Agim Zatriqi’s departure leaves Kosovo’s public broadcaster looking weakened – at a time when the political class seems determined to curtail its independence.
*This article was originally published by Balkan Insight on October 2, 2009.
After eight years of running Kosovo’s public broadcaster, RTK, Agim Zatriqi, director general, was the longest-lasting head of any major public institution in post-war Kosovo, surpassing every prime minister, president or international head of mission, most of whom pressed their own ideas of what RTK should do, report and represent on him.
Last weekend he resigned, writing in a letter that he “finds it impossible to run RTK in a responsible manner.” His resignation was dramatic, much like the everyday storms and pressures he had to endure throughout his career.
Zatriqi is no victim. In the fragile post-war environment of Kosovo, his post obliged him to tango with each of the above-mentioned politicians. Yet he eventually tired of the dance; the compromises required of him went beyond his red line.
The last straw was having to run a public television with a news editor who he felt the politicians had foisted on him and who he had sacked three months earlier for “unprofessional behaviour.” RTK news is the most watched and influential programme in Kosovo, making this post key to shaping public opinion and crucial in the run-up to the first elections to be organized by Kosovo’s own institutions.
Zatriqi’s resignation was long expected. He realized he would not stay in the post forever and has been packing his bags for a while. He succeeded in making RTK far more popular and independent than either of its counterparts in Albania or Serbia.
In addition he nurtured some highly rated shows, despite the constraints of having to provide reporting in five minority languages and having to honor the other obligations of a public broadcaster. He achieved this despite his determination to ban the Latin American soaps “that brainwash our audiences,” as he put it.
However, he will be also remembered for failing to fire some RTK journalists whose reporting clearly revealed their political affiliations. Politicians always criticized him for not giving them enough space.
Some say that given RTK’s generous staffing levels and salaries, it is surprising that it doesn’t produce better programmes. Having some top-rating shows is not enough, given that the public has to pay 3.5 euros a month, they argue.
In many ways Zatriqi made life too comfortable for RTK employees, guaranteeing long contracts and health insurance that few employees of Kosovo enjoy and fostering the same culture of laziness and complacency that can be seen in all other public institutions in Kosovo.
More worryingly, Zatriqi leaves RTK at a time when its license fee is not secure. The contract between RTK and the energy corporation KEK, which obliges KEK to collect the license money for RTK, expires in November.
RTK will then be at the mercy of the politicians as they argue over whether to extend the agreement or find a new solution, which could mean placing RTK under the state budget – which means state control.
On top of this, there are moves to ban advertising at prime time, which would put RTK on even a flimsier financial footing.
Small wonder, then, that some liken his resignation to that of a man deserting a sinking ship. Many fear this is another sign that RTK is heading downwards into becoming “State TV,” abandoning its public service mandate to become a government mouthpiece. “What do you expect?” some cynics ask. In the Balkans, the dominant cultural force in politics and society is that of a state TV.
“You only had a public TV in the last ten years because the international community established it – not because your society fought for, or wanted, it,” one acquaintance commented. Maybe so. But after ten years, Kosovo society has become accustomed to the benefits of a publicly funded broadcaster. Most people assume that public television by default will improve with time – become more professional, more high-tech and will improve on its role as public broadcaster with better educational programmes and documentaries.
The fear is that our society may be too apathetic to fight in coming years to retain the current degree of independence enjoyed by the public television, let alone improve on it.
Personally speaking, I have gained an enriching and valuable experience working with RTK and Zatriqi for the last four years as presenter and editor of Jeta ne Kosove, Life in Kosovo, the current affairs programme co-produced between BIRN and RTK.
Tackling sensitive topics in the programme, Zatriqi often had to deal with a range of pressures coming from religious leaders to politicians, not excluding international politicians, who tried to influence our programme.
Some wanted the show off air, others wanted it slightly censored and softened while others again wanted certain guests kicked off the panel. Zatriqi would listen, argue and reason with these pressures, often sacrificing some less valuable point in order to protect the rest.
Zatriqi imposed high standards on the entire Jeta ne Kosove team. We spent a year trying to prove we could attract a big enough audience and maintain high enough professional standards to merit a prime-time slot and a weekly rather than a fortnightly schedule.
We did not always agree and had some long arguments, usually fruitful. He gave advice to which I sometimes listened, and sometimes not. Either way, I learned a lot and was worse off when I chose not to seek his advice at all.
Our last conversations were dominated by a shared concern for the future of public television in an atmosphere in which the politicians are becoming increasingly concerned and conscious about their image in the media and its influence in winning elections.
The atmosphere is increasingly one in which each party leader feels entitled to a share of RTK reporting. It is an atmosphere in which the majority of the political class seems to think that RTK should not report independently on events but should favor political parties in proportion to their electoral weight.
At its worst, the political class tries to discredit and stigmatize disobedient members of the media. Zatriqi’s fate this week was an example of that. He was forced to resign as punishment for having dared to talk to international officials about the government’s attempts to control RTK in the run-up to elections.
This is a grim environment for a public broadcaster to survive in. Tough times lie ahead and what happens to RTK will reflect what is happening to Kosovo. It will be a story of how much our society is prepared to fight for a free society with democratic values, or whether we will content ourselves with despots in democratic disguise.
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