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TUE, 06 NOV 2001 00:50:54 GMT

The Media and Their Obligations in the Election Campaign

AIM Pristina, October 17, 2001

"This is bad news for the news media," said the OSCE temporary commissioner for the media, Anna de Lellio, at a presentation of a media decree outlining their obligations during the election campaign. This, at first glance, rather stern attitude towards Kosovo media outlets, which in the past two and a half years were punished several times for biased coverage and lack of professionalism, endangering the safety of certain individuals by their reporting, and raising tensions and causing the overall security situation to deteriorate.

De Lellio's statement only confirmed the resolve of the international community to continue its efforts to cementing the freedom of the press in the region, whereby certain criteria would be respected and their "democratic approach" would not cross the boundaries of good taste. For local media outlets this is nothing new, because the decree essentially does not differ from one passed during the local election campaign. The only difference is the length of advertisements promoting political parties. Everything else is the same.

Thirteen TV stations, 53 radio stations and six daily newspapers in Kosovo were given clear instructions by the OSCE. On their part, they have committed themselves to cover the campaign for elections scheduled for Nov. 17 in an unbiased and objective manner.

The obligations of the media are the following: they are supposed to offer political parties, coalitions and independent candidates equal coverage. This means that commercials may last up to two minutes. The 26 competitors in the vote are divided into three groups. The parties most likely to win seats in the future Kosovo parliament can publish 30 ads, one each day. The others, belonging to the second and third group can advertise every second and third day. The OSCE has provided a publication schedule. The press also has to publish ads in other languages, but it can refuse an ad promoting a certain party if it violates its editorial policies.

Margaret Grebe, head of the OSCE department in charge of the media, says the decree, adopted by the central election commission, is not censorship, and that it differs little from the code of conduct media outlets have to abide by generally, requiring them to have a fair and objective approach and not use hate speech. If they fail to comply, the media commissioner, Anna de Lellio, has every right to punish them. Punishment ranges from public apologies to the closure. Grebe also says that as of recently the Kosovo media have shown they can report in a balanced and objective manner, and that the same attitude was seen last year, during local election campaign.

OSCE representatives have said they will monitor Serbian-language media sites on the Internet, but there is a problem. Namely, the OSCE will open polling stations in Serbia and Montenegro (where, according to OSCE head Daan Everts, there are some 105,000 potential voters, if they decide to participate in the polls), but no rules can be set for the media there. The OSCE has said it cannot demand that Serbian and Montenegrin media outlets carry political ads.

"We will try to encourage them to do so through our offices there and we hope they will do so," said Grebe enthusiastically. But it is obvious that no firm rules for them can be set even if they are directly involved in campaigns launched by certain parties. The decree, thus, is meant only for the Kosovo media. The purpose is to ensure that the campaign and the vote pass in peace, without incidents, pressure, and threats, or as international representatives put it, in a democratic and fair atmosphere. "We have to ensure that the media are protected from strong 'outside' influences. This is also the way to protect the media and journalists in regard to their coverage of the campaign and the voting process," said De Lellio.

The media will be monitored seven days a week instead of five, that is on Saturdays and Sundays as well. It is said that the monitoring was expanded to fight "so-called journalists, who are, in fact, police," which indeed was the case in some instances.

OSCE officials say that they have received very few complaints since the beginning of the campaign. Stressing that the decree was important because "free elections are being organized for the first time in Kosovo's history," they add that the fact that only four media outlets were punished in the past two years does not reflect the actual state of affairs, but is a result of caution to avoid turning the regulations into censorship.

What Kosovo media outlets are expected to show is fairness. Namely, political observers say that "language" is the main issue: if they use "hate language," their violations are easy to detect and punish: if, however, they do the same with elegance, or are politically biased, there is a problem, they warn.

The initial days of the campaign were described as peaceful, and the media outlets were praised for not showing political bias. This could not be said of debates between media representatives who are not candidates. Thus, certain groups with obvious political affiliations praise the political platforms of certain parties, or "warn" voters of mistakes allegedly committed by rival groups. On the other hand, the daily papers have also sharpened their pens. Some of them are using the same methods applied last year. They, for instance, reveal "shady deals" by people close to certain political parties. The papers Epoka e Re and Bota Sot are at the forefront of such smearing campaigns. It is believed that the former is close to Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo and the latter to Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic Alliance of Kosovo. Whereas the latter has a relatively high circulation (the publisher claims 18,000 copies), the former sells even less. There are two additional dailies with equally low circulation -- Rilindja and Kosova Sot -- but smearing campaigns are not part of their editorial policies. Koha Ditore and Zeri are considered the most balanced newspapers and absolutely impartial. They are direct rivals, but no one knows how many copies they sell. Kosovo's broadcasters are yet gearing up for offering their air time to all political groups and individuals vying for seats in the future central administration.

Besnik Bala

(AIM)