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Using the right words in Kosovo

by Richard Humphries

When it comes to media access, Kosovo’s population is spoiled for choices. No apartment block is complete without its symmetrical rows of white satellite dishes scanning the heavens for news and entertainment. One estimate has it that 75 percent of the population has media access. BBC and MTV are just a click away.

As for local media, figures from the Temporary Media Commissioner (TMC) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, show a plethora of outlets for a population of just over 2 million. Kosovo has 86 licensed radio stations and 23 television stations. This does not include those operated by KFOR, the multinational military protection force. Four of Kosovo’s radio stations reached all of the territory, while the others served local areas. Any local station can be very local in this ethnically divided U.N. protectorate. One station, Radio Gorazdevac, exists to serve a Serb enclave of the same name that has only some 800 residents.

Kosovo does not lack for newspapers and magazines either, though broadcast media are much more popular. Such a wide choice hasn’t always translated into quality. That may be understandable in a region where decades of socialist state control stifled initiative as well as anything approaching balanced coverage of divergent opinion.

Following the NATO-led air strikes of 1999 and the withdrawal of the Serb armed forces, media outlets proliferated — largely in Albanian areas — with some also surfacing in the northern Serbian-populated areas near the divided city of Mitrovica. Unfortunately, although the wider war had ended, hatred lingered. Bias, selectivity and what the OSCE calls “vigilante journalism” occurred in print and on the air.

Neither Serbs nor Albanians had a monopoly on this. Enemies, whether perceived or real, were being identified as war criminals or collaborators. That led to attacks upon people and allegedly, in a case involving the Albanian-language newspaper Dita, directly to the death of a Kosovo Serb translator working for UNMIK, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo.

In response to this media Wild West, a UNMIK regulation established the TMC office, currently occupied by Robert Gillette. The TMC was given powers, later enhanced, to administer standards of conduct and enforce a licensing procedure. Some observers criticized that as, in effect, imposing untoward limits on press freedom, but most saw a pressing need for tough, temporary measures. Behind the mandate of the TMC there are enough teeth to force apologies, levy large fines, seize equipment and terminate licenses.

Last November, for example, two Kosovo dailies, Bota Sot and 24 Ore, lost appeals against stiff fines imposed for conduct violations. Nonetheless, since 2000, the number and the severity of infractions have declined. And in some localities broadcasters may have become too cautious.

Real-time monitoring of broadcast media is conducted by locally hired OSCE workers. One of the workers, Gezim Rexha — a serious and highly intelligent 32-year-old man, fluent in English and living in a village near Gjakova, an urban center in western Kosovo — monitored local radio broadcasts until recently moving to Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, to continue his OSCE work. During the 1999 war, Rexha had to walk some 30 hours from the Gjakova area to sanctuary in Albania, despite being visually impaired. He began working for the OSCE in April 2000.

“So far there are four radio stations here, and soon there will be a TV station as well,” he said. “Our monitoring techniques differ from time to time in line with changes made by the media department in Pristina. We focus on monitoring the news, translating parts of it and making our comments.”

Rexha maintained that there hadn’t been any recent evidence of extensive violations concerning bias or deceptive reporting by Gjakova radio stations, and that the more immediate concern was with shortcomings in professionalism.

“I tell the radio stations they should focus on using short sentences and start with the result when broadcasting news,” he said. “For example, they might begin by saying, ‘Today, in Gjakova, at 10:30 a.m., at the Hotel Pashtriku, in the big hall, there was a meeting,’ and on and on. It takes too long until you get some outcome,” he continued. “Radio is on the air and the message goes away quickly. You should begin with the result. Listeners lose interest when it’s too slow.”

The oldest station in the city is Radio Gjakova. It has broadcast in Albania since 1979, except for the repressive 1990-1999 years when Milosevic’s provincial authorities disallowed Albanian-language broadcasting. When the war ended in 1999, it restarted those services. However, it seems to lack verve and is perhaps overly careful about content, in part a Titoist legacy.

“Because they possess some professional knowledge and experience, they are good in some respects, but their style is really old fashioned,” Rexha said. “What was expected during the communist era is not suitable today.”

Where there is media timidity, it’s not just because of structural conservatism or a desire to avoid criticizing the new media overseers. A December 2001 survey compiled by the OSCE showed that many reporters, particularly in the capital Pristina, faced “explicit” or “implied threats to their safety” when investigating stories.

These threats came from politicians, other local public officials, organized crime figures, or were anonymous. It means that while there is wide scope for investigative journalism, it is hindered by a level of fear.

A truly independent, unbiased and effective press is just one of the institutions Kosovo needs to develop further. Stable, responsible political parties with clear vision are also needed. As with the media outlets, the numbers are there, but numbers alone aren’t enough.

Twenty-six political parties (or “political entities” in OSCE parlance) contested the Kosovo Assembly elections on Nov. 17, 2001. That poll was regarded by observers as well conducted and largely free and fair.

Last March 5, after some arm twisting by UNMIK, three of the largest parties came to an agreement on a coalition government, led by Dr. Ibrahim Rugova, veteran pacifist and longtime leader of the largest party, the LDK or Democratic League of Kosovo.

Some observers, however, have voiced pessimism whether this represented real progress. Albert Prenkaj, a university professor now working with the OSCE in the northeast city of Peja, said “Kosovo is in the middle of nowhere and things have gone on too long without the setting up of effective institutions. Democratic processes are equal to zero without effective institutions.”

The institutions he spoke of include: really democratic political parties that listen to their constituents, an effective police force, a fully functioning court system and an economic system not fueled by the temporary presence of so many high-salaried international personnel. Though it must be said that important progress has been made since the first chaotic year after the war, as with the media, many real difficulties may still tip the balance the wrong way.

The parties are ethnically based, reflecting divisions on the ground but not auguring well for the future. According to the OSCE, there is “not a single party in Kosovo that has presented a comprehensive multiethnic program.” Many intraethnic disputes over policy have become highly personal in nature.

The three coalition partners, the LDK, the PDK (Democratic Party of Kosovo) and the AAK (Alliance for the Future of Kosovo) are from the Kosovar Albanian community.

Kosovo Serbs, who live in the northeast near Yugoslavia or elsewhere in protected enclaves, have their own party, Coalition Return. And even the smallest ethnic groups — Turks, Bosniaks, Roma, Ashkaeli (a Roma group who identify with Albanians) and “Egyptians” (believed to be Roma but who insist they are, in fact, from Egypt) — have parties of their own.

Structurally, most of these parties have top-down command structures. Of the coalition members, the LDK, by virtue of its role as a “parallel government” during the 1990s — when it offered an alternative to the oppressive Serb-run state apparatus — is the largest party. Organizationally, it has branches in all Albanian-inhabited areas down to the village level. As for democracy, Prenkaj says, “Typically the branch leaders are summoned to Pristina where they are given instructions.”

The PDK, where many ex-Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) members such as Hashem Thaci have found political homes, also acts as an elite top-down party. Its General Council of ex-KLA members meets weekly in Pristina. The PDK also has branch structure but fewer field operatives than the LDK.

According to Prenkaj, the smallest coalition member, the AAK, led by Ramush Haradinaj, a former KLA field commander, is somewhat different in a more positive way. “Their structure is well set, but they are willing to consume some ideas from below,” he says. “In other words the party does at least listen to other voices than those of its own leaders.”

For UNMIK, the coalition government was an important step on the road to self-rule. How far a step this is remains to be seen. UNMIK mission heads (currently Harri Hokeri from Finland holds this position) are effectively proconsul, able to veto decisions by the either the Assembly or the administration it elected.

Last Oct. 26, municipal elections were held in the province for the second time since UNMIK took over. While UNMIK saw this ballot as a step forward, its radio station, in a Jan. 6 broadcast, conceded a low turnout and a low level of participation by the Serbian population, although it was the first time they had voted in municipal elections. There was also political violence before and after the ballot.

What should be of serious concern for the parties is the economic future of Kosovo. The international presence has created a false economy, and as those numbers dwindle so will the economy. In the city of Peja, for example, staff and agency reductions have meant a decline in circulation of some 1 million euros per month in the local marketplace. With the industrial sector in a shambles because of the war, the only other significant income sources are found in remittances from abroad, in small shops and in criminal activity. Much needs to be done to foster a sustainable economic sector

The political parties themselves, maneuvering under UNMIK limitations, appear less interested in day-to-day affairs and more focused on a debatable distant day as questions concerning the final status of Kosovo dominate political discourse. The ethnic Albanian parties clamor for nothing less than outright independence, while the Serbs’ Coalition Return is just as adamant that Kosovo remain part of Serbia.

Of course, final status is important, and some day a just settlement of the issue will have to be found. But, as Prenkaj insists, “Between now and then we have to talk about basic law, about standards and about how to live.”

Holy places and enclaves

“I think this is the best lighting,” related the English-speaking guide at the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate of Pec. “Many who come here to visit our church want to spend some time privately contemplating the frescoes.”

And she was right. We were inside the beautiful 13th-century Church of the Holy Apostles, oldest of four within the patriarchate compound. Taken as a whole, those churches represented the spiritual birthplace of Serbian Orthodoxy. It is there that the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch is invested with office.

The frescoes were magnificent. A complex series in the westernmost room, the narthex, depicted the Nemanjics, rulers of the medieval Serb Empire, while elsewhere in the interior, events in the life of Christ were shown. The soft lighting, combined with the musty atmosphere, lent the long-dead artists’ works a profound spiritual gravity. The fact that some of the frescoes had decayed, or were damaged during the Ottoman period, enhanced rather than detracted from their overall effect.

While this was surely a sanctuary for the soul, it was also a sanctuary of another sort. Kosovo may be lost to Serbia, whatever words are used in the end about its status. When asked how many monks and nuns resided inside the compound, the guide was terse. “It’s not important for you to know that information,” she said.

The patriarchate compound is located at the outskirts of Pec, or Peja as the city is rendered in Albanian. To visit you need permission from the Italian Army, whose KFOR (Kosovo Force) provides 24-hour protection. As you walk from the KFOR checkpoint to the entrance to the walled compound, an armored personnel vehicle travels in front. One Italian soldier quietly says, “It’s tranquil now, but there is a lot of paranoia around.”

In as much as the Kosovo conflict involved the claims of two peoples for the same territory, it was also about assaults on the myths, traditions and historical evidence underpinning those claims. This meant that mosques, churches and libraries were in the front lines and suffered accordingly. What was often called senseless possessed a dramatic, if cruel, logic. History was to be manipulated, and when it impinged, to be overthrown.

Until NATO forces entered Kosovo in 1999, Serbian paramilitaries, with police and army help, inflicted incalculable damage. Two hundred and six mosques were damaged or destroyed and numerous museums were looted of their valuables.

Examples of the destruction abound. The library of the Bektashi Sufi order in Gjakova, with 2,000 rare books, was destroyed. In Prizren, the “League of Prizren Monument House,” considered the birthplace of Albanian nationalism, was blown up. And, in one of the worst examples of attempts to efface the past, the Central Islamic Archive in Pristina, with 300 years of records concerning Islamic religious affairs in Kosovo, was burned by Serbian soldiers on June 12, 1999.

After June 1999, it became the turn of Serb myths and symbols to suffer revenge attacks at the hands of Albanian irregulars.

At Gazimestan, just over a few kilometers outside Pristina, is a tall granite monument overlooking the “Field of Blackbirds” where, as Serb historians have it, medieval Serbia suffered a crushing defeat that would eventually lead to five centuries of Ottoman rule. The battle has been immortalized in folklore and its importance to the Serbian psychological universe cannot be underestimated. Gazimestan was also where Slobodan Milosevic, on the 600th anniversary of the famous battle, spoke of Balkan battles to come.

Today Norwegian KFOR soldiers protect it. Someone had made an attempt at blowing the tower up, but this only managed to take out the first steps at the bottom.

One Norwegian soldier stated, “We’re here to see that no one tries that again.”

Many orthodox churches have not been so lucky. A publication, somewhat polemic in nature, by the Serbian Church entitled “Kosovo Crucified” outlines the destruction or damage suffered by 76 churches and monasteries during the June-October 1999 period. One example was the Holy Trinity Monastery in Musutiste, which had both a library and valuable icons. It was ransacked in June 1999 and then destroyed the following month.

Today, KFOR provides round-the-clock protection for 140 religious sites in Kosovo. These, including the Pec Patriarchate, are effectively enclaves, symbolic in terms of purpose, though very real for those few inside them. As such, they are part of the larger enclave issue that must be addressed if any lasting peace is to be found.

Kosovo’s remaining Serb population, except for those north of the Ibar River from Mitrovica, live in protected enclaves. The same is true for some Albanians in north Mitrovica. Events in that town, whose “bridge watchers” are able to summon rioters in minutes by using mobile phones, have inflamed passions elsewhere and forced UNMIK to assume more direct control of the city in November 2002. For enclave populations, even shopping trips, if across ethnic fault lines, are typically exercises in KFOR military convoying.

In Peja, I spoke with a local Albanian staffer with the OSCE. One of his tasks was to bring newspapers and bread to Gorazdevac, a Serb enclave not far away. Occasionally, he would also bring people from the enclave to Peja for conferences on matters related to the region as a whole. OSCE policy was to engage the Italian KFOR to provide an armed escort to and from Gorazdevac when these meetings took place.

On his own initiative, the staffer in early 2002 began to do without the armed escort. OSCE policy was subsequently modified, at least temporarily, to allow for such confidence-building when possible. Nonetheless, the level of distrust between the two communities is high. On Aug. 13, two Serb teenagers from Gorazdevac were murdered and six others from the same enclave were wounded in an unprovoked attack that occurred between Gorazdevac and another town. Although the identity of the perpetrators is not known at present, communal tensions between Serbs Albanians have been inflamed.

One can only hope the OSCE staffer’s efforts were not completely in vain. As he had told me, “If we ever want to bring the two populations together again, we will have to start somewhere, even if it is a small step.”