Is the press turning into a judge?

A 'symbolic' eight-day closing down of the Albanian daily


FRI, 16 JUN 2000

Pristina, 9 June, 2000 - The closing down of "Dita" as decided by Bernard Kouchner, special representative of the UN Secretary-General, has caused a veritable storm of reactions in the local public, but also opened many questions regarding the scope of the "freedom of the press" and its responsibility in the context of the circumstances under which the Kosovo society is currently operating.

Bernard Kouchner made this decision invoking the authority entrusted to him under Security Council Resolution 1244 regarding the establishment of the "civil peace and order, protection of human rights, including the right to life" as stated by the Executive Decision No.2000/2. Namely, the UNMIK officials were of the opinion that the publication of an article entitled "When does Petar become Peter" in the daily "Dita" on April 27, this year,(published by Belul Beqaj), which accused Peta Topoljski, interpreter for UNMIK, of being a member of the Serbian para-military units and participating in ethnic cleansing and criminal acts against the Albanians during NATO air strikes (with his photo and personal and family data, working place and movements), was directly linked to his murder which happened shortly after the publication of this article.

Kouchner explained his decision by the fact that in an open letter addressed to him the publisher of this paper insisted that he would continue to "use this model" and publish such articles which, according to Kouchner were directly threatening for the lives of these people (who were the subject of the accusations and articles who, according to the publisher, were UNMIK employees) who would become targets of elements that have taken justice into their hands. "Moreover, similar threats put in danger all members of the international community", said the decision of the international administration.

The body of Petar Topoljski was found massacred two weeks after the publication of this article about him. Circumstances and perpetrators of this crime have not been determined yet.

However, the publisher and editors of the "Dita" reject any connection with this killing and defend their right to present the "truth" not only about him, but about other cases for which they claim that they have "witnesses" and "proof". At the same time, they accuse UNMIK and its authorities of being incapable of finding perpetrators and halting crime and for trying to hide them by "stifling the freedom of the press and speech". Beqaj even claims that Kouchner's administration has become a refuge for war criminals(!), and threatened to press charges against Bernard Kouchner before the District Court in Pristina for his decision on temporary closing down of his editorial office because as this was in "violation of Resolution 1244"!

Reactions of the local public were predominantly similar to those presented by the paper's top men. The Association of Journalists of Kosovo and Committee for the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms, as well as many political analysts have practically unanimously assessed the eight-day closing down of this daily's editorial offices in the Media House in Pristina as "flagrant attack on the free word and free press", and the decision to do so as arbitrary one made without any judicial procedure and ruling, stating that this international administration had more important things to do than engage in censorship and closing down of newspapers.

They were obviously dissatisfied with the claims of Mr.Dzok Kovic, Kouchner's Deputy in charge of the establishment of democratic institutions in Kosovo, who explained this decision with the lack of judicial institutions (as according to him: "if such institutions existed here, then we would not be needed") and the need to undertake special measures against increased violence against minorities since they could ensure justice in short term. In that context, he announced the adoption of a special code or decree, of interim and "restrictive" character, which would prescribe sanctions for such and similar unacceptable cases of reporting by the local media. The Kouchner's order on the prohibition of the language of hate, which was adopted earlier at the height of riots and hostilities in Mitrovica, obviously did not have any effect.

True, protagonists of this story cannot be denied the right to insist on the freedom of the press and a fair trial. However, much concern is caused by the lack of any willingness to take responsibility for such reporting of the press, especially in the context of the society "in which murders have become a daily occurrence ", especially those of political nature with ethnic motivation, as well as open violation of the minorities' human rights. Spokesman for the American State Department, Phillip Ricker, touched upon this dimension of the problem when he supported the decision on the closing down of this paper, considering this to be a necessary measure for the prevention of publication of "inciting" articles which only serve to provoke further violence which is why the reporting of the press which endangers people's lives cannot be tolerated under the conditions of inter-ethnic tensions and violent incidents.

"Although freedom of the press and speech are fundamental American values, articles published by the "Dita" have obviously crossed the important limit between professionalism and violence-mongering" said Ricker.

However, in this context the local press cannot be considered totally irresponsible. And not only its small part, as it was insinuated, but more or less the overall press. And not only the press. The local social analysts state that the ideas dominating in the local public regarding the constitution of the Kosovo society and cultural models, are mostly limited to nationalistic frameworks and intolerance, in which there is no place for anyone else or anything different, no place for tolerance. Similar are the basis of the "nation-building ideas" of the greater part of local political protagonists who, true, do not openly insist on the model of "national state" (meaning ethnic state).

There are those who claim that some local political parties support such ideas with "democratic activities of their armed wings on the ground". Naturally, the principal support in the creation of public speech which promotes such "democratic ideas", is none else but the local press. This is demonstrated by their usual "narrative strategies" in their treatment of and approach to minority groups and their rights, especially their relation to the Serbian community in Kosovo. Reports of the local press are mostly dominated by a negative approach and "negative selection" in regard to the Serbian community (earlier characteristic of the writing of the Serbian regime papers about the Albanians, as well as others), which is described with generalised attributes and in which the attribute "Serbian" is mostly linked to the nouns such as "criminals", "villains", etc. Victims of the Serbian nationality in this kind of papers remain "abstract" victims and do not become subjects of press reports which describe individual human destinies.

Within this kind of journalistic speech, a different "strategy" is used in describing acts of violence against members of "other" communities. In other words, as a rule perpetrators of these crimes, which have become very frequent in Kosovo, are "unknown", "unidentified persons", etc. In this case the crime is "individualised", which doesn't apply in opposite situations. This is just one aspect of the "manipulation with the public sentiments" which this type of press resorts to.

This shows a "natural" link between this kind of journalistic and public speech with "centres of political power", which in their opinion should provoke the radicalisation of the society. And that is why the publication of different statements of local political leaders, their (frequently forced) public appearances in which they advocate democracy and tolerance, are nothing but "empty signs" without any meaning and far from any truth and reality, i.e. devoid of any pragmatic dimension or effect on social developments.

That is why the case of "Dita" represents just one of the possible symptoms of the local public's character, nature of the press here, but also an indication of the difficulties which the international administration, and not only it, will have to face in creating democratic press and ensuring its genuine role not only in the forthcoming local elections, but in the long-term democratic transformation of the Kosovo society at large.

Original article