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

Hate Speech In Pristina - The Kosovo Media Wars Could Start Here

A KLA-linked news agency created a firestorm when it launched a vicious attack on a leading independent publisher and political personality. The media wars inside Kosovo may be only just beginning.
By Anthony Borden

Political debate in Kosovo took a potentially dangerous turn this week with a ferocious denunciation of a leading independent publisher by the press agency linked to the unofficial Kosovo Albanian interim government and the Kosovo Liberation Army.


In an extended article, transmitted October 2, Kosovapress assails Veton Surroi, a leading Kosovo Albanian public figure and independent newspaper publisher, as a traitor of the Kosovo Albanian cause and warns that he is at risk of "eventual and very understandable revenge". The article concludes ominously, "Such criminals and enslaved minds should not have a place in the free Kosovo."


The publication has provoked a firestorm in Pristina, with counter editorials by Koha Ditore, a public criticism of the "abuse of the freedom of speech . . . through threats and incitement of violence" by the United Nations, and a distancing of the interim government from the press agency which during the war was the direct voice of the KLA general staff.


"The language [in the article] is completely shocking," said William Houwen, coordinator of media development for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "Goebbels couldn't have done it better."


In the wake of extensive revenge attacks against minorities, public beatings of people speaking Serbian, and various forms of intimidation against foreigners and Albanians expressing alternative views, many journalists and others in Pristina have seen the attack as a further setback for open and responsible debate within Kosovo.


The broadside comes in response to a notable editorial by Surroi first published in August in his newspaper, Koha Ditore, in which he accuses Kosovo Albanian elements of descending into "fascism".


Criticising both the widespread revenge attacks against Serbs in Kosovo and the failure of the Kosovo Albanian leadership to condemn them, he argues that such "systematic intimidation of all Serbs" because of their ethnicity is fundamentally the same as the racist policies of the regime in Belgrade. He says the next victims will be dissident Albanians. In a plaintive warning, he asks, "Is this really what we fought for?"


The article was widely published within the region and internationally [see Kosovo Fascism, Albanians' Shame]. Within Kosovo, it sparked a swirl of controversy.


But in a manner not uncommon to Albanian debate, it remained under the surface. Some observers suggested that Surroi's comments, however outspoken, reflect a widespread view among Kosovo Albanians, who wish to move away from the political radicalism of wartime and get on with rebuilding normal lives.


Others reacted with anger. One Kosovo Albanian man appeared at the newspaper's office and, explaining that his entire family had been killed during the war, asked how Surroi could criticise Albanians now.


Editors received threatening telephone calls and other warnings from unknown sources. But the dispute broke into the open following an interview in late September by the Koha Ditore editor, Baton Haxhiu, in the German weekly Der Spiegel. Titled 'Lauter Gorillas' ("Loud Gorillas"), the article quotes Haxhiu referring to the KLA as a "mafia". Now, he said, "we have loud gorillas on the top."


The thrust of the article is to highlight Koha Ditore as a unique voice for "social freedom" - against Serb oppression previously and what Haxhiu calls a "lack of Albanian morals" now.


It emphasises that this struggle was not merely an intellectual one, but ultimately about real power - and plays up confrontation between the KLA and the publisher and editor of Koha Ditore. Considering the possible political future of Surroi, it quotes German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer as saying, "Watch out for this man". And it neatly flips a quote by Haxhiu into a direct challenge: "`We have a newspaper but we don't have a political nest. That's why we cannot win.' Not yet."


Haxhui's comments in Der Spiegel were the tripwire. Surroi's "fascism" editorial is notably measured, not making direct mention of any political party or politicians. But Haxhui's comments as published appear to lay general accusations against a movement for which many Albanians have strong emotional feelings, especially so soon after the war.


Kosovapress' reaction was virulent - and unruly. Calling Surroi and Haxhiu "bastard ragtag", "ordinary mobsters" and the "garbage of history", its article, by contributor Marxhan Avdyli, claims evidence that they had been supported by Serb paramilitaries during the war, and are now spies on behalf of the international community.


It condemns the revenge attacks, "if they exist," but suggests that some of them may have been carried out by friends of the Koha Ditore publisher and editor in order to compromise the new political class in Kosovo and the national wing of the Kosovo Albanians. It refers to Haxhiu's "idiotic delirium" and Surroi's "Seseljian idiotism". It says they belong in The Hague, with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, whom they support.


The article constantly taunts the pair about their ethnicity, pointedly referring to them as "gospodin" (the Serbian honorific for "Mr."), saying they have a "Slav stink" even if they "unfortunately were made of Albanian blood, or at least were declared as such, because you never know the origin of the pro-Serbs."


Koha Ditore's response was also sharp, if more considered. Republishing the text in full within its own pages, it argues in an accompanying editorial, "The commentary by the Kosovo Interim Government news agency will enter the history of Kosovar journalism, not just because of its mental limitations, but also as the first commentary calling for murder."


Because of the close link between Kosovopress and the interim Kosovo Albanian administration - the agency has been funded by the KLA - the editorial argues that such statements go beyond hate speech. Its vocabulary [and] way of thinking reflect that of the [interim government] and can only be considered as "a call to action."


Reiterating Surroi's earlier editorial, it argues that "the systematic persecution of a human being because of his ethnic or racial group is fascism, and the Albanian nation, as a victim of fascism, should not tolerate the attempt of the commentary to persecute those who don't think the same, which falls into the same category." It calls for an explanation from the Kosovo interim administration.


The gathering firestorm broke when the Kosovapress/Koha Ditore exchange was excerpted by the UN's media monitoring service, from which the translations in this article are taken. Concerns have focused on the implications for open debate and democracy within Kosovo, with the UN issuing a short statement the same day.


"Someone is taking Veton [Surroi] as a very dangerous political rival, and his views as deeply distressing," says Dukadjin Gorani, editor of KD Times, the English-language edition of Koha Ditore. "This is one of the ways to start his political elimination-and it was done in a very primitive manner."


By implication, as Kosovo begins to prepare for elections, the level of debate will thus only deteriorate.


Compounding the difficulty, there is no legal remedy in Kosovo. The international administration is unlikely to take measures against the agency, and there are no libel or defamation laws, much less a judicial system, through which individuals could seek redress against irresponsible media.


"The OSCE is putting in place regulations and perhaps sanctions for the electronic media, but it is likely to leave the press alone," says the OSCE's Houwen. "In normal circumstances, this would be something for the criminal court. But there is nothing in place, so the only thing journalists can do is write about it and say it is unacceptable."


Indeed, while Reporters sans Frontieres has called for an official investigation, the combatants in the dispute seemed, at least for the moment, to step back.


The representatives of the interim government said they had no responsibility for the offending text, and some official voices criticised its harshness. While confirming its feeling that Surroi and Haxhiu are "enemies" of the Albanian cause, Kosovapress has claimed that it is an open agency - even re-publishing articles from Surroi and Haxhiu - and that all texts are the individual responsibility of the authors, including Avdyli. Koha Ditore issued a clarification: it seems that in the Der Speigel interview, Haxhiu had been misunderstood when he referred to loud Albanian leaders - the word was guerrillas, not gorillas.


Koha editor Gorani stresses that the details are important, and that Kosovapress and Koha Ditore will both take lessons from articles and interviews they have made. At a recent meeting on the media in Pristina, which was marked by sharp exchanges between Koha Ditore and Kosovapress representatives, a consensus emerged among most representatives of the Kosovo media to put aside their rivalries and develop a code of ethics and professional standards, as well as to increase training and other efforts to raise the quality and responsibility of the media.


The uproar thus marks a new stage for the post-war media in Kosovo. In breaking open debate - "touching the most sensitive national point," in the words of Kosovapress - the affair could begin to exorcise the extraordinary trauma and moral quandaries the entire society has passed through. Yet the process of describing someone as "the Other", as achieved in such detail in the Kosovapress article, has been a classic pre-conflict media strategy throughout the crises in the Balkans.


Whether the episode represents a new low or could in fact offer a possible turning point remains to be seen. "This is not Kosovo's first encounter with harsh debate," says Gorani, "Nor will it be the last."


Anthony Borden is executive director of IWPR.