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13 May 12

Butchering the Media

Lawrence Marzouk

Unlike most capital cities in Europe, Pristina is home to the odd wandering cow, grazing on the meagre roadside pasture. 

From my old flat in Sunny Hill I could sometimes hear the fulsome moo of a contented calf. But I’d never heard of Kosovo’s “Sacred Cow” until this week. Apparently, it is the media.

Journalists have been particularly introspective recently. There’s been plenty of poring over two clauses in the new criminal code which have been widely condemned and now returned to parliament.

These clauses threatened journalists’ ability to protect their sources and could have put reporters, as well as their publishers, at risk of criminal prosecution for an unspecified offence.

We have also had libel cases, protests, and in the middle of all this World Free Press day.

To mark May 3, Freedom House, the international NGO, released its yearly report, claiming that the situation for the media in Kosovo had improved.

“Kosovo,” the report stated, “had benefited from a continuing trend of fewer attacks on journalists and greater ownership transparency”.

The first may be true – but it’s worth remembering that you don’t need to beat up a journalist, or threaten to do so, to stop the truth being published.

Media outlets remain vulnerable to the spending power of big business and the government. At Prishtina Insight and Gazeta Jeta ne Kosove, we have on a number of occasions been offered advertising in exchange for dropping damaging stories.

Luckily, we have been able to turn down this kind of offer because we survive not on advertising but on donor money from philanthropic funds and charitable states. I fear, although I have no proof of this, that some in the commercial sector would find it much more difficult to refuse much needed advertising money.

Forgo the moral high ground to meet commercial imperatives only once and you will be unable to return to that lofty plain.

Secondly, litigation can also force ‘troublesome’ journalists and their newspapers into line. Media outlets facing a barrage of court suits and hefty payouts tend to lose some of their cut and thrust.

I am completely baffled by Freedom House’s second point, as there has been no change in “ownership transparency” as far as I can see.

On the plus side, EULEX confirmed on World Press Day that it was going ahead with the trial against Skenderaj Mayor Sami Lusktaku, and members of Infopress, who carried out a 10-day campaign of intimidation and threats against BIRN Kosovo, and in particular Jeta Xharra. This is an important marker that the press and politicians have responsibilities as well as powers when publishing and making statements.

Then President Atifete Jahjaga returned the new criminal code to parliament because of the controversial anti-media clauses.

So the picture is mixed.

On Thursday, PDK MP Berat Buzhala gave an indication of what lies ahead. The former Express editor, who now appears to be an arch-opponent of the press, spoke in parliament to attack the President’s return of the criminal code, while pointing out that the media is no “sacred cow”.

Many rightly fear that those in power do not just want to remove the media’s supposed status of “sacred cow”, but want to squeeze the life out of it. They’d rather see it hanging from the butcher’s hook than impeding politicians as they whiz around Prishtina in blacked-out cars.

The opponents of a free press wrongly hope that Article 37 - making journalists, editors, publishers and producers liable for unspecified criminal offences – would allow them to pursue criminal actions for defamation, even though this is now a civil offence.

And as the OSCE, and others, have pointed out: “Article 37 singles out media and journalists from all other persons or legal entities who might potentially commit a criminal offence by disseminating certain types of information.”

Far from being put in a pampered and protected position, the media under Article 37 becomes a specific target for criminal action – the sacred cow has strayed into the slaughterhouse.

In these testing times, the media must ensure that it does not see itself as above the law, or start believing that it is immune from questions or criticisms.

We have a duty not only to protest for our rights, but also to show that we meeting our responsibilities to report fairly, and without fear and favour.

We should strive to be beyond reproach while understanding that earthly beings – be it human or bovine - inevitably err. By attempting to be as sacred as we can, we help save ourselves from the slaughterhouse.

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