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Yugoslavia: Rebirth Of Kosovo News Media Requires Support

News media in Kosovo is coming back to life. But in this report filed from Pristina, RFE/RL correspondent Lawrence Holland talks with a local journalist and an international official who say the rebirth of a free press will require outside help.

Pristina, 2 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As is true with most things in Kosovo, local news media suffered repeated blows over the past decade, blows that intensified this year.

The problems began in 1990, when Belgrade forced the closure of the independent Albanian-language newspaper Rilindja and stopped Albanian-language broadcasting by Pristina radio and television.

The most recent damage came as newspapers were caught up in an intensified Yugoslav government crackdown in Kosovo. The crackdown climaxed during NATO air strikes this spring, when most Kosovar Albanian journalists fled the province along with hundreds of thousands of others.

Ibrahim Rexhepi, chief editor of the daily newspaper Kosova Sot, spoke recently with RFE/RL in his darkened Pristina office during one of the frequent electrical outages in the city. He recounts what happened to his newspaper this year.

"Beginning in January, we received direct threats from the Serbian regime. They took some copies of our newspaper. They filed some charges against our newspaper. NATO bombing fortunately interrupted that process. But then something even worse happened. Our printing press was looted. A lot of equipment disappeared. And some [Serb police and paramilitaries] burned a lot of other economic capital - a lot of cars were stolen. We managed to save only some smaller equipment, such as some computers."

During the more than two months of NATO air strikes, several newspapers began publishing outside Kosovo, distributing free copies in the refugee camps of Macedonia and Albania.

Today, control from Belgrade is a memory and journalists are back. But among the newspapers, only Rilindja is being printed inside Kosovo. Kosova Sot is being printed in Macedonia and trucked in. Rexhepi says the money and equipment are not yet available to do the job inside Kosovo. He says that will require outside assistance.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is taking the lead role in helping to revitalize independent newspapers as well as broadcast media. In an interview in the organization's Pristina office, spokeswoman Urdur Gunnarsdottir told RFE/RL that the OSCE is setting up a media commission this week. Gunnarsdottir explains the purpose of the commission, which will be headed by Douglas Davidson of the United States:

"The media commission will be [comprised of] both international and local [officials]. Together with the media director, the commission will oversee things like media frequencies for radio and [television], giving out [licenses], taking [licenses] away, reviewing media laws, looking into a code of conduct, training journalists, trying to coordinate funding and donations. This is a very demanding task we have taken on but it needs to be done."

The rebirth of Kosovo's press took a significant step last week with the reopening of Radio Pristina, with broadcasts in Albanian, Serbian, and Turkish. Gunnarsdottir says that the journalists were selected by the OSCE, but nonetheless have significant autonomy. She says the OSCE does maintain ultimate editorial control because of what she describes as a very volatile situation in the province.

"We supervise what goes on the air. It is very important -- especially in the beginning -- that we don't air anything that may enrage or infuriate others. It may be a bit too strong to call it monitoring, but we do want to see the text before it goes on air." Gunnarsdottir says that at present, there are daily one-hour broadcasts in Albanian, as well as ones of the same length in Serbian and in Turkish. She says that an additional 30 minutes of programming from the United Nations is broadcast in each language.

Gunnarsdottir says she expects the Albanian language broadcasts will expand this month, eventually reaching 24 hours a day. But she says there are not enough local Serb and Turkish journalists to expand the other services quickly.

She says that at present the broadcasts do not reach all of the province but that an effort is under way to boost transmissions. An independent station, Radio 21, is also broadcasting from Pristina, and other radio stations are operating elsewhere. Gunnarsdottir says the new media commission will regulate their broadcasts as well.

"We will be allocating frequencies. And I believe that if we have for instance a radio station that breeches over and over again all codes of conduct and transmits or broadcasts vicious propaganda or are trying to inflict public disorder, there will be penalties and they will probably lose their license."

However, the OSCE spokeswoman stresses that her organization, which is comprised of 50 member states, does not aim to be excessively controlling.

"On the media here, we want to support it, and to support it to be a good, independent, modern media. That is our goal. Not to get full control and be some media monarchs."

Gunnarsdottir says there is likely to be considerable international financial help for the initial rebuilding of independent news media in Kosovo. But she says the aim is to make it eventually self-sustaining.

She notes that in Kosovo, people are very eager to read the printed media and that particularly in Pristina, there is already a lot of business activity. Gunnarsdottir says that this combination leaves her optimistic about the future of a strong free press. But in order to reach that future, both local journalists and international officials stress that Kosovo's news media needs outside help. Kosova Sot's Ibrahim Rexhepi:

"Well, you see, all of Kosovo is waiting and hoping for help from the international community. And also in our newspaper, without the support of the international community, there cannot be a renewal of life." Rexhepi says that for now all of Kosovo, including its press, is a humanitarian project.