Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Better 'Contact' Than Conflict

Long the target of Serb radicals, Kosovo's only mult-ethnic radio station is now falling victim to Albanian extremists.
By Zvonko Tarle

On the night of April 17 we had a narrow escape. An explosive device fired from a grenade launcher detonated as it hit the balcony of the next-door apartment, close to where me and some fellow journalists were chatting.


We - editors and journalists from Kosovo's only multi-ethnic radio station, Radio Contact - were in our Pristina flat, the only non-Albanian flat in the block. The glass shattered and we dropped to the floor. United Nations police came rushing in, panicking in their haste to evacuate us.


Had the bomb exploded any closer, our entire editorial and management team would have been killed. In the group were one Croatian man, two Serbian women, one Bosniak Muslim woman and two Albanian men. We were discussing once again the issue of security. We have been working in Pristina now for eight months and nearly all our discussions come back to the same problem - the protection of our staff.


Radio Contact employs 36 people and produces broadcasts in Albanian, Turkish and Serbian. All the employees have had to adapt to the dangers of life in Pristina. They have existed for a decade to a greater or lesser extent. But over the last 12 months, the situation has deteriorated dramatically.


Now all non-Albanians in Kosovo, with the exception of foreigners, live like fugitives. They cannot move freely; they dare not use their mother tongue in every day conversations; they shop silently or have Albanian-speaking or foreign friends do their shopping for them; they receive threatening and offensive phone calls; they have no newspapers in their own language and have no schools to send their children to.


The situation for us journalists is unbearable. Only three places are safe for us to visit - the offices of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, the OSCE and the KFOR Press centre. And even at KFOR only one question has been asked in Serbian in the last 12 months.


Two days after the grenade attack on our apartment building, V. B., editor of Radio Contact's Serbian language programme, was stopped in the street by three Albanians. The men insulted her and threatened to kill her if they heard her on the radio again.


V. B. fled into the Media House building, home to various media outlets, and asked the security men there for help. One guard said, "you should not only be warned, but killed." The guard was a member of the Kosovo Protection Force, created out of the disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, UCK.


Killings, kidnappings, threats and intimidation are a daily occurrence. And victims are not restricted to members of minority groups. Albanians are on the receiving end too. On the same day as our grenade incident, a prominent member of the former UCK was killed in downtown Pristina.


And what of us independent journalists? After battling Milosevic's extremists, Radio Contact now faces a similar struggle against Albanian ones.


Right from the start, the Milosevic regime tried to shut us down. On the night of June 1 1998, inspectors from Belgrade, accompanied by 30 heavily armed Serbian police officers sealed off our studio and confiscated our transmitter. We were handed a written notice banning us from further broadcasting. But Radio Contact persevered, continuing to produce a 15-minute bulletin each day, broadcast via a BBC satellite.


When the NATO bombing raids began in March last year, staff from Radio Contact had to leave Pristina under pressure from the Serbian authorities - or more specifically, from the then chief of police. The eight young journalists, Albanian and Serbian, have yet to return to their home town.


Most went to Belgrade and then abroad via Skopje and Sarajevo. We hid our other Albanian colleagues and friends from the Serbian forces. They have now left Kosovo too in the face of intimidated from Albanian extremists.


All the studio equipment was stolen during the NATO bombardment. What few things remained - a fax machine, a computer and our archives - disappeared shortly after the arrival of KFOR troops. Even now, our radio antenna sits out of reach on the roof of our one-time office in the "Eksimkos" export company building. Former UCK leader, Hashim Thaci, set up his 'government' there. We dare not try to reclaim it.


In August last year, after the arrival of international troops, we assembled a new team and obtained new equipment. Then, in November, unknown criminals stole our clearly marked official car. The next month our broadcasting equipment, including a brand new transmitter, went missing.


We set up our operation on the 14th floor of a Pristina apartment block, which is also home to Radio 21, Kosovo sot, Rilindja, and AATV. The building has no working lift or water. Rats roam freely around the offices. For those who have had everything stolen, who receive threatening phone-calls or are bullied and intimidated in the street, who trudge up and down 28 flights of stairs several times a day, who have no toilet or running water in their workplace, what else is there left to lose - except one's life. And is our work worth so much?


Radio Contact is the only local multi-ethnic media organisation in Kosovo. Under Milosevic's regime and to this day, the station promotes a sustainable multi-ethnic community and supports the social reconstruction of Kosovo as a multi-ethnic democracy. Radio Contact is testament to the fact that these aims are not impossible in Kosovo. Such aims are in fact not only achievable, but normal, desirable and beneficial.


And it is perhaps for that very reason that Radio Contact has become a target. As the station's ratings and influence grows, it becomes an ever more painful thorn in the side of radical factions among Albanians and Serbs alike.


The grenade missed our office this time. But the attack begs the question: what should UNMIK be doing to protect journalists in the multi-ethnic media. We request 24-hour protection, secure transport, safe movement and a guarantee that we can work freely. We hope for the support from the OSCE and professional journalist associations.


One encouraging sign in recent days has been the joint declaration from Albanian and Serbian leaders condemning terrorism and violence. At least one good thing has come out of our narrow escape.


Zvonko Tarle Editor-in-chief of Radio 'Contact'


More IWPR's Global Voices