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Comment: No One Stifled Kosovo Election Debate

Aim of ballot rules was to grant all parties fair and equitable coverage.
By Robert Gillette

I sometimes enjoy Kosovo journalist Baton Haxhiu’s provocative style of commentary, but he sometimes neglects relevant facts.

Some are missing from his piece in Balkan Crisis Report No 522, which claims the international community suffocated the election campaign debate in Kosovo with an “equal time” rule, and has clamped a censorious “straitjacket” on the media since March, when provocative journalism preceded disastrous riots.

The media rules for October’s election were adopted unanimously in August by the Central Election Commission, CEC. This is a Kosovo body not an international agency. We and the OSCE helped the CEC draft the rules, based on those used in previous elections, but we did not impose them.

The rules did not, as Haxhiu suggests, require media to give “equal time” to all 33 competing parties and individual candidates. They called for “fair and equitable” access to news coverage, debates and discussions for all participants.

This was defined to permit the media to make professional judgments about the newsworthiness of parties, events and political statements so long as it did not lead to frank bias, or to the discriminatory treatment of parties. The same principle pertained in previous election rules.

To help make sure the media understood that these principles were not meant to create robotic equal-time news coverage, we (as the media regulator), along with the OSCE, organised briefings in six locations all over Kosovo before the elections in September. We also repeated this point in a mid-campaign “status report” on election coverage issued on October 11.

Were the media consulted about these rules in advance? Yes - though not as widely as they might have been.

The rules for print media were largely the same in previous elections, except that this time newspapers were required to clearly identify paid political advertising as such.

There were new rules for broadcasters, however, because for the first time they were allowed to accept paid political advertising. The broadcasters’ association, AMPEK, and the three main Kosovo-wide broadcasters had an opportunity to comment on the draft rules before the CEC adopted them.

To ensure even the smallest parties (including those representing ethnic minorities) had a minimum of time to present themselves to the voters, radio and TV stations that took paid ads were required to provide a specified minimum of time (ranging from 20 minutes for local radios to two hours for public television) to every one of the 33 parties or individual candidates.

The rules set no maximum on free airtime for debate and discussion and specifically did not count news coverage – so as not to distort news judgment and the editorial process.

Yes, there were problems. Halfway through the campaign we discovered that the Albanian version of the rules did not match the English and Serbian version on a crucial point: “fair and equitable” access to news and debates was translated in Albanian as “fair and equal”. The CEC issued a corrected version on October 18, five days before the election.

Did this make a difference in the way the predominantly Albanian news media covered the campaign?

It certainly did not affect how newspapers treated the parties. The major broadcasters, and perhaps others, followed the English version’s “fair and equitable” phrasing and we received no complaints from any media of inordinate restrictions on their work.

What about that “straitjacket” that the Temporary Media Commissioner has strapped on the Kosovo media? I haven’t seen it.

Haxhiu says, “The TMC’s recommendation for international officials to be restored to their former workplaces in Kosovo needs to be struck down immediately.”

The only international “official” who ever worked in the Kosovo media was a BBC journalist who served at international expense as a news adviser in the startup phase of the Kosovo public broadcaster, RTK, until 2002. Following the March riots, we recommended that a professional news adviser be returned to RTK as soon as possible. RTK objected to the concept of an adviser but accepted an excellent news consultant from Slovenian public television, Uros Lipuscek, on the recommendation of the European Broadcasting Union.

And the RTK team did a fine job in its election campaign coverage, which included a massive 24 televised debates and hours of fair and equitable news coverage.

Robert Gillette is Temporary Media Commissioner in Kosovo.

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