The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) is calling on media in Kosovo to refrain from “intensifying tensions” during the health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
In a statement on April 4, the Brussels-based organization said the quarantine of the Serb-majority town of North Mitrovica has resulted in “inappropriate and unethical” media coverage by Kosovar state broadcaster RTK and the Sinjali news portal.
“The EFJ strongly denounces these discrepancies, which show strong political interference in some media in Kosovo,” the statement said.
It said that “unsupported statements and provocative questions” asked by an RTK journalist while reporting live from North Mitrovica on April 4 “raised a wave of reactions in Kosovo” and “risk contributing in raising tensions between Serb and Albanian communities.”
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RTK acting editor in chief Ridvan Berisha, told RFE/RL that the journalist may have been responsible for some "professional mistake" that he attributed to "pressure" received during the reporting. But Berisha insisted that "there was never calls for riots or interethnic tensions.”
The previous day, on April 3, Sinjali published the names, addresses, and dates of birth of 210 people, mostly ethnic Serbs and Roma, who had been placed in quarantine in North Mitrovica and other cities, according to the EFJ.
The personal information of these citizens was blurred following protests from the public and the Association of Serbian Journalists in Kosovo, the group said.
Kosovo’s ombudsman Hilmi Jashari described the publication of the personal data as a violation of the constitution’s Article 36 on the right to privacy.
“It seems clear that some politicians, starting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and the president of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci, are using the coronavirus crisis to inflame political and social tensions in their own interest,” said EFJ General-Secretary Ricardo Gutierrez, who called on journalists “not to play their game and to act in the public interest.”
The mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Kosovo has also urged the media in the country to “strictly observe the privacy of patients and under no circumstances to reveal the identities of those affected” by the coronavirus.
“The situation with COVID-19 requires solidarity and cooperation throughout society, as well as between the authorities in the region,” it said in a statement on April 4.
Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo have imposed the same emergency measures as in neighboring Serbia to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Kosovar authorities have reported 145 cases so far, including three deaths.
But the statistics do not include the cases reported by Serb-majority northern Kosovo – 26, including one death – who report to health authorities in Serbia.
Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, declared independence in 2008 in a move rejected by Belgrade.
European Union-mediated talks between Kosovo and Serbia to settle their differences have stalled.