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

Media “Inflamed” Riots

The ethnic violence that rocked the protectorate was whipped up by irresponsible television journalism, report says.
By IWPR staff

In a damning report on the conduct of Albanian broadcast journalists during March’s riots in Kosovo, an OSCE body has accused major broadcasting outlets of whipping up ethnic tension in the territory and contributing to a mood of vengeful persecution through sloppy, tendentious and biased reporting

“Without the reckless and sensationalist reporting of the events of March 16 and 17, events in Kosovo could have taken a different turn,” the report says. “They may have not reached the intensity and level of brutality we all witnessed, or have taken place at all for that matter.”

The report by the Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media, an OSCE institution, accuses the broadcast media of putting a “spin” on the drowning on March 16 of a young Albanian boy near the tense and deeply divided town of Mitrovica, so as to give viewers the impression that it was an established fact that local Serbs were responsible for his death.

In fact, the OSCE/RFOM report goes on to say, the facts surrounding the boy’s death remain inconclusive while the disinclination of broadcast media to include doubts or reservations about his death helped to inflame ethnic passions.

“The media displayed an unacceptable level of emotion, bias [and] carelessness... The reporting on the evening of March 16 on the three main Kosovar TV channels, in particular, deserves the strongest criticism,” the report says.

“The performance of Radio and Television of Kosovo, RTK, during the riots and on the evening before should be viewed with special concern since this is the only public broadcaster in the protectorate.

“There is no evidence that the media presented the news after having checked all facts, or that it was in a position to know for a fact that the children had been victims of a ethnically-motivated crime. It seems they did not even listen carefully to their own interviews with one of the children who survived the incident.”

The report includes a blow-by-blow analysis of how the story unfolded on Kosovo’s television screens from March 16 onwards, and it examines the way in which the broadcast media pieced together disconnected elements from one of the surviving children’s accounts to create its own version of events.

Referring to an interview which one of the surviving children gave, it remarks, “The child referred to a distant Serb house, Serbs who had sworn at the children and a dog they had been afraid of. At no point during the interview does the young Albanian say ‘we were chased by a group of Serbs with a dog’. Instead, the TV stations chose to spin the story as if that had actually occurred. The general public was left to believe, beyond any reasonable doubt, that a despicable ethnically-motivated crime had happened.”

The OSCE/RFOM report was especially critical of the fact that broadcasters gave very little air time to any voices urging caution, “The time given to Tracy Backer, UNMIK regional police spokesperson, to put the authorities’ view of the events, was 12 seconds.”

It says that much greater space was given to “expert witnesses”, including some from Albanian human rights groups who were not at the scene but who on air unreservedly endorsed the thesis that a boy had been killed by “a group of Serb bandits”.

The report notes that when Becker went back to the local media outlets, including RTK, and “appealed for people to stay calm and stay home”, stressing further that “we had no evidence to support the rumour of Serbians killing Albanian children”, her interview was not aired, as far as they knew.

In spite of the fact that on March 17 violence began to spread throughout Kosovo, the report continues, Kosovo television stations continued to present the report of the drowning of the boy in the same way as on the previous night.

“Extremely one-sided anti-Serb and sometimes anti-UNMIK reporting began to dominate the TV screens. The media did little if anything at all to calm down the situation,” the report says.

“In conclusion, what the broadcasting media in Kosovo did especially on March 16 was to inject emotional, unsubstantiated reporting about a tragic event involving innocent children.”

By contrast with the sharp criticism of the performance of Kosovo’s Albanian TV stations, the report highlights sections of the Albanian print media for praise, commending several newspapers both for their cautious approach to the story and for their appeals for calm.

Finally, RFOM delivers several recommendations, starting with a full investigation into the performance of the electronic media during the events of March 16 and 17.

“The performance of RTK, as the only public broadcaster, needs to be evaluated. Regular, random checks of programmes aired by the electronic media should be conducted,” it says.

The report additionally urges UNMIK to pay much greater attention to ensuring that its own information gets across to ordinary people. They need “to take action in order to ensure that its message is represented in a fair and consistent manner in the future”.

Read the OSCE report.

More IWPR's Global Voices