AIM: start

MON, 07 JAN 2002 23:36:20 GMT

Protecting Journalists

AIM Pristina, December 30, 2001

"Kosovo is a minefield for journalists," said one Kosovo journalist on condition of anonymity, probably to avoid encountering a "mine." His caution seems to be justified. The war in Kosovo was marked by mines, and about 100 people have so far been killed by booby-traps left by the Serbian army and police before their withdrawal in 1999. It seems that Kosovo journalists who are returning from exile are ready to exercise extreme caution in regard to this. Many of them have tried to imagine what it would be like, but are now faced with the fact that peacekeepers and specialized organizations cannot detect them all. Red tape warning of danger could indeed limit the freedom of movement, but everybody knows who is to blame for that. Now, new, often invisible dangers have appeared.

A survey done by the Media Issues Department of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has shown that 39 percent of journalists have faced various threats in their work. A total of 75 journalists filled out a three-page OSCE questionaire giving details of such instances and suggestions of what should be done to eliminate them. Of the total number of respondents, 22 were from Pristina, and 53 from other parts of Kosovo, 23 were Serb, and 55 ethnic Albanian. Of them, 35 percent of Serbs and 40 percent of Albanians said they had received threats while investigating sensitive stories. It is indicative that journalists working in the capital feel more threatened (68 percent) than those working in other parts of Kosovo (26 percent). Nineteen percent said the threats concerned their safety, 9 percent were threatened by local officials, 9 percent were obstructed in doing their job, 7 percent were physically assaulted. It seems that attacks are coming from all sort of circles: 46 percent received threats from public personalities, politicians or their representatives, 33 percent from anonymous sources, and 12 percent from organized crime circles. There is a great discrepancy between actual threats and reported threats. Slightly over one-half of journalists said they had informed their editors, 22 percent did nothing about them, and only 14 percent mustered enough courage to report such instances to the police. Eleven percent informed international community representatives. According to 61 percent, such reports, however, had no results.

The figures are certainly disturbing, particularly in light of the fact that 70 percent of respondents said they were avoiding sensitive matters out of fear of threats and possible reprisals. Although none of them were willing to identify those who had threatened them, they said corruption, politics, business crime, trafficking in drugs and humans and organized crime in general were subjects likely to result in threats. This is why articles dealing with them are few in number and the ones that do make it to press are very superficial.

The journalists have nobody to protect them; they have to rely on their good luck. The law does not seem to care about such matters. This is why journalists have begun to press for legislation effectively protecting their profession. In addition, they also require freedom of movement and an effective police force, which means better pay for police officers to curb bribery. At this point, however, something like that seems impossible, and for certain journalists it is already too late. Shefki Popova, a journalist of the Rilindja paper, and Bekim Kastrati, a journalist of the Bota Sot, paid with their lives. Both of them were killed in still unresolved incidents and their murderers have not been identified. Officials keep saying that "investigations are underway," but the message to journalists is quite clear: stay out of trouble if you want to stay alive.

International police say that journalists like all other people should cooperate with the law enforcement bodies in apprehending criminals and fighting crime. The experience of journalists who heeded this advice, however, shows that it did not help very much. To the contrary.

But this story has its other side as well, because not all journalists are 'angels.' Over 80 media outlets currently operating in Kosovo have staff not always up to the tasks of the profession. There are media organizations favoring one side or another, serving as a mouthpiece for interests pursued by political and other groups and consequently instigators of hatred and even violence. Fortunately, they are not numerous, and their role became quite obvious during recent elections. There were instances in which certain groups and individuals attempted to profit by deliberatly creating problems. Some are presenting every criticism of such performance on their part as threats, and frequently denounce their critics by offending them, revealing certain things from their past, with little or no respect for journalism's code of ethics.

On the other hand, the Independent Association of Kosovo Journalists is operating very slowly and is not too responsive. The frightening figures on the intimidation of journalists were revealed at a press conference organized by the OSCE media department, which is in charge of development and control in the sector. This was the first instance when those subject to control could publicly draw attention to problems preventing them from doing their job professionally. This was the only positive event so far insofar as the problems were discussed and made public, and a public debate is supposed to follow. As for a solution, it will have to wait for better times. Until then, Kosovo will remain a minefield for jouralists.

Besnik Bala