Comment: Curbing Kosovo Media Excess

Building a professional media in post-conflict societies takes more than simple regulation.

Comment: Curbing Kosovo Media Excess

Building a professional media in post-conflict societies takes more than simple regulation.

Wednesday, 11 September, 2002

Journalism in Kosovo still lags behind internationally accepted standards of professionalism - and this is causing trouble for many people and organisations in the protectorate.

The office of the Temporary Media Commissioner, TMC - which was set up by the United Nations to regulate broadcast and print media - has already found it necessary to go beyond its formal law enforcement brief.

The TMC has now become a public advocate for a more responsible media, and an arbitrator in contentious defamation cases which have proved to be beyond the grasp of the struggling judicial system.

When the TMC was established in June 2000, the international community's main concern was to curb "vigilante journalism" - where irresponsible articles put lives at risk by stoking ethnic hatreds or printing unsubstantiated allegations about named individuals.

This is not the only problem anymore. Rival political groups are using the press to settle old scores. Such exploitation of the press violates public trust and most people are tired of it.

This summer the daily newspaper Bota Sot was fined twice by the TMC.

Penalties of 12,500 and 17,500 euro were imposed after the Media Hearing Board, a three-member panel that reviews complaints brought before the TMC, found the paper had violated the UN media legal framework and the Code of Conduct for the Print Media.

In a series of articles published last spring, Bota Sot accused two well-known Albanian editors of having collaborated with the Serb secret services before and during the war, saying they should have been imprisoned.

In another long and virulent campaign, serious accusations were levelled at a prominent elected official and an officer of the Kosovo Protection Corps. Bota Sot accused the two men of many criminal activities including the killings of four Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, fighters in June 1999.

The newspaper offered no evidence of any kind to support the accusations against the editors, the official or the policeman.

The Media Hearing Board concluded that Bota Sot had posed a serious threat to the lives, safety and security of the individuals attacked in its pages.

But equally important, the board also found that the newspaper had consistently failed to conduct a reasonable inquiry into the truth of the allegations, and had instead disseminated false and deceptive material.

When asked by the chair of the panel on what facts Bota Sot based the stories, the journalist present at the hearing said only that, "These are common views held in Peja".

Bota Sot has lodged an appeal against the TMC's first sanction and next month the Media Appeals Board will decide whether to uphold, modify or rescind that decision.

The actions against the paper have provoked virtually no criticism from other areas of the media or from the public. On the contrary, an ever-growing number of individuals are filing complaints with the TMC.

Even Bota Sot complained recently over accusations made against its editorial board by the daily newspaper 24 Ore.

Many are outraged by the libellous allegations freely disseminated by political journalists. In the majority of cases, the TMC has succeeded in mediating between the individuals concerned and the editors. By encouraging the use of the right of reply, the TMC has negotiated many amicable solutions.

For example, when daily Epoka e Re aggressively questioned the competence and rectitude of two local judges, the two men and the UN Department of Justice lodged a protest.

A resolution was reached after several conversations and a meeting of all the parties. The publisher acknowledged that the paper had gone too far, Epoka e Re published both a general apology and a letter of rebuttal written by a senior official from the UN Department of Justice.

If the resolution of this case was important, so was the process of getting there. That process educates the press about its responsibility.

It has always been clear to the TMC commissioners that they do not and should not act on behalf of the international administration, even though they are appointed by the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative and supported by the OSCE.

The commissioners never shield public institutions from scrutiny or protect public officials from criticism. Instead they find themselves defending the population from the poisonous atmosphere created by the press.

The alternative in Kosovo is recourse to the courts, a slow and frustrating process for the complainants and a dangerous one for the press. Last July, a Kosovo court returned the first post-war conviction of a journalist. A Bota Sot reporter was given a suspended 30-day jail sentence for slander under the terms of the Yugoslav criminal code, which remains in force.

Finally, to encourage good journalism, the TMC has decided to use fines collected to establish a journalistic award.

Money taken from "bad" editors is to be given to "good" ones, sending a signal to the profession that, in order to do their jobs well, it is important to shake free from political and editorial pressure.

Anna Di Lellio is the current Kosovo Temporary Media Commissioner

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