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Kosovo: Violence Raises Questions About Media Responsibility

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  • Kosovo: Violence Raises Questions About Media Responsibility

    Radio Free Europe, Czech Republic
    March 19 2004

    Kosovo: Violence Raises Questions About Media Responsibility
    By Jeremy Bransten

    This week's deadly interethnic clashes in Kosovo have raised many
    questions about why the violence spread so quickly and easily across
    the province. One spark seems to have come from the way local media
    reported on a particular incident in the divided town of Kosovska
    Mitrovica. Should the media follow special guidelines when reporting
    from an ethnically charged region, and do they bear a special
    responsibility for maintaining stability?

    Prague, 19 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Tensions had been simmering in
    Kosovo for some time. This week, ethnic Albanians demonstrated in
    several of the province's cities over the imprisonment of a former
    rebel commander, union members announced a picket over privatization
    plans, and Serbs protested against the shooting and wounding on 15
    March of a teenager in an incident of ethnic violence.

    In this context, Kosovo television's 16 March nighttime broadcast of
    an interview with an ethnic Albanian boy was the last straw. The boy
    said he had barely survived an attack by local Serbs that left at
    least two other children dead. Violence between the Albanian and
    Serbian communities soon flared across the province, in the worst set
    of clashes since 1999.

    The boy -- identified as 13-year-old Fitim Veseli -- said he had been
    playing along the river that divides the town of Kosovska Mitrovica
    into ethnic Albanian and Serbian parts on 16 March with his brother
    and two friends. Veseli told Kosovo television that when two Serbs
    unleashed their dogs on the group, the boys jumped into the river in
    an attempt to escape and swim to the other side.

    "I think it's all a matter of tone and a matter of context. If you
    only screen the boy's story, then that becomes the whole narrative.
    If you screen the boy's story but then you also screen other people
    saying that this was an isolated incident, or people calling for
    peace or people giving a fuller version of the story, then you can
    put it in context."Veseli said he was the only one who managed to
    ford the swift current. The bodies of his drowned brother and another
    boy were later found by the authorities. The fourth boy remains
    missing and is presumed dead. Veseli's harrowing account was
    broadcast repeatedly by Kosovo television, fanning outrage in the
    community and helping to ignite mass violence, which has now claimed
    31 lives.

    UN authorities today said they are continuing to investigate the
    incident. There is no doubt two children were killed, but the
    circumstances in which they died still remain unclear. The UN says it
    has not been able to confirm Veseli's story.

    The question therefore arises -- did Kosovo television act
    improperly? Should the television station have withheld its interview
    with the boy -- aware that its report could fuel more violence --
    since it was not able to confirm all the details? Or did it act
    ethically, as a purveyor of available information, nothing more and
    nothing less?

    Robert Gillette is the temporary media commissioner for Kosovo for
    the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The
    body is responsible for licensing and overseeing local media.
    Gillette met with the heads of Kosovo's three television channels
    today and asked them to provide videotapes of their broadcasts over
    the past two days for detailed analysis.

    Gillette told RFE/RL today from Pristina that he does not want to
    pre-judge the stations' coverage before seeing the tapes. But he said
    that if the tapes reveal that the broadcasters -- through their
    coverage -- helped to ignite interethnic violence, sanctions could be
    taken against them.

    Regardless of what the OSCE concludes, the larger question remains.
    What responsibility does the media bare when reporting from an
    ethnically charged or religiously divided region? Thomas De Waal, of
    the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), told
    RFE/RL that the media -- when broadcasting to such regions -- do have
    a special duty because lives are often at stake.

    "The media should be extra super vigilant in a time of crisis, and
    they should apply their professional standards even more carefully,"
    he said. "Even a big organization like the BBC has indirectly -- not
    intentionally, obviously -- caused deaths. For example, in India,
    when they broadcast archive footage of ethnic violence which had
    happened months before between Hindus and Muslims. And people
    watching it in India thought that the footage was from the same day
    and went and retaliated. And people died as a result of that."

    Sometimes, local media outlets are all too aware of what is at stake,
    and they fan the flames of ethnic hatred intentionally. The
    best-known case in recent times was that of Rwanda's Radio-Television
    Libre des Milles Collines (Free Radio Television of the Thousand
    Hills), whose broadcasters in 1994 incited ethnic Hutus to slaughter
    their fellow Tutsi countrymen.

    Rwanda quickly turned into a gigantic killing field, with an
    estimated 800,000 people losing their lives before the carnage was
    halted. Almost a decade later, in December of last year, the
    International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda convicted the radio
    station director and sentenced him to life in prison for his role in
    inciting the massacre. Two newspaper editors were also sentenced to
    life and 35 years in prison, respectively. They were the first
    convictions of media workers by an international court in more than
    50 years.

    The Rwanda case most powerfully illustrates the potential influence
    of the media when it is operating in an ethnically divided
    environment. In the case of Kosovo and Fitim Veseli's testimony, what
    should local television have done?

    The IWPR's De Waal said, "I think it's all a matter of tone and a
    matter of context. If you only screen the boy's story, then that
    becomes the whole narrative. If you screen the boy's story but then
    you also screen other people saying that this was an isolated
    incident, or people calling for peace or people giving a fuller
    version of the story, then you can put it in context."

    Dramatic personal accounts attract big audiences. Ordinary people
    relate best to such stories. But De Waal says the failure of local
    broadcasters to put their stories into proper context often leads to
    one-sided reporting. "What often happens in these ethnic conflicts --
    and one sees this in the Caucasus, particularly in Azerbaijan and
    Armenia -- is that one side mythologizes personal stories," he said.
    "They fill the news, and there's absolutely no political context to
    it. And I think [the importance of not doing this] has to be
    inculcated into the news reporters who are reporting on things like

    Aly Colon teaches ethics at the respected Poynter Institute for
    journalists in the United States. He echoed De Waal's comments. "You
    can gather the information -- in other words, you can take
    information from witnesses who were on the scene. But I also think
    it's best to make sure that you know all the information you possibly
    can gather at that time so that you can put it in some sort of
    context -- so that people can see it from a variety of perspectives,
    to have a fuller picture of what's going on. Just one source is only
    one piece of the story -- not an unimportant one, not necessarily one
    that's not factual, but you need as much detail as you can so that
    people can see this in perspective," Colon said.

    NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer yesterday called on the
    news media in Kosovo to exercise caution in their reporting, to avoid
    fanning further hatred. "I have called on the media, as well, to show
    restraint in reporting because this [violence] should stop," he said.

    NATO has increased its peacekeeping presence in the province. Despite
    isolated incidents today, the situation appears to be calming down.