Kosovo Media, And Regulators, Failing On Privacy Protection – Analysis
By Xhorxhina Bami
When Indeksonline, an online media outlet in Kosovo, reported in January that a participant in a local reality TV show was HIV positive, dozens of other media ran with the story.
The story was wrong, and Indeksonline later retracted it and issued an apology.
But the claim is still doing the rounds on the Internet, underscoring the cavalier attitude taken by some media in Europe’s youngest state when it comes to protecting personal data.
Kosovo’s Law on Protection of Personal Data prohibits the processing of personal data pertaining to racial or ethnic origin, political preference, religious or philosophical beliefs, union membership, genetic, biometric, and health data or data concerning a person’s sexual orientation.
But this is precisely the kind of information that regularly surfaces in Kosovo media. The fault, say experts, sits not only with the media, but with the three public bodies tasked with holding them to account – the Kosovo Press Council, the Independent Media Commission, and the judiciary.
“It is not enough for these institutions to be functional,” said Flutura Kusari, senior legal advisor at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, a media watchdog based in Leipzig, Germany. “They also should be efficient, that is, to react quickly.”
Since 2019, the Independent Media Commission, IMC, Kosovo’s chief broadcasting regulator, has identified just two violations of privacy. “In both cases, the IMC found a violation of privacy and after the completion of all legal procedures, it issued the sanction measure ‘Warning’,” IMC public relations official Arsim Dreshaj told BIRN.
For its part, the Kosovo Press Council, a self-regulatory body for online media, did not respond to BIRN questions. According to publicly available information, since 2019 the Council has determined 17 violations of privacy and/or illegal publication of personal data.
As of December 2022, there were 52 Kosovo media registered with the Press Council, for which it has the right to evaluate complaints concerning potential violations. These are all online outlets given Kosovo no longer has any print media.
Many websites that carry news articles are not registered with the Council and are therefore beyond its jurisdiction, but Kusari said that the Council can still issue opinions on their work and highlight ethics violations.
The Council, however, does not have the financial resources to tackle the issue effectively, Kusari told BIRN. “If it fails, the media could go from self-regulation to state regulation,” she said, with the inherent danger this poses to media freedom.
When it comes to the law, the Agency on Information and Privacy is the responsible for identifying violations of the Law on Access to Public Information and the Law on Protection of Personal Data.
Of 172 violations identified last year, none concerned the media.
“The agency has the obligation to deal with the submitted complaints and to carry out regular inspections according to the inspection plan for public and private controllers,” the agency told BIRN. “During the year 2022, the Agency has not foreseen in its plan any inspection of media.”
One major breach came in April 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Kosovo media outlet Sinjali published the names, dates of birth, and addresses of some 200 people in the northern, mainly Serb-populated municipalities of North Mitrovica and Zvecan who had been infected.
The European Federation of Journalists urged journalists in Kosovo to refrain from publishing such information and the Kosovo Press Council ruled that Sinjali was in violation of the Code of Ethics.
Then last year, in November, media published the names of an elderly woman physically abused and the nurse who abused her at a retirement home in the western city of Peja/Pec, after video of an incident surfaced on social media. Reports also identified the family members of the victim and her abuser.
Competition for clicks
Experts say the roots of the problem lie in the competition for clicks and a lack of awareness of the media Code of Ethics and the Law on Personal Data.
Kusari said the proliferation of online media, while good for pluralism, had hiked pressure on media to “publish first”, particularly for those with financial constraints and therefore desperate for revenue.
Often there is no “editorial filtering” to determine what should be published and what is of public interest, said Kusari, though she said things might change as judges become freer to sanction media outlets without fear of being smeared.
The Association of Journalists of Kosovo, AGK, argued that the blame should be placed on media owners putting revenues ahead of the media’s duty to the public. It also noted that the media ethics class at the University of Pristina’s journalism school is “optional, not mandatory, which does not allow journalists to be properly educated on media ethics before they begin work.”
Dreshaj, of the IMC, urged media outlets to provide their journalists with training with regards protection of personal data, saying that the “non-respect (or ignorance) of the Code of Ethics” is particularly bad among “young journalists who usually work more in the field.”