The commission, he said, seeks to ferret out and condemn grossly inappropriate practices. "I would say that there are two important things. This is that the media should in no way stir up tensions. Let's call it a prohibition [against] publishing or broadcasting material that by its content or tone incites or encourages criminal activities involving imminent risk of causing death or injury, damage to property, or other violence," Smidt said.

Among the most active of the international press-freedom advocacy groups is the International Federation of Journalists, or IFJ, which considers itself the world's largest organization of journalists with 500,000 members in 100 countries. IFJ Secretary-General Aidan White says that while the IFJ is uneasy about the OSCE's press-oversight setup, there is no other alternative at the moment. "There isn't, unfortunately, in Kosovo a recognized, professionally driven body to regulate the media. That's been a problem for many years," White said.

White cited as an example an Albanian-language newspaper that once published the names and addresses of people it alleged were hostile to Kosovar-Albanian interests. "And the difficulty here is not just that you get a few questions of right or wrong -- I mean, journalism is an imperfect profession, we all know. But here you have some newspapers, and this newspaper in particular, that are regularly putting people's lives at risk by accusing them of collaborating with the Belgrade regime, for example," White said.

But while questioning the OSCE's media strategy in Kosovo, White said the province's special situation makes press oversight necessary. "Now, the IFJ isn't happy -- and we've made it clear that we're not happy -- with the international community's slow progress in trying to establish monitoring structures in Kosovo in recent years. But we recognize that the situation is critical enough to require that something should be done [to encourage fair news coverage]. So while we're nervous about [the CEC oversight], I have to say [we] recognize that, in the circumstances that pertain in Kosovo at the moment, it may be inevitable," White said.

White particularly decried incidents in which, he said, one newspaper editor irresponsibly levels inflammatory charges at other editors.

Another press-watchdog group, the international Reporters Without Borders, issued a report earlier this summer illustrating the difficulties and dangers of being a reporter or editor in Kosovo. It included Kosovo on what it called an "impunity blacklist" of 21 countries or regions where newspeople have been abducted, murdered, or tortured and where their assailants routinely go free.

The report said that in Kosovo, NATO peacekeepers have yet to "adopt the basic measures that will bring an end to the impunity still enjoyed by enemies of the freedom of the press."

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