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
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
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
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.