Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

KOSOVO: Dragging Corruption Into the Net

Claudia Ciobanu

BUCHAREST, Nov 12 2010 (IPS) - Kosovo youths looking to address issues treated as taboo by mainstream media are taking increasingly to online activism. The new platform is being used particularly to fight high-level corruption.

“Mainstream media does not include the views of the youth when it discusses policies,” says Besa Luci, editor of website Kosovo 2.0, set up in July in capital Pristina by a small group of young people. “So we want to give a voice to the young and also address in more depth issues interesting to us that are only mentioned in passing in other media.”

The site publishes creative writing, videos, and commentaries on the arts and on social and political issues, from both permanent contributors and readers. Entries are published in Albanian, Serbian and English, bridging the gap between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo.

Its popularity has boomed since launch, reaching 130,000 hits (20,000 unique views) in the past four months.

Given that 50 percent of Kosovo’s population of two million is below 25 years old, and 70 percent below 35, the site has significant potential. Internet penetration rates in Kosovo are among the highest in the Balkans: this year the main Internet providers reported that the number of subscribers countrywide has reached half a million.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, a status still to be recognised by Serbia, China, Russia and five European Union states, among others. Around 90 percent of the population is Albanian.

On Dec. 12 Kosovo is facing the first general elections since independence, following the fall of the government after a no-confidence vote Nov. 2. Until October, Kosovo had been ruled by a coalition government made up of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (the party of Prime Minister Hasim Thaci) and the Democratic League of Kosovo (of former president Fatmir Sejdu). Thaci’s party is expected to gain ground in next month’s elections.

Besa Luci told IPS that in the run-up to elections Kosovo 2.0 would ask of readers what their main concerns are and then put these to all participants in the elections.

“The functioning of the main political parties in Kosovo is not based on an ideology or a political platform and they have no real plans for the youth,” says Luci, who hopes that the initiative of Kosovo 2.0 will get politicians to spell out their strategies.

The website is not meant to be political, but contributors do engage with political issues – usually keeping a critical distance to all parties.

Independence is afforded because the site is financially self-reliant for the moment. It has no ads, it was launched with the help of a grant from the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications, and the editors are now applying for funding abroad.

But this is an exceptional situation in Kosovo.

“Freedom of the press is struggling to develop,” according to a June 2010 analysis of Kosovo media by Reporters without Borders. “Neither financial nor editorial independence is guaranteed. The influence of Prime Minister Hasim Thaci and that of his party are obvious and increasing, particularly in public television, which remains the country’s leading media.”

In its progress report on Kosovo published Nov. 9, the European Commission said: “Freedom of expression is still not guaranteed in practice. The independence and impartiality of the public broadcasters need strengthening. Journalists continue to receive threats in response to their reporting. They also face difficulties in accessing official documents.”

According to Reporters Without Borders, advertising budgets of the government and the main parties, one of the principal sources of financing for the media, are used by authorities to ensure favorable coverage – in the absence of an independent advertising authority. Additionally, “newspapers seen by the Thaci government as ‘too independent’ find themselves coming in for regular tax investigations.”

Journalists exposing high-level corruption are depicted in government- controlled media as “unpatriotic” or “Serbian spies”, turning them into potential targets by extremists, the Reporters Without Borders report said.

In such a media environment, most journalists exercise self-censorship, argues the group, which sees hope in online journalism if the sector manages to overcome financial obstacles.

Political blogs of papers, which appeared only recently in Kosovo, manage to be freer than the public television and printed versions of newspapers.

The first to be created, in 2009, was the blog of Zeri, the second largest paper in the country. To date, the most popular article in the blog is an open letter to Hasim Thaci, published in March this year by 26-year old Agon Maliqi. The piece scored 14,400 hits, a considerable achievement given that the total circulation of all Kosovo newspapers is around 30,000.

In his article (also published in print), Maliqi demanded of the Prime Minister to explain where he had gotten the money for his luxurious mansion, a photo of which had been published previously by Koha Ditore, the largest daily in Kosovo, owning its own printing press and distribution system and thus the most independent of Kosovo’s eight national papers.

“I wrote the letter because, after the story of the house was published, there was complete silence,” Maliqi told IPS. Maliqi says that his article also targeted members of the opposition known to have similar luxurious houses built with funds whose origins are unknown.

“The reaction to the piece was overwhelming, it went viral,” Maliqi said. “This happened because a lot of other people shared the frustration with how political elites just get to do whatever they want. People appreciated that someone got out and said it in public.

“I also wrote a follow-up piece, addressing the government’s lack of response to my inquiry and attacking the media who defended the government, but Zeri refused to publish this piece in the newspaper. But I published it in the blog anyway, because I had access to it.”

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