Kosovo President, Hashim Thaci. Photo: Kallxo.com

Presidential arrogance towards the media

More and more, government officials repeat the sentiment that journalists lie in course of their daily work. This obstruction to free journalism will continue to grind at Kosovo’s press, and marks a dangerous turn away from trustworthy reporting.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci has ramped up the rate of his press conferences lately. The main topic of his discussions with journalists has been the political dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia.

“Border correction,” an idea presented by Thaci himself, constitutes the core of the questions that journalists ask the president.

In turn, Thaci has accused journalists of producing “fake news,” which journalists have said may  cause them discouragement to continue their daily work. Apart from journalists, the president has engaged in polemics against many politicians, yet uses these conferences to target journalists for polemics against his own political colleagues.

In October, during an interview on KTV televised debate Rubikon, within a time frame of 15 minutes Thaci bombarded journalist Adriatik Kelmendi with “you’re lying, you’re manipulating, you’re slandering,” almost 100 times. This happened because Kelmendi asked him about his response to former Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s comment on the border issue.

Let us see why Thaci accused Kelmendi of lying. On August 4, 2018, at a time when the first reactions to “border correction” were surfacing, Sali Berisha spoke out against the infringement of Kosovo’s borders initiated by Thaci and, according to his Facebook post “against any type of fragmentation, division or bargaining with the territory and against any discussion about these issues.”

Berisha continued: “This is another disintegration of a Kosovo that was liberated in 1999, recognized in international documents and by over 115 countries, including 95 per cent of the world’s free countries.”

Berisha said this following a meeting with officials of the Albanian Democratic Party of the Presevo Valley, led by Ragmi Mustafa, at a time when politicians from the Valley were also welcomed by central authorities in Prishtina.

Just a few hours later, Thaci reacted on Facebook. But, as opposed to Berisha’s statement that some media reported as a political stance against partition, Thaci’s comment was reported as an attack against Berisha – although he did not mention his name.

In his Facebook post, Thaci said that the last thing Kosovo needs is advice from people who were overwhelmingly voted out of the political scene.

“Especially from those who between 1992 and 1997 bargained and, through their dirty deeds, helped the survival of the military and police machinery of the slaughterer of the Balkans, Slobodan Milosevic,” Thaci’s reaction read.

Media in Kosovo and Albania reported a serious clash between Berisha and Thaci, precisely based on the latter’s online post.

“Thaci’s harsh response to Berisha…” was the title on “Gazeta Express,” followed by the content of the post published on August 4.

“I talk about phenomena, not about names,” Thaci said to Kelmendi in his interview for KTV in October. The clashes continued for a few weeks, but the president and his office never denied reports that Thaci attacked Berisha, or the long-distance rift between the politicians. Berisha issued a second rebuttal on the topic during an interview for “Dukagjini” TV channel three days after Thaci’s interview, denying all claims mentioned in Thaci’s Facebook post.

“Between 1992-1997, Albania ultimately beat Serbia in a powerful stand-off in the global diplomatic arena,” Berisha said.

Based on all of these public statements and polemics that were not denied by either party, one simple question arises: how can a journalist lie if he is referring to statements made by the politicians? There are other questions that expose Thaci’s reference to Berisha. Was Sali Berisha not the head of state when “the slaughterer of the Balkans” was committing massive crimes in Croatia and Bosnia?

Who else other than Berisha could Thaci have alluded to when he said “he was overwhelmingly voted out” of power, when it is widely known that the main rivalry in Albania is between the two biggest parties – the Socialist Party and the Democratic Party, the latter being in the opposition and with Sali Berisha as its signature figurehead. If he did not refer to Berisha, why did Thaci not expressly say who he directed these words to?

All of these questions that were left unanswered by the president clearly show that he is playing a tautological game from a TV studio. Although avoiding these questions, he still cannot dodge facts from the past and this cannot be ignored. It essentially constitutes a direct blow to facts and arguments aiming to belittle the work of journalists.

For Gentiana Begolli, head of the Association of Kosovo Journalists, it is also clear who President Thaci was referring to in his reactions.

“Thaci’s statement came after opposition to his idea of border correction from former Prime Minister of Albania, Sali Berisha. Although the president did not mention names, his allusion was clear and refers to the time when Sali Berisha governed, between 1992-1997, his deeds, and was built on accusations that have been public for a while and that we have heard in different forms,” Begolli said.

But the truth is, this is not the first time the president has used such language against journalists. Ardiana Thaci-Mehmeti works in the same media outlet as Adriatik Kelmendi.

According to her, “Fake news, fake news, fake news, an outright lie…” is how Thaci responded to subsequent questions by Mehmeti regarding the definition of the concept of border correction.

“After that, I hesitated to go to his press conferences, although they became more frequent, precisely because of his irritating statements, and “fake news” labelling,” she said.

“Despite this, I will not be discouraged, I will continue my work and ask my questions even 10 times if necessary,” Thaci-Mehmeti said. For Begolli, the aim of politicians hailing journalists as liars is clear.

“Lacking facts and arguments, politicians usually use their whole arsenal in order to neutralize the journalist, to drive attention away from the topic and make it as unbelievable as possible, but the worst thing about this is that some politicians do not refrain from using any language or tools to attack and label journalists,” she said.

Clashes between politicians or interest groups with journalists because of their reporting is nothing new. In the 2018 report by Freedom House on “Freedom in the world,” Kosovo is described as a “partially free” country.

“The government and different businesses exercise influence within editorial lines, while journalists oftentimes report harassment and threats,” the report reads.

Even in the 2018 progress report, there is mention of a doubling of instances where journalists are threatened or physically attacked, as opposed to 2017.

For Begolli, this language is dangerous and constitutes an attack towards free media.

“Due to the political power they possess, such an approach of labelling journalists is dangerous and a direct intervention into the freedom of the media and information. Direct attacks on the personality of journalists and toxic language against them brings violence and encourages third parties to attack journalists.”

Verbal attacks that aim to belittle the professional work of journalists in the public eye, during live TV debates and press conferences, need to be of concern to journalists and the public opinion. This concern grows further when it comes from heads of state, who should instead be guarantors of freedom of speech.

This article was supported through a project by the European Union Office in Kosovo and applied by BIRN and AGK. The content of this article is a responsibility of the author and can in no way be considered a statement by the European Union, BIRN or AGK.

29 November 2018 - 11:30

Arta Berisha

29/11/2018 - 11:30

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Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.