EDITOR'S NOTE: The Tarle Episode

Two important liberal media in Kosovo squabble over who is the greatest victim. The immediate loser is journalism.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Tarle Episode

Two important liberal media in Kosovo squabble over who is the greatest victim. The immediate loser is journalism.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

When an explosive device went off in a Pristina flat a few weeks ago, thankfully, no one was injured. But the blast set off a strong ripple within the tight-knit media community in the capital - setting two liberal voices at odds, and revealing much about the limitations on open debate within Kosovo.

At the time, journalists with Radio Contact were holding a meeting in the same apartment building, only one door away. No one has suggested that they were targeted - anyone, of any ethnicity, could have been hurt. But striking so close to one of the main multi-ethnic organisations in Pristina - the meeting that night included Serbs, Albanians, a Croat and a Bosniak - the shock highlighted for the Contact journalists the risks for minorities and anyone else reaching across the gapping ethnic divide in the territory.

Zvonko Tarle, the radio's editor, was clearly shaken. A Croat from Dalmatia who is also part owner of an independent radio station in Vojvodina, Tarle is one of the more intriguing - if somewhat controversial - characters in town. His station, and its associated "Civic House" group, have sought to sustain a multi-ethnic profile throughout the Kosovo crisis, running programming in Albanian, Serbian and Turkish, and with a mixed staff. He has also been a valued contributor to IWPR, producing several notable pieces highly critical of Belgrade.

In reaction to the April explosion, however, Tarle tacked in the opposite direction, writing a piece highlighting the dangers faced by minorities in Kosovo. As summarised by the editors' stand-first, "Long the target of Serb radicals, Kosovo's only multi-ethnic radio station is now falling victim to Albanian extremists."

He pointed out the risks for anyone speaking anything but Albanian or English in the streets, the fears of Serbs to gather anywhere but specific locations protected by the international bodies, and problems faced by Radio Contact, which he called the "only local multi-ethnic station". He described in detail an instance of harassment of one of his journalists.

The article made a sharp point, and represented a valid perspective. It also read, in part, as an advertisement for Radio Contact. Was it too much so? Judging that the station itself is an interesting and valid story in Kosovo, the editors concluded no, and the item ran in IWPR's Balkan Crisis Reports [BCR No. 135, 28 April 2000].

Others in Kosovo, however, begged to differ. But no one could have expected the harsh personal attack on Tarle featured a week later on the front page of Koha Ditore, the leading independent daily. (Disclosure: IWPR has a long relationship with its publisher, Veton Surroi, organised exchange programmes some years ago for its young reporters, and maintains offices in Pristina in the same building.)

"'Bearer of the idea of multi-ethnicity' in the service of Milosevic propaganda," the boldface headline declared. Written by Naser Miftar, a young journalist, the rambling text accused Tarle of distorting his nationality (suggesting accusatorily that he is Serb), exaggerating the importance of Radio Contact (insisting there are many other multi-ethnic stations in Kosovo), and distorting the facts about the harassment of his colleague.

It disputed Tarle's claim that the building where his station was based before the war, and in which some key equipment remains, is home to the "government" of ex-Kosovo Liberation Army leader Hashim Thaci, and said non-Albanians could circulate freely in Pristina. It concluded that Tarle was only exploiting Serbs in Kosovo as his "toys" for personal gain.

Ethnic entrepreneurism is hardly news in the Balkans, but what was the reality? Tarle argued that "this is not a newspaper article, but a warrant, an expulsion notice, locating the target for some future radicals" - only further justification, in fact, of his original point. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reviewed the article: for its racist overtones, it was brought to the attention of UN chief Bernard Kouchner as a possible example of hate speech, though in the end no statement was made.

Albanian journalists not with Koha Ditore felt that the attack was on the harsh side, but believed Tarle had misrepresented the facts to make his case. For their part, Koha Ditore editors seemed not to understand the fuss. They felt Tarle had lied, or at least exaggerated, and in any event their paper's manner of discourse had been unremarkable. "This is a normal way of writing for us," said one senior editor. "It has nothing to do with [his] nationality."

The brouhaha continued the next day, now with a two-page spread. Koha Ditore published Tarle's response along with his original article (on his request), plus a further reply from Miftar. The two continued to dispute the factual details, while also haggling over legitimacy: experiences during the bombing campaign, status of Croats in Kosovo, previous journalistic experience.

Tarle noted that Radio Contact was first banned by Milosevic in July 1998; Miftar accused him of writing communist-style propaganda. But in fact, much was agreed: associates close to Thaci were indeed in the office building in question; the other main "multi-ethnic" stations are headed by foreign nationals; Tarle may indeed be Croat.

For its part, IWPR re-reported the facts in Tarle's original article and concluded that, while some of the shadings were open to interpretation, they were all fundamentally correct. The one error of judgement for which we do apologise was to involve in the story one individual who had not agreed to be mentioned by name. As a result, some exaggerated interpretations on both sides of what actually happened caused distress.

The depressing aspect of the affair was the spectacle of a leading paper squabbling over who is the greater victim - Albanians or Serbs. To engage in such a process suggests a continued reliance, at least among some writers, of an exhausted discourse. To dispute the traumatised position of non-Albanians in Kosovo today is, at best, ungenerous.

From a professional standpoint, it was evident how readily imprecise writing, biased reporting and unclear thinking can lead to a quite unnecessary verbal escalation. As one experienced international observer remarked, "This was a shocking revelation of the general poor level of journalism and public debate here."

But at least in one sense, perhaps not. Having engaged the dispute, Koha Ditore's response on the second day - publishing Tarle's article and letter in full - demonstrated an admirable willingness to address the mini-tempest openly and fully.

Fortunately, this verbal spat did not escalate into violence. There are indeed important issues at stake, particularly the very legitimacy of the concept of multi-ethnicity in Kosovo and the relationship the new majority and new minorities must establish with each other. Certainly all sides will have taken some lessons from the affair, and in the end the episode may have demonstrated precisely that most fundamental role of the media, to air public disputes and contribute to their resolution in (relatively) peaceful way.

Anthony Borden is executive director of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

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