Keeping truth alive in the Balkans

Their young faces stare out impassively through the polluted rain that splashes on the broken pavements of Pristina. They are the “disappeared”; hundreds of images of men and women, mostly in their teens or twenties, who were probably hurried into makeshift graves in a series of massacres that defined the Kosovo war in 1999. Seeking justice, their families have hung their pictures on the fence of the tatty building that houses the fledgling state’s parliament – just one symbol of the many scars still to be healed in this disputed Balkan territory, still heavily monitored by Nato from forbidding, high-walled compounds.

Any press operating in this area is going to have its problems. Most of the media here have only been in existence since independence was declared in 2008. Circulations are tiny, advertising low but internet readership is growing. I met some of Kosovo’s editors last week at a discussion on media accountability, part of a large programme set up by Unesco and the EU across south-east Europe (Guardian colleagues have been involved in other parts of the region, too).

The problems in Kosovo are immense. Most media are owned by private companies run by politicians and interference with editorial policy is an everyday menace. “Media are forced to pay taxes equal to a factory producing cement blocks – and we have to pay VAT,” despaired one editor, adding that negligible advertising and the all-too-evident poverty of the region meant that media cannot flourish. “Freedom of expression is being suffocated,” he said.

But that’s not entirely true. A new website, Kosovo 2.0, launched in July and edited by the bright young Besa Luci, is getting around all these encumbrances by involving the audience in telling the story. Six journalists work on the site, writing stories and verifying submitted blogs before they go live. “We want to be sure about the facts before we post,” she said. Appearing in Albanian, English and Serbian, it has already attracted 300,000 followers.

It’s a combination of professional and community journalism that skips neatly over the barriers to give an authentic voice to ordinary Kosovans, particularly the young. In a state where eight daily newspapers share a total circulation of only 40,000, it has to be the way forward for journalism here.

But training that next generation of journalists looks threatened. On the bleak plains outside Pristina, near a huge, Communist-era power station, stands a modern media centre, where 30 students are completing an MA in journalism. It’s funded jointly by the Norwegian and Kosovan governments, but future Kosovan cash is in doubt. Head of the school is Willem Houwen, who also chairs the press council, ensuring that there is an ethical dimension to the students’ training. In a state where objective, verifiable reporting is vital to its future, the centre’s closure is just what Kosovo could do without.

At least it has a press code and a press council. Over the border in more prosperous Macedonia, they have neither to speak of – and a viable form of media self-regulation is a requirement if Macedonia is to stand any chance of joining the EU. (That and sorting out the thorny issue of its name: the Greeks insist the confusion with the name of its own Macedonia should be resolved before any real negotiations begin.)

In a round table with editors in Skopje, the talking went on for four hours – and this was the third such meeting in five years. Again, some editors complained of indifference to ethical standards from their owners and widespread political interference. There was a recognition that the will for media self-regulation had to come from the journalists themselves, in order both to protect professional standards and to stand up to government pressure. (Libel is still a criminal offence here; one editor said he had been hauled in front of the courts 40 times. He was acquitted on every occasion.)

Eventually, it was decided to begin appointing a media ombudsman for all the newspapers in Macedonia; a figure who would adjudicate on complaints from readers and whose independence would act as a buffer to resist political pressure. It’s a start, though whether the idea’s foundations will be as firm as those for a 40-metre statue of Alexander the Great currently going up in Skopje’s main square (and overshadowing Tito’s monument) only time will tell.

This column was originally published in the Observer on Oct. 31, 2010.

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