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

New Broadcasters Pick Away at Walls of Prejudice

Most reporters on the region’s new ethnically mixed radio and TV stations enjoy the challenge - but that isn’t always the case with the listeners.
By Tatjana Stamenkovic

At Radio Bujanovac, the sound of Albanian and Serbian mingles in the newsroom and on the airwaves.

The staff seem to like it that way. “I can’t imagine Radio Bujanovac if it were only in Albanian,” said Ahmet Beciri, the station’s ethnic Albanian news editor.

Dijana Veljkovic, a Serb reporter on the station serving a town fairly evenly divided between the two communities, takes the same line.

Veljkovic welcomes the fact that both Albanian and Serb reporters respect their own diversity of opinions.

“The positive aspect of all this is a good professional approach at the radio,” she said. “Everyone says what they think, without offending anyone else. I've never felt tense or anxious here.”

After the end of the armed conflict in the Presevo valley in 2001, it was widely accepted that the two communities needed to find common ground on the basic principles concerning management of local media.

After an agreement on the reorganisation of media outlets owned by the Bujanovac municipality was signed in January 2002, Radio Bujanovac became the first radio station in Serbia to broadcast in Albanian since the Milosevic era, when broadcasts were restricted to Serbian.

The signatories to this agreement, which entailed equal representation of all ethnic communities in the local state media, relative to their numbers, were the OSCE ambassador Maurizio Massari, the head of the Coordination Centre for South Serbia Nebojsa Covic (representing Belgrade) and local government representatives.

The trail blazed by the radio in Bujanovac has set the standard for other ethnically mixed districts. A similar agreement for Presevo was signed in December 2003 and in June 2004 for Medvedja.

The speed at which multi-ethnic newsrooms are being formed in south Serbia varies mainly due to technical problems. “The process we want to take place here is the same, but the ways in which we achieve those objectives may be quite different,” said Martin Brooks, head of the OSCE Mission for South Serbia.

“The important thing is that local media in every multi-ethnic community reflects the ethnic composition of the local population,” he added.

Most of the reporters involved say they feel multi-ethnic newsrooms have improved the quality of reporting in the area since the signing of the ceasefire agreement in May 2001, which ended the armed conflict between Serbian security forces and Albanian rebels.

One participant in the subsequent OSCE-led training programme told IWPR that the integration of the newsrooms had been far from smooth.

“At first Albanian and Serb journalists wouldn’t even sit next to each other at seminars and training sessions,” the source said. “Now they work together in the same newsrooms.”

Local elections held this September were a test of the progress that had been made so far. During the election campaign, a plethora of parties of different ethnic backgrounds all required fair and proportionate exposure through the local media.

At Radio Bujanovac, five Serb and five Albanian journalists now work together on programmes that go out from 7 am until 8 pm in both languages.

Xhahid Ramadani, the station’s Albanian director, says the team has much to celebrate when they mark the anniversary of the agreement next year.

“We are the only genuine multi-ethnic radio station in southern Serbia,” he told IWPR. “Team work among all the journalists and other employees, irrespective of their ethnic background and minor squabbles, has helped to allay many suspicions and show just how successful this radio station can be.”

The station’s Serbian-language newsroom editor, Dusan Sikimic, said multi-ethnic reporting had helped many people to reach a more objective picture of what was going on in the region.

“We've grown used to the reality of living next to one another,” he said. The goal, he added, was “more comprehensive and unbiased reporting for all citizens of Bujanovac municipality”.

Listeners, needless to say, are often less enthusiastic about the project than reporters. Both local Serb and Albanian journalists say they get telephone calls from irate listeners, demanding to know how they can work with each other.

Perparime Demiri, an Albanian reporter, has no qualms about working with Serb colleagues, however, adding that there is a considerable a “crossover” audience between the communities. “Many Albanians also listen to Serbian-language programmes and say they like them,” Demiri said.

The radio station also publishes a bilingual monthly newspaper, Bujanovacke novine, and TV Bujanovac is the next big project, for which the equipment has already been acquired.

The agreement on multi-ethnic media in Presevo was signed a little later than Bujanovac, due to legal and technical issues.

Here, the situation on the ground was also different, for while Bujanovac is a divided community, Presevo is more than 90 per cent Albanian, so the challenge was to reach out and tap the small local Serbian population

Since August 2004, Radio Television Presevo, RTP, has been broadcasting a thirty-minute-long programme in Serbian each week and, as part of this OSCE-financed project, two Serb journalists are now working here besides four Albanians.

Ivica Stepanovic, one of the two Serbs, told IWPR there had been no problems in working with Albanians and they were all exchanging ideas and information. “I'm a beginner in this, the Albanians are helping us out and we’re learning from them,” Stepanovic said.

Stepanovic’s Albanian colleague, Zejnula Dauti, said people on both sides would have to get used to shows in the “other” language.

“Multi-ethnic coexistence is the reality, so Albanians [in Presevo] will have to accept Serb-language shows,” she said. Journalists, she added, “need to explain why this is being done. People will then understand that it is necessary and that it should have happened long ago”.

Local Serbs in Presevo seem delighted, although one listener complained to IWPR that “half the programming should be in Serbian and the other half in Albanian”.

For all the claims that Serbian and Albanian journalists work well together, the fact is that this cooperation is harder to sustain when it comes to reporting controversial events.

Belgzim Kamberi, deputy editor of the bilingual monthly Hapi-Korak, one of the few print media outlets where Serbs and Albanians work together, says life in a multi-ethnic newsroom was not always easy.

The monthly was launched in December 2003 with assistance from the Norwegian government and is distributed in all three of south Serbia’s ethnically mixed municipalities.

Kamberi said reporting events in Kosovo, such as the outbreak of violence in March against the Serb minority, had had an impact on the newsroom.

“When something happens in Kosovo, it is reflected in all of us here,” he said. “Our editorial policy was to publish articles criticising violence, coming from both sides, but it wasn’t easy.”

According to Kamberi, the March events had posed a special challenge, as normal practice among the reporters was “not to discuss politics”. That, however, is not always possible.

Tatjana Stamenkovic and Aleksandra Jovanovic are journalists with Radio Bujanovac TV Presevo respectively.

This article is part of a special issue produced by journalists from South Serbia who attended an intensive two-day workshop in Nis, organised by IWPR in October 2004, with financial support from the British Embassy in Belgrade.

The training session is a component of the Serbia Inter Ethnic Media Training Project which aims to bring together local Serbian and Albanian journalists.

The package of articles is intended to shed light on the specific problems of this much neglected region.

More IWPR's Global Voices

FakeWatch Africa
Website to provide multimedia training and resources for fact-checking and investigations.
FakeWatch Africa
Africa's Fake News Epidemic and Covid-19: What Impact on Democracy?