A Troubled Past – Media Reporting in Kosovo 

Depending on who you ask, two decades ago there was either a war for freedom or a conflict between a state and a guerrilla group in Kosovo. This is how two different ethnic communities: the Albanians and the Serbs begin to talk about their bloody past. Over the years, both sides have tried to develop a more neutral language when referring to this period. Especially after the war, media from both sides have played a crucial role in shaping the narrative about the past, albeit mostly a one-sided reflection on the events of 1998-99. 

To this date, a large portion of the Serbian media use a derogatory name for ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. The local Albanians in Serbia have sued the Interior Minister for using hate speech in public, only to be disappointed by the court ruling that effectively allows for hate language to be used. Serbian tabloids knowingly use the term to appeal for more readers and viewership. 

Kosovo Albanians have an equally hurtful derogatory name for Serbs that is broadly used but usually not in mainstream media. However, this is not because the media is sensitive to this issue but rather due to the severe sanctions by the Independent Media Commission, the Kosovo media regulatory body.

As the Serbian media continue to portray Kosovo as a dangerous place which was taken from Serbia by force, the Albanian language media largely use in their reporting the word “Serbs” when talking about war crimes, thus not making a distinction between the state-organized campaign back then and the general public.

The Kosovo Albanian media used a photo of the Kosovo Army vehicles driving in the local highways, claiming it was heading to Albania after the deadly earthquake. It served to raise the national sentiment among the local population. On the other hand, Serbian media publish photos of tanks heading towards the border with Kosovo, whenever there are tensions in the North of Kosovo.

As much as the media can do, in the modern era of technology is it the Governments that drive the fake news in Kosovo, by publishing articles that distort the past. They invest in different platforms, and often lead online campaigns which at best are disinformation that challenges the well-established facts from the history. 

In 2004, at least 19 people from both communities were killed in two-day long riots that ensued the unprofessional reporting of Kosovo’s Public Broadcaster about 3 ethnic Albanians kids who drowned in Ibar River in the North of the country, inhabited mostly by Serbs. Such reporting led to people going into the streets attacking and demolishing Orthodox churches. To date, it remains a topic that divides both sides when reporting. 

The topic of missing persons is the only one that really resonates equally to both sides. For many years, special Commissions helped each-other find the missing bodies, but the reporting is mostly one-sided. An attempt by forumZFD to have Serb victims tell their story too was shunned by the public broadcaster, RTK, but was eventually picked up by private media. 

The majority of Kosovo Albanian journalists are at best in their 30s, and even though they have not really lived through much of the war, there is still a strong attachment to the past, because of the way how they were raised. The same goes for Serbian journalists and their strong attachment towards Serbia. However, explaining and understanding each-others’ points of view and putting professionalism before nationality might begin to change attitudes. 

In addition, media reporting in Kosovo still relies heavily on the overwhelming use of political elites as sources of information. Despite the animosities and deeply rooted ethnic divisions, Peace Journalism and Conflict Prevention are not among the pillars of Kosovo’s curricula of relevant journalism and communication courses.

Remzije Shahini-Hoxhaj a professor of the Faculty of Journalism at the public University of Prishtina pointed out that for countries like Kosovo it is important to prepare young journalists for peace journalism, transitional justice, and dealing with the past.

“As a part of my courses Ethics and Media and Media and Politics I am trying to include those elements. It’s necessary for post-conflict societies like Kosovo to deal with those topics to properly educate young journalists,” Shahini-Hoxhaj said.

The media in Kosovo struggle to report on the past as they have been stuck for years between ethno-centred narratives and political influence, driven to expose the crimes of the Other while ignoring their own. In addition, state building, post-war conditions, and inter-ethnic tensions are contributing factors to the deficiencies in reporting on the past.

The Kosovo media market is not completely regulated, and it finds itself in a situation of deep ethnic and political division, where every community has developed “its own” media. As in other countries of former Yugoslavia, when it comes to nationality, the main journalistic values of impartiality in portraying victims and perpetrators are not always embraced by Kosovo media either.

Nora Ahmetaj, a researcher in peace and dealing with the past, says that with a few exceptions, the media narrative has been consistent with the political elites. “As a result, the Kosovo media did not always understand the disparities, nor were they bothered to initiate serious discussion and debate about the past,” Ahmetaj said.

The current situation which still carries the scars of a post-war society points to future research to help deepen the understanding whether peace journalism can be considered a tool in the field of media development in Kosovo.

Abit Hoxha, a Kosovo-born lecturer and media researcher at the University of Agder in Norway, said that training and doing proper peace journalism is very difficult for media in a highly polarized society like Kosovo. “Narratives of conflict in Kosovo are not brewing from within and what media can do is to interact more with the other side. Not for a fake balance but for the purposes of bringing in new perspectives on the conflict reporting.”

Over the years little has been done to bring together Kosovo and Serbia journalists to talk to one another. Moreover, what is needed is an internal dialogue between local journalists from both communities in Kosovo. Facing each other and talking about the hurtful language to the other community would be a good start.

Serbeze Haxhiaj is an investigative journalist and news editor based in Pristina, Kosovo, who focuses on corruption, human rights, security issues, religious extremism, terrorism and war crimes. She is currently an editor at Radio Television of Kosovo and a journalist at the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN).

Xhemajl Rexha is Chairman of Association of Journalists of Kosovo, the body that represents some 750 journalists from all ethnic backgrounds in the country. Rexha now hosts “Prime Time” current affairs show in Kanal 10, and worked since 2005 at Kohavision (KTV), where he hosted one of the most watched current affairs show ‘Interaktiv’.  With AJK, Rexha is actively engaged in media literacy events, which also includes trainings and reporting about past and sensitive journalism.