Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The Battle for the Cvilen Transmitter
Sitting in his large office in the centre of Pristina, with its faux leather doors and oversized boss's furniture, the director of Radio Kosova, Agim Fetahu, pores over a series of ill-formed concentric circles on a map of the province.
These are the patterns of radio and television coverage in Kosovo under plans drafted by the international bodies. Even at their fullest extent, they cover only a quarter of the territory, and the smaller circles essentially hit only Pristina, the capital, and Prizren, in the west.
With local elections scheduled for the autumn, the push to forge a workable broadcasting network has critical political as well as professional and commercial implications.
"If we can't get the network up, coverage will be left to stations dominated by outside interests and nonprofessionals, which means yellow journalism," says Fetahu, a former journalist with Voice of America whose station serves as one leg of Radio Television Kosovo (RTK) and is the province's presumptive public broadcaster. "Without better signals, we will never be able to make a place in a market saturated with sensationalism and extremism."
A last-minute accommodation agreed recently in Washington has cleared a critical hurdle that threatened to scupper the entire effort. But serious obstacles remain, and the process has highlighted the near impossibility of establishing practical civil institutions, in this case the media, in the face of such daunting political, financial and institutional obstacles and rivalries.
The electronic media scene in Kosovo is in chaos. When NATO bombs struck two key transmitter sites, at Goles near Pristina and Cvilen near Prizren, they demolished the province's core infrastructure for electronic transmission.
To establish some kind of Kosovo TV output, emergency satellite production was launched by RTK in the autumn. But it is limited to two hours a day, and despite recent public polling there is no reliable information on its audience. Concern has been raised about the television's quality and balance, especially in relation to the Serb minority. But so far it remains the only Kosovo-based production.
From Albania, Klan TV, satellite, and TV Tirana, terrestrial, are received by many, as are international stations such as Deutche Welle, BBC World, plus a Turkish station.
The situation is even more chaotic in radio, with rogue towers transmitting unlicensed outputs at unauthorised levels. Radio Rilindija, closely linked to the former Kosovo Liberation Army, now operates essentially as a powerful pirate radio station and has designs on a move into television.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, which has primary responsibility for the media, faces a political firestorm as it ponders shutting down such stations.
The key struggle, however, has been focused on launching domestic "nationwide" terrestrial broadcasting. This presents the OSCE, as the regulatory body responsible for allocating precious licenses for national frequencies, with decisions it would rather not take. Negotiations are still under way with the International Telecommunication Union, which co-ordinates frequencies worldwide, over whether Kosovo can have two or three province-wide stations.
RTK is presumed to be in line for one, the other is likely to got to RTV 21, led by Afrodita Kelmendi, which has raised substantial funds and is well on the way towards constructing elegant studios atop the "media house" building in central Pristina.
Veton Surroi's Koha Vision, linked to Koha Ditore newspaper, is also a contender, and it is expected that Radio Rilindija and many others wish to make bids too. Competition is fierce, and the idea of co-operation, particularly from those expecting to come out on top, has been dismissed.
But the entire process of launching territorial broadcasting was thrown into disarray a few weeks ago-and almost lost-over the cost of constructing one broadcast mast at Cvilen. At the urging of the OSCE, the Japanese government agreed to supply an extraordinary $14.5 million worth of TV studios, mobile equipment and transmitters to re-establish the system. Much of this would be for RTK, but the transmitters, antenna and other material for actual broadcasting of signals could be shared among all the Kosovo stations.
The offer represented a breakthrough: earlier plans along the same lines from the UK and the US over the summer had been insufficient on their own. As well as its largesse, the Japanese undertook an intricate technical review and prepared an extremely detailed tender document with precision targets and deadlines.
The deal hinged, however, on one additional provision. Japan was to pay for the equipment, but the United States, through its Office of Transitional Initiatives, was to erect the actual towers at Goles and Cvilen, on which much of the new kit would be hung.
Although promises were agreed last autumn, delays struck early. The sites were both "a humungous mess," according to one international officer working on media issues, and the task was formidable. There were undetonated explosives "liberally strewn with cluster bombs," says this official-and one site was surrounded by a Yugoslav Army minefield. The electrical supply and support buildings were demolished.
The OSCE organised the clean up, but reconstructing the original major towers, estimated at 1.2 million German marks for Goles alone, was out. As a cheap option, a Macedonian company was commissioned to build one tower, but experts soon realised that its technical specifications were well below requirement, and this option was dropped.
Finally, two used structures were located by a German company and shipped to Pristina. Single shaft "masts" instead of substantial towers. It was nevertheless concluded that they could be reconstructed to match the heights required, 100 metres at Goles, and 50 at Cvilen. The strength of the towers was reviewed: the mountaintop sites at Goles, and particularly at Cvilen, place any masts under huge wind and other weather strains.
The technical expert involved complains that he was never provided any specifications of the kind of equipment that would actually be placed on them. Others are concerned that the second-hand masts will only last a few years. But the Japanese agreed that they were workable and the plan was set to go ahead.
Until a few weeks ago, that is, when the US's OTI suffered a substantial budget cut. When the OSCE sought written assurances on behalf of the Japanese that they would actually build the two masts, it was told instead that now the US would only pay for one.
At a stroke, the entire deal was put at risk. The Japanese, having worked through an arduous planning and approval process, were in no position to make alterations to their offer. But it would hardly make sense to allocate such sums for only one tower. Tempers, especially among the Europeans, Kosovo Albanians and Japanese, rose. "The changes were not welcome," says one official representing the Japanese in Kosovo.
The Americans, meantime, threw up fresh concerns about ownership of the sites and the coverage. With low wattage imposed by KFOR, the output - the "footprints" of such concern to Radio Kosova's Fetahu - remain modest, and will require substantial additional investment in "repeaters" to amplify the signals and ensure they can be picked up throughout Kosovo's highly mountainous territory.
In the end, the prospect of the collapse of the entire deal, and the substantial criticism that would have opened them to, inspired the Americans to come up with an additional $500,000 to cover the needs. These funds, already allocated for media, had been stalled in Washington, largely over the dislike among many in the US for the concept of public broadcasting.
"There are a lot of mixed feelings in Washington, and we had to make the argument that [the money] wouldn't be exclusively for public broadcasting," explains Douglas Davidson, director of media affairs at the OSCE.
Short of any last-minute objections from Capitol Hill, the crisis will, for the moment, have passed. Construction of the masts could be under way in the spring. The Japanese tender will go ahead, and the rival stations in Kosovo will double their efforts to complete studios and quick-study television production, which few in fact have any experience with.
But even on its current schedule, equipment is not expected to arrive in Kosovo until the end of the year-that is, after local elections. Thus extra funds may have to be found anyway for temporary transmitters to hang on the famous masts until the new equipment is produced and shipped. Hopes are that any further such adjustments may not suffer so from the vortex of political, technical and financial complexities facing any practical initiative in Kosovo.
Anthony Borden is executive director of IWPR.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
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