By Shengjyl Osmani
Sharp shifts in political allegiances following last November’s election have not changed the perception that newspapers remain more interested in political patronage than balanced reporting.
Kosovo’s print media, which has a total daily circulation of as little as 20,000, has long been criticised for comprising little more than a collection of vanity publications and political pamphlets – bar a few exceptions.
The parlous state of the advertising market has forced many newspapers to rely on state advertising to survive, crippling their ability to act as credible watchdogs.
However, the media has seen a seismic shift in allegiances since last November’s general election, which led to the creation of a new coalition government of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, led by Hashim Thaci, and the New Kosovo Alliance, AKR.
Thaci’s PDK, the leading force in the previous government, had built up a stable of reliably supportive newspapers: Infopress, Epoka e Re, Tribuna Shiptare and Lajm.
But it faced a barrage of criticism from these same publications after the PDK formed its new alliance with the AKR.
The appointment of the AKR’s controversial businessman leader, Behgjet Pacolli, as President of Kosovo, instead of the PDK’s in-house favourite, Jakup Krasniqi, was deeply unpopular. So was the exclusion from the new government of former transport minister Fatmir Limaj.
The most remarkable volte-face took place at Infopress and at its lesser known sister paper, Tribuna Shiptare. Long seen as cheerleaders for the PDK, responsible among others for aggressive campaigns against BIRN, they suddenly emerged as arch-critics of the new Thaci government.
Whether this overnight change in stance signals a new dawn for independent journalism in Kosovo is doubtful, however.
Most analysts see the changes in stance either as the result of personal politics – Infopress’s part-owner, Rexhep Hoti, failed to be re-elected as a PDK candidate in the election – or as a switch in clan allegiances.
Political patronage endemic:
A report in March 2010 by the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development, KIPRED, on newspaper circulations and the politicisation of the print media, revealed that the government placed the highest proportion of adverts in Infopress, at 28 per cent.
This was followed by Kosova Sot, on 19.5 per cent, then Epoka e Re, with 15 per cent.
This pattern emerged despite the fact that KIPRED found that only 4 per cent of those surveyed said they read either Infopress or Epoka e Re.
A perception that newspapers are more interested in obtaining government advertising than in reporting “damages the reputation of newspapers and people’s trust in them”, the KIPRED report said.
“There is a tendency on the part of Kosovo’s institutions, including both central government and municipal authorities, to exercise control over the media,” it added.
“Institutions put pressure on print media by conditioning positive reporting of their activities and performance in exchange for publication of advertisements in newspapers, which is crucial for their sustainability,” it continued.
A more recent report, published this March, looking at political spending during the last election, threw up slightly different results.
The report by the Kosova Democratic Institute, KDI, said the PDK spent 24.5 per cent of its campaign budget on placing adverts in Epoka e Re, 14 per cent on averts in Express, 12 per cent on Zeri, 9.9 per cent on Lajm, and 9.8 per cent on Infopress.
Of those, most media experts would classify only Zeri as a reliably independent-minded newspaper.
Whether the new PDK-LDK government will divide its advertising more equitably among Kosovo’s newspapers is not yet clear, as the coalition has only just started work.
New dawn for independent media?
Jeton Mehmeti, an analyst from the GAP Institute for Advanced Studies, one of the authors of a GAP report on media sustainability in 2010, told Balkan Insight that newspapers routinely supported particular parties and officials in order to gain protection and government money.
“When a newspaper becomes close to the government… it feels discouraged to criticise, or report on abuses by officials, so as not to lose the benefits obtained from government, or political protection,” he said.
Mehmeti said this had helped create a culture of self-censorship in Kosovo, whereby journalists know what they can and can’t write.
The last elections had resulted in a sudden shift in newspaper allegiances, however.
“But their[newspapers’] new approach still doesn’t fit journalistic principles about objectivity because a newspaper’s role is to represent the truth and be critical whenever it is needed, of all public institutions, and not be selective,” he said.
Some newspapers might have become more critical of certain members of the government or of certain parties, but they were still willing to exclude a favoured few from criticism, he added.
“Such newspapers remain subjective and are unable to create a new image of being honest and objective,” Mehmeti continued.
Krenar Gashi, director of KIPRED, told Balkan Insight that the media scene in the country remained poorly served. “Unfortunately, we still have more politically affiliated and partisan newspapers than independent ones,” he said.
“Some have shifted their political orientation since the last election but that didn’t happen because they’d improved their editorial policies but because their political interest switched from party to clan-based interests,” he said, referring to the breakdown of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, in particular, into difference factions.
He added that different wings of the PDK and LDK have been fighting to secure more votes for their own candidates in the election.
“These divisions became more visible in the pro-PDK newspapers after the PDK head, Prime Minister Thaci, entered into coalition with the AKR’s Behgjet Pacolli, making him President,” Gashi added.
“Many in the PDK did not support this decision, and this then influenced some pro-PDK newspapers to oppose it.”
Mehmeti said that newspapers attempting to cut a more independent profile were likely to struggle with recasting their image.
“The damage caused by a single editor over a short period cannot be repaired easily, even if the newspaper changes its board of editors, its design and its general approach,” Mehmeti maintained.
Petrit Selimi, a civil society activist, one of the founders of the daily Express and a PDK candidate in the last election, said Kosovo’s media was rooted in political and business networks, so it was often hard to distinguish party and personal politics from proper journalism.
“Publishers of some papers follow the smell of money more than any journalistic principle,” he added. “It’s also a professional sin for publishers and editors to also hold senior positions in political parties,” he added.
“I joined politics long after relinquishing my duties as a director of Express, though I keep writing pieces in the opinion pages of dailies, with appropriate disclaimers when the context requests it,” he continued.
Newspapers and media figures can be harmed their reputation for “changing hats” too often.
“A newspaper that has never criticised the government will have its credibility harmed, rather than strengthened, if all of the sudden it starts criticising everything that the government does,” he added.
He added that even those newspapers who are often held up to be independent are often beset with their own “vicious personal and political agendas”.
Halil Matoshi, a political analyst for the daily Koha Ditore, widely seen as Kosovo’s most respected newspaper, believes that apart from his newspaper, and to some extent Zeri, most other newspapers in Kosovo are basically politically oriented.
“Only the Koha Group, especially Koha Ditore and KTV, and up to some extent Zeri, have not changed their approach or professional reporting on bad governance in Kosovo, and continue being critical even towards the second Thaci government.
“Only Infopress has changed its way of reporting, which only happened because of personal conflicts between its editor and the PDK leader,” he added.
This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.