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

Kosovo Broadcasters Left Confused

Efforts to establish terrestrial broadcasting in Kosovo are being undermined by the lack of clear guidelines from the international authorities.
By Alush Gashi

The telephone call signified a new era in the struggle to build electronic media in Kosovo. On April 19, a construction contractor informed the US Agency for International Development (USAID) that the new transmission tower on Mt. Golesh, outside Pristina -- a 96-metre mast supported by two sets of guy wires -- was finally completed.


Funded by USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), the tower -- the first new mast raised since the end of the NATO bombing campaign -- represents a considerable breakthrough in efforts to establish terrestrial broadcasting in Kosovo.


Its construction however has been impeded by all manner of obstacles. And the lack of clear guidelines from the international authorities has left the local electronic media in confusion, with particular anxiety over the preference of the UN and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for public over private broadcasting.


For now, the only legitimate Kosovo television broadcaster remains Radio Television Kosova (RTK), the presumptive public broadcaster now run by the European Broadcasting Union and funded by international donors.


It produces two hours of output per day, via satellite, at an estimated monthly cost of 89,400 German marks for the satellite time alone. While satellite dishes are a fairly common sight, there are no reliable audience figures. Terrestrially, there are otherwise only some private essentially pirate operations, either locally based or from Albania, using unlicensed transmitters.


The new transmitter, combined with a second tower to be completed in two months on Mt. Svilen in the west near Prizren, should permit public and private electronic media outlets to cover the entire region of Kosovo with terrestrial broadcasts. It could also service mobile phone, emergency broadcasting and two-way radio needs.


Yet a host of problems and obstacles remains. The first is the strength of the frequency, which is determined by KFOR. At present, only frequency strengths of 100 watts, or up to 250 watts in rural areas, are permitted. If these levels are maintained, the extensive network of "repeaters" (which pick up and strengthen a signal) would have to be repaired, to make sure the signal is carried throughout the province, and around the many hills and valleys.


Increasing the frequency level could conflict with neighbouring signals and therefore would require negotiation, in the first place with Belgrade which, under strict interpretation of UN Security Council's Resolution 1244, is legally sovereign over Kosovo. In a letter to UN head Bernard Kouchner, Robert Jones, director of the Radio Communication Bureau of the International Telecommunication Union, cites the UN resolution in recommending that UNMIK establish a liaison with the Yugoslav telecommunication administration to ensure appropriate compliance with the ITU constitution, conventions and administrative regulations.


Some KFOR officials have also argued that a higher frequency strength could interfere with signals requirements of the western military and security operations in Kosovo. The issue of frequency strength is also related to the still more thorny problem of licences, especially so-called "national" ones - there must inevitably be even more careful regulations on stronger signals.


If the signal strength were increased to 10 kilowatts, estimates are that even with the existing repeater network left behind from the decades-old Yugoslav system, broadcasters would immediately be able to reach 70 per cent of the territory, or even more. If not, concern remains that RTK would disproportionately benefit from any restored repeater network.


As the deadline for erection of the mast approached, the Telecommunication Group consisting of representatives of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), the OSCE, KFOR and USAID/OTI, met to address a number of pressing issues. These include management of the mast, provisions for mast maintenance and plans for possible implementation of the Professional Media Support Trust Fund. The fund would collect fees from the usage of the tower and would be used for local media development.


The group concluded that primary management responsibility for the tower should fall to the UN's Department of Telecommunications. The income generated from the tower should be directed to the Media Commission, which is made up of UNMIK, the OSCE and local media representatives. The Media Commission would also be the ultimate authority over access to the tower and the disposition of the trust fund.


These decisions have caused some concern among Kosovo private broadcasters. OSCE and UNMIK media representatives have clearly stated that RTK development is their priority, and local private initiatives fear that they will not be granted the same privileges and rights as RTK.


Money, of course, is also crucial, inevitably from international donations. To date the largest media donor has been the Japanese government, with a $14.5 million contribution of equipment via the UN Development Programme. The intention is that private stations may use the broadcasting components of this gift, but they are concerned that unequal distribution of other components, such as recording studios, cameras, etc, could result in RTK securing a monopoly.


"Any reconstruction of the transmission system will benefit all those who have ambitions to be broadcasters, private and public alike," says one official involved with media issues. He insists that even the production equipment donated by the Japanese for RTK will also be available for private stations. Some officials also argue that close cooperation among the public and private sectors is the only way in the long term to ensure a viable and politically independent media in a territory as small as Kosovo.


The privates are also started to get serious funds. Following recent visits to the US by the heads of Koha Vision and TV21, USAID revised its budgets, appropriating an extra $400,000 for equipment purchases for each. The Open Society Institute has also promised substantial additional contributions to cover operational costs.


The US State Department has approved the funds for erecting the tower on Mt. Svilen, and USAID/OTI is organising a site inspection by the contractor. But no money has yet been granted for electrification and other site logistics.


Lack of clarity over the licensing procedure has also caused concern. In early April, Radio Television 21, a private broadcaster, received permission from KFOR to build a small mast on Mt. Golesh and transmit its radio signal at 2.5 kilowatts. (The station already has a license to transmit from one location in Pristina.) This move suggested that Aferdita Kelmendi, the station's director, was determined not to wait for official permission from UNMIK or the OSCE to hang antennae on the new 96-metre Golesh mast but to find other alternatives.


A week later, however, KFOR stated that it would not support RTV 21's effort without a licence from the OSCE. The OSCE acknowledged RTV 21's legitimate right as an independent broadcaster to try to improve its coverage legally and to express disagreement with the restrictive policies of KFOR over its frequency strength limits. But it refused to approve a licence, arguing that this would set a precedent for other illegal broadcasters and would cause havoc with frequency allocations.


In response to these anxieties, however, the OSCE and UNMIK have put their proposed broadcasting code under review. The OSCE is also now expected to open a tender allowing media outlets to apply for hanging their transmitters and antennae on the Golesh mast.


"Finally," says Kelmendi, the RTV21 director. "We have been waiting for this move from the OSCE for a long time. Most of us [private broadcasters] have the equipment ready, and as soon as we get the go-ahead from the officials, we are climbing up the tower."


Thus a new mast is up, but the new ground rules have still not been clearly established. As a result, the international administration appears reluctant and indecisive - or beset by internal squabbling.


International officials insist that many of the hard choices, and the essential regulatory and other structures have been established, and now the difficult task of reviewing licensing applications, clearing technical hurdles, and solving other problems is just a matter of time. The aim is to have terrestrial TV, both public and private, by August, before expected elections in the autumn. One positive signal has been an indication that the new KFOR command may be prepared to lift the frequency-strength limitation, provided that it remains within the international legal framework. Yet for now, the only Kosovo-wide television program remains RTK's satellite broadcast, two hours a day.


Alush Gashi is an independent journalist in Pristina.