23rd April 2016
By Tom Law

Kosovo: Ethical Media Audits and Guidelines for Quality Journalism

This report arises from a visit to Prishtina as part of the “Building Trust in media in South East Europe and Turkey” project funded by UNESCO and the EU and covers a series of interviews and meetings with Kosovo media leaders and regulatory bodies to develop draft guidelines for ethical audits and good governance at media enterprise level.

In line with the working programme for 2016, the EJN has begun to prepare materials to perform internal audits (these are attached). The initial material has been circulated to local media selected for co-operation: Koha Ditore, Zëri, Insider Online Agency, Kosovo 2.0 and Radio Television Kosova.

The meetings also examined the current media situation and the major challenges for ethical practice and good governance of media, particularly in the light of developments within online journalism.

All media in Kosovo operate in a difficult environment. Across the Western Balkans the conditions for independent journalism are compromised by a toxic political and economic environment, combined with weak civil society institutions which render media vulnerable to corrupt relations with different centres of power.

In Kosovo, the idea that the market, free of state control, is able to sustain a pluralist media culture is at best theoretical; the reality is that political and economic elites exercise a pervasive influence on media and journalism.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the mushrooming community of online portals, which are often tied into political and financial circles through non-transparent arrangements for funding and ownership.

During the years of communism media were under complete state control. This was assured primarily through official appointment of media managers and editors loyal to the political establishment. Courts of Honour in ex-Yugoslavia ensured ideological uniformity in media content and compliance with the goals of the communist party. Promotion of professional ethics was not their main goal.

Media were recruited as foot-soldiers for the war mongering of ethno-national political elites during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. They contributed to the polarisation of communities, the demonisation of other ethnic groups and finally to the justification of violence against the “other”. To this day, there is no common moral condemnation of inadmissible media practices prior and during the conflicts.

Problems of hate-speech and lack of commitment to ethical standards of accuracy, impartiality and transparency in journalism remain in place.

Not surprisingly, independent self-regulation of media is a challenge across all platforms of journalism. Much of the responsibility is borne by new institutions, notably the Independent Media Commission (IMC) and Press Council of Kosovo (PCK), both of which have been created by and are maintained thanks to support from the international community.

The Ethical Journalism Network experts on behalf of the Thomson Foundation met with officials of both organisations – Qerim Ondozi, (PCK) and Mirand Tafarshiku (IMC) – who confirmed that both institutions are more involved with the public regarding topics on media ethics and that mechanisms for addressing public complaints have been strengthened.

At PCK members of the public can now also complain directly online while IMC has recently seen improvement in dealing with ethics in broadcasters. The press council has increased the presence of online media in its board and has employed three other permanent staff members. The IMC functions with a full board since spring 2015 and the members of the board participate in the meetings.

Although both groups say there is a better general awareness and knowledge about the role and work of the IMC and PCK, when it comes to respect for codes of conduct, issues of defamation, privacy and journalistic reporting on terrorism and extremism, serious problems remain.

There is a need to strengthen ethical practice at the level of the enterprise, and particularly within the online journalism sector where the scourge of sensationalism and unethical practice dominates.

With this in mind, the Ethical Journalism Network has prepared guidelines and proposals for helping media to improve the way they work. These are designed to help media develop a self-reporting system to ensure they have good governance in their management as well as respect for ethics, self-regulation and transparency in their editorial work. These can be adapted to suit the conditions facing media in Kosovo. An abbreviated copy of the audit questions in both English and Albanian is attached to this report.

To examine the issue in depth a series of interviews were carried out with leading media executives across the major platforms of journalism in print, broadcasting and online. Each was asked for their views on the current state of journalism and the immediate challenges they face as well as their response to the proposal to support the introduction of guidelines and an internal auditing system.

It quickly became clear in these discussions that although most media subscribe to the PCK code of conduct, there is no systematic attachment to forms of internal review or guidelines at enterprise level.

There is widespread knowledge of key principles and journalistic values, but there is no developed mechanism for reviewing performance and strengthening the capacity for good governance and self-regulation at enterprise level, although all of those interviewed are supporters of the press council and the IMC and recognise the need for more responsible media performance at all levels.

All of those interviewed support the initiative for implementing guidelines for improving governance at enterprise level and the EJN will organise a further meeting in September 2016 in partnership with these media to launch this process with local media partners.

Further conclusions and recommendations are found at the end of this report.

The Press: Under Pressure, but Striving for Quality

Koha Ditore and Zëri are two of the most serious and trusted of the country’s seven daily newspapers. Both newspapers fulfil all the conditions and standards expected of independent news media and are members of the Press Council of Kosovo.

Lavdim Hamidi, managing editor and Deputy Editor in Chief, Zëri said the paper first launched as a weekly and moved to daily circulation in 2000. It has around 50 editorial staff out of a total of 70 employees and claims sales of around 5,000 a day in print (down by 50 per cent from two years ago) and has 300,000 unique visitors a day. Some 90% of all advertising revenues are in print.

Zëri has won several prizes for investigative journalism and has a reputation for challenging editorial work, but at a price. It has had to fight several high-profile court battles over some of its political and financial coverage. They are not surprised. “People involved don’t like it,” says Lavdim Hamidi. “We have lost some cases, but we have won most of them.”

It’s this reputation for investigative reporting that Hamidi says explains why the country’s biggest advertiser – the mobile phone and communications company Post and Telecommunications of Kosovo (PTK) – chooses not to place its adverts with Zëri. “It’s the biggest, they spend millions,” says Hamidi. “But they stopped advertising two years ago after we criticized them and that could be worth up to 5% of our income.”

He says the company is closely linked with government and members of the parliamentary assembly. The complaint resonates in a region where journalism across the region has come under indirect pressure from powerful advertisers with political links. This was highlighted recently in the Ethical Journalism Network report Untold Stories.

But the pressure is also felt in the newsroom where their original journalism is targeted for pirating by online news portals. “We have a lot of portals stealing our stories and not attributing what they lift to us,” says Hamidi, “except, of course, stories that are critical of Kosovo Post and Telecoms.”

He says a story of migration he filed from the Hungarian border 1,000kms away was a good example. “They stole all of it including pictures. It’s the biggest problem with online media,” he says.

He estimates there are some 200 online news portals in Kosovo of which, he says, perhaps only 5 per cent are open about their ownership. He outlines two clear ethical challenges from the web-based community:

  • A lack of transparency both in ownership and political links with most portals tied in with some branch of the political community;
  • A widespread tendency towards fake stories. Editorial material is not fact-checked and is often just cut and pasted from, non-attributed sources. “There are only two or three portals who are professional,” he says.

He says the answer to these problems requires tougher regulation on the part of the Independent Media Commission and greater respect for the rule of law which, in theory at least, should protect media from abuse of author’s rights.

He suggests that there should be a system to identify trusted news sites which respect core ethical values and are transparent in their governance. Given the perilous conditions of the media market where free websites compete with traditional media this is not an idle aspiration but may be essential to create conditions for the future of journalism. He welcomes the EJN proposal for strengthening good governance which he says could help them carve out a clear trusted brand that distinguishes them from the online crowd and less independent media. For the time being Zëri gets by thanks to the support its owners, two businessmen, one a Kosovar travel agent and the other a company based in Macedonia who not only cover the losses, but respect the independence of the newsroom.

As the leading independent newspaper in Kosovo, Koha Ditore, has, like Zëri a history of struggling to overcome pressure from political and governmental sources. “In the early days the government tried to sabotage our distribution network so we had to build our own,” says Agron Bajrami, Editor in Chief.

The paper was launched in 1997 and today it has a circulation of 6,000 or 7,000, but they don’t do subscriptions and it is the country’s most expensive newspaper at 50 Euro cents – some are as cheap as 10 cents. In recent months the circulation has become more stable.

Koha Ditore is slipping into a new role as one of a handful of dailies that provides more background journalism through analysis, columns and comment. For them standards are critical; they create trust in the brand and make the paper relevant to the audience.

The paper’s website has been present since the launch, but it is not an online version of Koha Ditore and the company is less committed to developing web-based journalism. “Ours is a functional website,” says Bajrami. “The website has become something where you build the medium but it does not reproduce the newspaper.

“The website has editors, but no reporters and there is no breaking news except where there is a live event such as a protest.” The newspaper also has its own television link and it will sometimes use Facebook as a source of news.

Bajrami highlights bias and lack of professionalism as the key challenges for media. Online portals he says are used by politicians to give answers to questions that were never posed and they have become a mechanism for avoiding questions serious journalists want to ask.

“Most portals are not supported by the market,” he says and as a result mainstream media and advertisiers are cautious. “Companies are not convinced that their small budgets are well spent online where there is a huge race to be first and stories just go up.”

He says that the “anything goes” mentality of this kind of journalism is unsustainable.

“I recently suspended a journalist who had called for the death of a politician on social media. I was criticized but eventually let her go. You can’t have one of your journalists saying that kind of thing even if it is social media,” he said.

Not surprisingly he says that there is an urgent need for the drafting of social media guidelines and he welcomes the initiative being proposed by the Ethical Journalism Network to encourage media enterprises to adopt a self-reporting system to improve their internal standards of governance and editorial performance.

“This initiative could help people in Kosovo understand that there are two kinds of journalism,” he says. One track is that of unregulated and unethical online reporting and the other is the work of trusted brands based on ethics and standards.

He says the PCK does good work and has a good archive, but there are contradictory decisions and more should be done. He supports the creation of a readers’ editor for Kosovo, along the lines of the national press ombudsman in Ireland.

“Whatever happens, it must be credible” he says. The challenge is to take the industry along with the process. He said that he is prepared to carry out the checklist prepared by the EJN and to report on it publicly.

Online Models: Breaking Free from the Unethical Crowd

Indajderi (Insider) is one of the new and serious online players. It is part of a new generation of media aiming to build trust in an area which has a notorious reputation for playing fast and loose with journalistic standards.

It launched on February 1st 2016 and has 10,000 to 20,000 unique visitors a day rising to 30,000 when there’s a strong news story according to Parim Olluri, Chief Executive and current Kosovo Journalist of the Year. The company is lean with just seven journalists and two interns. Olluri is one of the two owners, both journalists who built their reputations working with traditional and respected Kosovo media. They cover their costs.

Olluri says they aim to take online journalism to a new level. He says the online trend is positive with more respect for editorial standards and core principles of journalism.Until very recently the internet was seen as not trustworthy or serious,” he says. “The idea and perception was that only print media was balanced, that online media just published without checking. The perception was that online doesn’t need such standards.”

But slowly that is changing. He pointed to a public apology issued only days earlier by the Gazetta news portal which was forced to apologise to a politician. He says that some people who have stopped buying newspapers “now look for the more serious sites online.”

Even with only five or six serious online news portals, the signs are positive. Olluri quotes the example of the Express, an offending online leopard which is changing its spots. “It is important to appreciate that although Express is notorious they are becoming more serious,” he says.

Sites with a professional outlook like Insider are aiming to reflect basic standards of journalism. “The editorial policy of the Insider is that we won’t publish anything that we haven’t put to each side,” he says.

He quotes an example of how social networks like Facebook are compromising standards by encouraging a rush to publish unverified information.

“There was a story about an ex-Mayor and someone thanked him publicly for employing his daughter. A reader sent a screen grab showing it was on Facebook an hour before we published and was pissed off we had taken so long,” says Olluri. “We wanted to put it to the pair for comment despite it being on Facebook but many portals don’t wait for an answer for fear of the competition. You don’t have to do that.”

The site has no problem accepting advertisements, but is wary of being drawn into compromising arrangements. “Sometimes the problem is how you get advertising,” he says. “We refused to meet some people at the PTK in case they wanted us to return a favour in the future.”

These days he says the “speculating media” only last for around six months. “Years ago people would visit portals for fun and then go out and buy a newspaper,” he says. “Now they have stopped newspapers and look for serious portals.”

The bigger the portal the more serious it is. Small media continue with speculation until they are big. But problems remain. “There are a lot of fake stories including one portal allegedly attached to a political party, which regularly runs fake stories,” he says.

And with no sense of scale or balance, the everyday stories can get out of hand. “There was one story in which the headline said a supermarket nearly killed a family,” he said, “but all that happened was that the family complained about a date stamp on some food.”

Olluri notes how online comments on news stories have declined. “They have practically all gone and have shifted to Facebook,” he says. There are still concerns over hate speech, and rumour and speculation abound. The problems have not got demonstrably worse, but given Kosovo’s troubled history there is always a danger that unethical media can open up old wounds and divisions.

He says that the key to the future will be a better system of self-regulation and more transparency about ownership. He, too, welcomes the proposal of the Ethical Journalism Network to promote good governance and self-regulation which will reinforce the trend towards more responsible management of news media on all platforms.

Another of Kosovo’s new platforms for journalism is Kosovo 2.0, which is also small but equally determined to build credibility. The Editor in Chief Besa Luci doesn’t mince her words about the threat posed by unethical journalism. “I am shocked by the lack of online ethics,” she says. “We don’t have online newspapers; there is concept of online portals but nobody knows how to define it. It’s a surface to hide behind and it’s poisoning public debate.”

She and her five colleagues launched Kosovo 2.0 as a website and blogging platform in 2010 and the following year published a magazine which they issued twice a year until rising costs forced it to close after the 10th edition.

Luci says the origins of reliable and independent journalism are very recent, starting after independence in 1999, even so the media market is highly politicized.

“The younger generation are predominantly online,” she says. “They use Facebook and aggregate where you don’t see ethics. Unfortunately, you don’t have a demand for something better.”

The magazine struggles with online portals. “They have no respect for copyright, never attribute. They steal our stuff,” she says, but across all platforms of journalism there are problems.

“Credibility is not a word you hear much about,” she says. “The notion of a professional journalist circle doesn’t exist in day to day discourse.”

Although there may be a niche interest in ethically produced journalism, she says this is not evident within the public at large. “There is no public trust in journalism. The culture is one in which it is difficult to be independent.”

She says that the continued turnover of journalists is a key problem. “For some, journalism has just become a stepping stone to politics.”

Kosovo 2.0 has a focus on features, news analysis and background information rather than just news. It is also culturally sensitive in an environment with a highly-charged history and the site targets different communities at home and abroad.

“We printed around 1,200 magazines in English, 1,000 in Albanian and 600 in Serbian,” says Luci. “We get maybe 1,000 to 1,500 visitors to our site every day and 7 to 8,000 if there is a big article.”

The approach has won admirers, not least from the international donor community which covers most of their costs with grants and project support funding.

To address the continuing challenge of unethical online news portals, she recommends some form of filtering according to quality and editorial independence. She notes that more quality projects surfacing and some overtly political websites have shut down.

The immediate priority is not for new laws, but for more ethical support. “We need ethics,” she says. “The press Council can be more. There is no discussion about quality.” With that in mind she also welcomes plans to strengthen ethics and good governance in media.

Chief among her immediate concerns is the need to promote verification and fact checking. Kosovo 2.0 is the only media that amends and footnotes online; elsewhere anonymous sources and unattributed information are routinely used.

Public Broadcasting: Slow to Recognise the Pace of Change

At Radio Kosova, a state broadcaster, they look on the bright side of the digital journalism coin – faster communications has provided speed and urgency in the delivery of news. But there is also a dark side.

“The bad effect of change is that it has lowered the standards of Kosovo journalism,” says News Editor Shaip Mustafa. “There are inaccuracies and a political power play with the news itself. Sometimes there is reliance on very sensational news.”

He notes that sometimes journalists working in traditional media don’t have access to their own company’s website. This division between traditional newsrooms and online news reinforces the notion that web-based news falls outside the normal boundaries of value-based journalism.

“Management are not interested in using the material generated by its own people in television and radio on their own website,” he says. He points to his own experience in Radio Television Kosova which has appointed a new editor-in-chief for the website “and now it’s going sensational.”

Mustafa says that online media are poor so they are going for clicks to guarantee some income. It’s not an acceptable situation and with colleagues he is meeting with management as we have to ask why journalists working on radio and TV can’t have their material published online. It doesn’t make sense, he says. “We should be the best provider of news for the website but they want to have a tabloid format.”

But the gulf between traditional journalism and online work is enormous. “It was very different 10 years ago. Kosovo live was the first website in Kosovo. Now everyone wants it for free,” he says, “and they don’t work on the basis of core standards of journalism. We thought we would have better results by applying high quality journalism but all these websites work outside all these standards.”

Although Mustafa recognises that online journalism has improved democracy and can strengthen the quality of news reporting, he warns of a potentially dangerous situation as the quality of public discourse deteriorates. “In my view the public are being trained to accept news like this. There is only a few media left who provide high standards,” he warns. He welcomes the possibility of developing models for media enterprises to build more trust through internal systems to strengthen ethics and governance.

Conclusions and Recommendations

  1. The free media landscape in Kosovo is still relatively new and is being shaped in the aftermath of war and separation from Serbia but it suffers from weak economic conditions, undue pressure from the political sphere and a lack of commitment within media circles, particularly online, to core values of journalism and ethical standards.
  2. The lack of resources and weak capacity across all platforms of journalism means that media enterprises struggle to maintain standards of ethical journalism and good governance in a competitive and changing media landscape.
  3. In particular, traditional media – both press and broadcasting – have not adjusted to the emergence of online news systems and there has not been editorial investment and commitment to establishing online journalism as a high-quality platform within the converged media sector.
  4. This lack of commitment has created two tracks of news and information, one delivered by traditional news media and regulated by the PCK and IMC and one, largely unregulated, covering most of the online sector although some online media now engage with the self-regulating bodies.
  5. Scores of online news portals have been created which have no loyalty to basic standards of journalism and which exist in a twilight world without any transparency as to their funding and ownership. This has encouraged corruption in the use of online media by political groups or special interests.
  6. There is a need for new initiatives to develop more transparency and commitment to professionalism on all platforms of journalism and particularly to highlight the distinctive nature of trusted brands which show attachment to ethics, good governance and self-regulation.
  7. The absence of internal systems for monitoring and auditing editorial performance and governance at the level of the media enterprise is noted across the whole of the Kosovo media landscape.
  8. The Press Council and Independent Media Commission should be invited to support programmes aimed at strengthening internal standards of good governance and ethics at enterprise level.
  9. The key media interviewed in this review have welcomed the proposals for ethical audits and the adoption of guidelines by media enterprises and should be further developed and implemented.
  10. Guidelines for journalism should include specific chapters on creating internal systems for transparency in management, ownership and political affiliation; internal self-regulation to deal with conflicts of interest; respect for human rights and international standards in the management and administration of media; and engagement with the audience in support of ethical journalism, dealing promptly with complaints and ensuring respect for principles of privacy, tolerance and verification of news material.
  11. In addition, at all levels and across all sectors of media there is an urgent need for fresh support independent journalism. Significant donor support for the independent media has declined since 2008. Without injections of new funding it is difficult to see how independent media can remain viable. The crisis of funding affects all media.
  12. The use of the mechanisms for self-regulation and good governance as suggested by the EJN at enterprise level and by the IMC and PCK at industry level can help to identify media on all platforms that follow core standards of journalism and accountability to the public at large.
  13. Where such media are identified there should be consideration of how to provide additional funding and resources to strengthen newsroom capacity without compromising editorial independence.

This report was prepared by Aidan White and Christopher Elliott of the Ethical Journalism Network for the EJN Programme Building Trust in South East Europe and Turkey.

Photo credit: Kosovo_Pristina_Media_pronouced_AKEA1 – Earth Hour (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)