|"A Serbian Spy" - The exploitation of ethnic nationalism to incapacitate freedom of media in Kosovo
by Robert Fellner
Despite the fact that freedom of media is guaranteed in the Republic of Kosovo under the Constitution1 which went into force on the 15th July in 2008, studies suggest that Journalists in Kosovo "who venture to criticise government actions or who expose corruption can find themselves publicly accused of 'unpatriotic activities', of being 'traitors to the nation' and 'Serbian spies', or more simply of being 'anti-kosovo'"2 This essay argues that the political elite in Kosovo exploits the discourse of ethnical nationalism to undermine freedom of media, to cover-up governmental corruption and to hinder critical media in fulfilling its function as a safeguard of a developing, highly fragile nation in its state-building process. It therefore makes use of scientific research and adds a personal note by describing experiences of our field trip to Kosovo in the framework of the newly established Viennese Human Rights Master Programme.
The importance of the issue of freedom of media for the case of Kosovo is evident as it "takes place actively in an argumentative way" in contributing "to building a new society."3 Snyder and Ballentine further argue that "media manipulation often plays a central role in promoting nationalist and ethnic conflict"4 and continue that it is a conventional wisdom among "human rights activists [...] that a great deal of the ethnic conflict in the world today is caused by propagandistic manipulations of public opinion."5
Although the amount of open threats against journalists slowly decreased within the last years, political and economical pressure has led to a "growing culture of self-censorship"6 based on fear and insecurity, which prevents "most journalists in Kosovo from reporting about the eruption of crime, corruption and political and Mafia-related violence."7
During our fieldtrip i constantly had been engulfed by the feeling that the realities we were presented often merely had been constructed facades, than revealing the reality on the ground. Those communicative structures were well trained and internalised after years of foreign occupation or diplomatic work in a fragile post-conflict society - which precisely defined what to say and what not to say - self-censorship seemed to have become an integral part of daily life communication.
Diplomat's and Representative's speeches, often meandering around critical issues, were eager to present their personal involvement as success stories, instead of openly submitting failures, pointing to severe problems they have caused and offering insight into the dilemmas of nation-building processes and ethnic conflicts. But the silence sometimes revealed the most pressing issues.
I felt hostility when I asked one government official why people are demonstrating at the entrance of the governmental building we were in. He angrily replied that Kosovo now is a functioning democratic country and that everyone is free to demonstrate. After I insisted a second time and asked why the people demonstrate I was put off with an euphemistic and not very accurate version of what the demonstrators had told me two hours before.
When I filmed a young boy in the street who had been playing the drums singing a popular Albanian song begging for money, a man who saw me filming, threatened the young boy in order to make him leave the place. Instead of preventing me from filming, he preferred to make the problem invisible. A pitiful attempt to cover up the obvious.
The European Commission (EC) annually publishes reports to evaluate democratic processes in countries in the EU's enlargement agenda. The Progress report of the Commission shows a tremendous deterioration of freedom of expression in Kosovo between 2005 and 2010. The Commission has repeatedly expressed concern about "political intimidation"8, "political pressure"9 and the weak stance of investigative journalism in Kosovo in all its reports between 2007 and 2013.
The Nations in Transit Report by Freedom House finds no improvement in media freedom between 2005 and 2010, but even shows a slight decrease of freedom of media until today.10 Consistently the Press Freedom Index by Reporters without borders states that only "a few journalists have managed to report on the endemic corruption in the administration and the uncontrollable penetration of organised crime into most areas of the economy."11 Journalists are "constantly being forced to represent published material that has been changed against their will"12, while open threats and public governmental control has recently been "replaced with self-censorship, as well as political and financial pressures that create a difficult climate for journalists."13 A Report by the UNESCO published in 2011 which finds its equivalents in 2013 concludes that the most severe pressure on journalists is conducted through the governmental distribution of advertising budgets.14
Chapter 2, Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, Article 42, Freedom of Media in the constitution of Kosovo provides for freedom of expression and freedom of press:
"1. Freedom and pluralism of media is guaranteed. 2. Censorship is forbidden. No one shall prevent the dissemination of information or ideas through media, except if it is necessary to prevent encouragement or provocation of violence and hostility on the grounds of race, nationality, ethnicity or religion. 3. Everyone has the right to correct untrue, incomplete and inaccurate published information, if it violates her/his rights and interests in accordance with the law."15
One speaker of the Press Freedom Post-Conflict Conference in 2007 claims that the work of the Temporary Media Commission (TMC), which was established by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) directly after the war in 1999, originally had the mandate to facilitate an independent and professional media but soon "its work had become geared towards protecting against government attempts to censor rather than imposing any kind of regulation itself."16 According to a report of the Institute for development policy (INDEP) due to the fact that initially the priority of UNMIK had been a peacekeeping perspective and not the implementation of freedom of media as such, a rigidness of reporting and the hindering of the overall development of the media were the consequences.17
In April 2012 the parliament of Kosovo approved article 37 and 38 of the Criminal Code, which pressures journalists to reveal their sources of information causing a severe threat to those who dare to speak up. These amendments which are against EU requirements incited several protests by the journalists of Kosovo, who believed that the adoption of the new law constitutes a serious violation of freedom of press.18 Atifete Jahjaga, the president of the European Council, expressed concern about article 37 which "subjects journalists to possible criminal [not civic] liability for publishing defamatory remarks" and makes them "punishable for up to three years in prison."19 She argues that Kosovo is party to both, the ICCPR and the ECHR, and therefore bound by their provisions, which includes the right to freedom of expression.20 However, she came to the conclusion that although "the proposed articles of Kosovo's draft criminal code themselves may not violate international human rights law" they may "be contrary to traditional notions of fundamental rights and the freedoms associated with modern democratic societies."21 In a final statement she suggests that such restrictions "may provide cover and support for corruption and illegal activity by discouraging the press from acting as the public watchdog."22 The strong opposition of grass-roots campaigns finally led to the removal of both articles from the criminal code in October 2012.23
The successful implementation of legal reforms in the end of 2012 include the decriminalization of libel, the protection of journalists sources and a law on access to public documents.24 However, the weak judiciary which is not considered fully independent leaves the Kosovar media "vulnerable to a variety of political pressures."25
Radio Television Kosova (RTK), Kosovo's national public broadcaster, is "more widely seen as the government's megaphone than as independent institution"26 due to its financial dependence on the government since March 2012. David L. Philips, who himself, was accused of being a Serbian spy, concludes in allusion to RTK that "officials use economic leverage to dissuade advertisers from doing business with independent media such as Koha Ditore and Zeri."27 Consistently the World Report of 2014 by Reporters without Borders concludes that the parliament of Kosovo will not deprive itself of the leverage, which derives from these circumstances and they claim that the "silence of the many international delegations on the issue [of freedom of media] is hard to understand since they know better than anyone the potential consequences of this kind of behaviour."28 Furthermore the head of the Kosovo Press Council, diagnoses that RTK "is overloaded with political and biased content."29 Similar to Jean Reveillon, the former head of the European Broadcasting Union, who indicted RTK as "an uncritical state broadcaster."30 Despite all those issues our visit to RTK has shown that among the broadcaster's employees were Albanians and Serbs alike and it therefore, against all odds, contributes to basic attempts of a reconciliation process.
Two regulators, the Independent Media Commission (IMC), which replaced the Temporary Media Commission, issues broadcasting licenses and promotes professional journalism standards, and the Press Council of Kosovo, which strengthens freedom of speech and focuses on printed publications, govern the media landscape of Kosovo today. In contrary to the IMC the Press Council is independent from state funds and financed by its members.31
When we went out one night to a lounge in the 13th floor in Grand Hotel Pristina the place got raided by 15-20 masked special forces armed with heavy weapons. While the official vindication for the incident had been that the police was searching for drugs, weapons and bombs the way the mission had been conducted, summons the assumption that the main goal was to threaten and to spread fear among the present civilians. Our group was subjected to intense body searching, inquiry and prevented from leaving the place for more than one hour surrounded by several armed and masked special forces. Even though we expressed that we want to leave the place after being searched, as we proved not to carry arms, drugs or bombs, the security forces refused to speak to us and ignored all our attempts to communicate. Some of us were exposed to a high amount of emotional suffering due to the lack of information, the threatening appearance of the masked security forces, the possibility of the use of live ammunition against civilians and the arbitrary deprival of our freedom of movement.
On the next day RTK showed video footage of the security forces entering the building. In this moment neither, the heavy arms nor the masks, showed up in the televised program. Similarly no footage of the actual raid inside the building was shown. When I tried to film, I was immediately physically hindered to do so. Such behaviour is typical for authoritarian regimes which constitute "negative peace" and control their populations via repression and fear rather than rule of law and democracy. One Local told me that recently some of the security forces were promoted and that the amount of raids they conduct on civilians has positive impact on their professional records.
It is worthy to mention that one of us had an intense discussion with one of the barkeepers about a bagatelle issue minutes before the raid occurred. Although we occupied little space and the lounge had been almost empty at that time, the highly upset barkeeper told one us, who speaks Albanian, to change to a table on the other side of the lounge or, preferably, to leave immediately. The way his voice trembled and his intense sweating indicated that he had been extremely nervous. Retrospectively some of us assumed that the barkeeper was aware of the police raid and while he didn't dare to tell us the truth, tried to get us out of the place. Others assumed that the area where we initially had our table was indeed used for drug dealing or minor arms trade.
Self-censorship in Kosovo is seen as "the result of pressure from political extremists and criminal groups."32 Despite the fact that open threats and physical attacks on journalists decreased gradually, political and judicial classes have "found an even more terrifying weapon in patriotism."33 Libelling Journalists as "Serbian spies", "traitors to the nation" or "anti-kosovo" is designed "to wreck the credibility of journalists [...] in the public opinion"34 and to send "an indirect signal to extremists [...], in particular to nationalist militants [...] by pointing them [the journalists] out as potential targets."35 Such accusations, which are in particular sensitive due to the trauma of ethnic conflict, provoke heavy emotional response, fuel sectarian strife, burden the struggle for reconciliation and jeopardize the safety of journalists. They are created to distract the public attention from governmental corruption and to escalate the discourse of conflict against their political enemies. The political elite utilizes "accessible identities as a tool for particularistic interests."36 The exploitation of the collective traumatic experience in order to demonize critical and investigative journalism hinders the self-purification process of the kosovar society from corruption, bribery and ethnic nationalism. Consistently the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, an institution of the Council of Europe, claims that there "is a negative trend towards nationalism and the creation of a homogenous society" and that "this trend can be observed throughout Kosovo."37
The reason why this ethnic nationalism does not erupt openly in political speeches and public discourse is the presence of the International community, which interlinks its supportive measures with the compliance with their values. However, one reason why ethnic nationalism is on the rise again is also the dominance of the international community which tries to impose an artificially constructed identity on the kosovar population. This became evident when we saw that throughout Kosovo the amount of the Albanian Flag outnumbers by far the amount of the Flags of Kosovo. The symbols of self-identification, which are offered by the International community are widely rejected and merely occur in the context of political diplomacy.
The schizophrenia that evolves from the dilemma of financial foreign dependency and its inner rejection, itself carries the potential of renewed conflict and is likely to backfire. Numerous graffiti spread all over Pristina which say "EULEXperiment" indicate the negative stance of the population towards parts of the International Community.
Suitably John Breuilly argues that the nationalist argument is a political doctrine built upon three assertions. The third one is especially important for the case of Kosovo: "the nation must be as independent as possible. This usually requires at least the attainment of political sovereignty."38 I believe that the process of unfinished state-building, the search for a collective Kosovar identity, the lack of full recognition by the international community, the feeling of constant foreign occupation and most obviously the traumatic experiences of ethnic conflict, make the population severely vulnerable for nationalist ideas and ideologies. Conveniently Ingimundarson argues that the political elite has never "accepted the attempts by UNMIK and the 'international community' to make 'multi-ethnicity' the defining political identity of Kosovars."39 Ingimundarson concludes that without the instrumentalization of the Albanian memory for political aims it would be far more difficult for the political elite to make its case for independence and statehood.40 While Kosovo achieved its independence in 2008 the statement is still valid for the state-building process in Kosovo today. "Even in democratizing post-communist states [...] the media's financial vulnerability often leaves it vulnerable to capture by partisan segments, thus spoiling it as a neutral forum for debate."41
In 2009 Jeta Xharra, who broadcasted the weekly programme Jeta nē Kosovē (Life in Kosovo) on Radio Television Kosovo (RTK), was severely threatened because her programme included "a debate between government officials, journalists and representatives of nongovernmental organisations and covered reports of international organisations"42 including OSCE and Freedom House reports, which have raised concerns about media freedom in Kosovo. The episode of 28th of May "illustrated the lack of freedom of speech" and showed that "local residents [...] were frightened, to speak out against local officials." The PDK funded paper Infopress accused Xharra of being a "Serbian Spy" and stated that "Jeta has brought it upon herself to have a short life."43 While OSCE and EU strongly condemned the death threats against Xharra, Amnesty International published a report regretting that Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi, leader of the PDK, failed to denounce the threats. In the judicial report of the Basic Court of Prishtinë/Priština which works "with the participation of EULEX"44 it says:
"By taking reference to the description in Count 1, S.L. threatened J.X. by unjustly and without presenting any evidence accusing her of being a Serbian spy, knowing that this statement will be published in Infopress and also knowing that on the basis of the social and political environment in Kosovo, such a statement will seriously endanger her well-being and cause her anxiety and frightening. M.Q., R.H., A.D. and A.A. passed on this statement [...] knowing that the dissemination of such a statement [...] will endanger J.X. and her crew's life [...]. The threats that were made by S.L. and published by R.H., A.D. and A.A. resulted in death threats against J.X."45
Despite the statements above from the official transcript of the case, the Court which closely cooperates with EULEX came to the conclusion that "No witness and no material evidence proved that labelling of somebody as a Serbian collaborator is a threat. However, what was found is that these articles affected the honor and reputation of J.X.."46
In May 2010 Veton Surroi, the founder of Koha Ditore and Koha Vision TV, and his sister, were denunciated to be members of the UDBA. The acronym for the former Serbian secret police, which is particularly infamous for carrying out brutal attacks on the Albanian population during the war in the 1990s.47 In the night of the 22nd of May posters went up in Pristina street where Surroi and his family lives, which said "UDBA Street - Veton and Falaka Surroi." Reporters without borders called the case "tantamount to a death threat"48, which has the potential to expose the family to dangerous reprisals of all kind.
In the opinion of the Press freedom organization the "work of Koha Ditore's journalists is much more beneficial for the Kosovar people than the activities of these nationalists"49 and furthermore the "protection of the [...] staff of the Koha group is more than ever in the public interest." In a statement by Reporters without borders it states:
“The Kosovar government and the international community, which is widely represented in Pristina, must publicly and firmly condemn this smear. It is time for Kosovo to make a clean break with this tendency to accuse people of spying or belonging to the Serbian secret services when they dare to criticise or just analyse the way Kosovo functions.”50
In 2011 the Liberation Army's Veterans Association launched an aggressive smear campaign against the journalist Halil Matoshi, who states that "they are creating an impression that everyone who keeps a different position towards the power or government or structures that emerged from the war is a traitor [...]."51 The Veterans Association, which is run by Muharrem Xhemajli, a strong supporter of the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo, described Matoshi as "one of the pieces of trash the occupiers have left us."52 Reporters without borders has interpreted the incident as "calling for him to be physically attacked or murdered"53 and urged the authorities to condemn "this exploitation of the concept of patriotism, especially as the aim is to censor media."54 Among others the Viennese South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) also strongly condemned the attack.55
The Association of Professional Journalists in Kosovo, a local NGO, has claimed that 24 cases of journalists being "seriously hindered and threatened"56 during their work in 2011 have been reported. In total 33 cases became public were government officials, business interest groups, or media owners were abusing the freedom of press and five journalists reported that editors prevented them from reporting about government corruption.57
On 17th July 2012 city officials, municipal employees and the police stormed the broadcasting station of Radio TV Mitrovica, destroyed equipment and shut down the office. Reporters without borders described the incident as an act of governmental vandalism which violated the Right to property.58 Two days later Radio Kolasin, situated 40km north of Mitrovica, was attacked by gunfire. The circumstances and the reasons for the attack remain unknown, but initial investigations indicate that it had been a planned assault.59
The result of the research executed in this essay as well as our personal experiences are indeed worrying. The process of reconciliation and self-purification is actively retarded by the political elite, especially in terms of freedom of media and expression, which utilizes ethnic nationalism in order to distract the attention of the population from corruption, bribery and political pressure. Without the guarantee that journalists can perform their duties as safeguards and watchdogs freely and without interference the process of rehabilitation of Kosovo, a country that still suffers from the trauma of ethnic conflict, will be prolonged indefinitely.
Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the protection of National Minorities: Third Opinion on Kosovo. Adopted on 6 March 2013. Council of Europe.
Amnesty International: Kosovo: Amnesty International calls for the government to respect and ensure the right to freedom of expression. 2009. Online in Internet: URL: https://www.amnesty.org/fr/library/asset/EUR70/008/2009/en/450a8b20-cb80-4c6f-83be-160140d251dd/eur700082009eng.pdf [1.3.2014]
Andersen, Aasmund: Transforming Ethnic Nationalism - the politics of ethno-nationalistic sentiments among the elite in Kosovo. University of Oslo. 2002.
Basile, Oliver: Kosovo - Still not too late for Press Freedom. An Investigation. Reporters without Borders. 2010., p. 3. Online in Internet: URL: http://en.rsf.org/IMG/pdf/rapport_k_en.pdf [28.2.2014]
Constitution of the Republic of Kosovo. Online in Internet: URL: http://www.kryeministri-ks.net/repository/docs/Constitution1Kosovo.pdf [1.3.2014]
Curtis, Rachael: Kosovo's Draft Criminal Code and the Risk to Freedom of Press. Human Rights Brief. The Center of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. 31.6.2014. Online in Internet: URL: http://hrbrief.org/2012/07/kosovo%E2%80%99s-draft-criminal-code-and-the-risk-to-freedom-of-the-press/ [1.3.2014]
Eulex Kosovo: The Basic Court of Prishtinë/Priština: P. no. 1656/12. 5.6.2013., p. 1. Online in Internet: URL: http://www.eulex-kosovo.eu/docs/justice/judgments/criminal-proceedings/BasiCourtPrishtina/1656-12/%282013.06.05%29%20JUD%20-%20S.L.%20et%20al.%20%28BC%20Pristina%29_ENG.pdf [27.2.2014]
European Commission: Kosovo (under UNSCR 1244/99) 2008 Progress Report. [25.2.2014]
European Commission: Kosovo (under UNSCR 1244/99) 2008 Progress Report. [26.2.2014]
Freedom House: Nations in Transit. Freedom of Press. Online in Internet: URL: http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2013/kosovo#.UxWO4oUribU [1.3.2014]
Group for Legal and Political Studies: The Establishment of a Serbian-Language Public Broadcasting Channel in Kosovo: A new approach to increasing the participation of ethnic communities in public life. Policy Analysis. No. 5. 2012.
Ingimundarson, Valur: The Politics of Memory and the Reconstruction of Albanian National Identity in Postwar Kosovo. IN: History and Memory. Vol. 19, No. 1. p. 95-123. 2007.
International Media Support: Press Freedom Post-Conflict. A cause of instability or Foundation of Democratic Development? Conference Report. Institute for Development Policy. 2007., p. 12. Online in Internet: URL: http://southsudaninfo.net/wp-content/uploads/reference_library/press_freedom_postconflict.pdf [23.2.2014]
Newswatch Desk: Smear Campaign launched against Kosovo journalist by veterans. 12.1.2011. Online in Internet: URL: http://archives.newswatch.in/newsblog/8717 [27.2.2014]
Peci, Edona: Kosovo Media Struggle Against Interference. Balkan Insight. 19.6.2013. Online in Internet: URL: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/kosovo-media-struggle-against-interference [26.2.2014]
Philips, L. David: The Balkans' Underbelly. IN: World Policy Journal. p. 95 - 99. 2010.
Reporters without Borders: World Report. Kosovo. 2014. Online in Internet: URL: http://en.rsf.org/report-kosovo,114.html [1.3.2014]
Reporters without Borders: Independent Newspaper's Founder endangered by "Serbian Spy" Smear. 14.5.2010. Online in Internet: URL: http://en.rsf.org/kosovo-independent-newspaper-s-founder-14-05-2010,37478.html [13.2.2014]
Snyder, Jack / Ballentine, Karen: Nationalism and the marketplace of Ideas. International Security. Vol. 21, No. 2. 1996. Online in Internet: URL: https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/snyder.htm [27.2.2014]
UNESCO: Professional Journalism and Self-Regulation. New Media, Old Dilemmas in South East Europe and Turkey. France., p. 30. Online in Internet: URL: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/resources/publications-and-communication-materials/publications/full-list/professional-journalism-and-self-regulation-new-media-old-dilemmas-in-south-east-europe-and-turkey/ [25.2.2014]
United States Department of State: 2011 Human Rights Report: Kosovo. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. 2011, p. 12-13. Online in Internet: URL: http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2011/eur/186368.htm [26.2.2014]
Vujovic, Oliver: Journalists threatened in Kosovo. The Sofia Echo. Quality Reporting from Bulgaria. 21.1.2011. Online in Internet: URL: http://sofiaecho.com/2011/01/21/1028644_journalists-threatened-in-kosovo [1.3.2014]
Vujovic, Oliver: World Press Freedom Review. Kosovo. International Press Institute. 2001. Online in Internet: URL: http://www.freemedia.at/archives/singleview/article/kosovo-2.html?L=0&cHash=0430f2a6d1 [3.3.2014]
Wiman, Anna: Disrespected. A study concerning the journalist profession in Kosovo: corrupt employers, unfair working conditions and forgotten journalistic ideals. Linneuniversitetet. School of Social Sciences, Public Relations and Communication Programme. 2010., p. 16. Online in Internet: URL: http://lnu.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:535764/FULLTEXT01.pdf [2.3.2014]
World Press Freedom Committee: Fear of violent reprisals forces Kosovo media into self-censorship. International Journalists Network. 2.9.2001. Online in Internet: URL: http://ijnet.org/opportunities/fear-violent-reprisals-forces-kosovo-media-self-censorship [2.3.2014]
Xhymshiti, Vedat: Kosovo Journalists protest in Pristina. 23.4.2012. Online in Internet: URL: http://vedatxhymshiti.blogspot.co.at/2012/04/kosovo-journalists-protest-in-pristina.html [1.3.2014]