Amid allegations of gender discrimination and claims that experienced women are being sidelined, a recent investigation into Kosovo’s public broadcaster, RTK, has revealed a stark gender disparity in its senior management positions. Despite assurances of promoting gender diversity, RTK’s top leadership roles remain all occupied by men, raising concerns about equal opportunities for women within the organization.
When the Kosovo Assembly, dominated by ruling party Vetëvendosje, elected the board of Radio Television of Kosovo, RTK, on July 25, 2021, it promised that the public broadcaster would undergo profound reform, leading to a complete reorganization of RTK.
An investigation by Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, shows that this reorganization was accompanied by highly controversial appointment processes that prevented three women from getting top management positions that they had been selected to take.
Ilire Zajmi, Mihrije Beiqi, and Flora Durmishi were chosen in three different recruitment processes for leadership roles, but these positions were instead taken by male candidates who had received lower scores in the evaluations of the recruiting commissions. This suggests that the promised reform within RTK did not necessarily deliver gender equality.
The two journalists and one lawyer, who have been working at RTK since its establishment in 1999, have now told of the systematic discrimination they have experienced when they applied for top management positions in the past year.
A discouraging environment, disheartening meetings and direct pressure to withdraw from these high management posts in order to make way for men are the reasons, they say, that their progress to top jobs in public TV have been stymied.
All three women applied to three top jobs and came first, but the recruitment processes were in all three cases repeated solely, they claim, to prevent them from taking up the posts.
RTK, which is today represented by a male board chairman, male general director, male television director, male radio director, and male administrative director, has denied all these allegations, stating that meritocracy prevails and that professional women are continuously supported. They even claimed that it is the media that ‘intimidate’ women from applying for high-ranking positions.
The “tainted” job contest after a summons from the Chairman of RTK Board
After 15 years running the Center for Professional Development at RTK, Ilire Zajmi decided to apply for the position of Deputy General Director at RTK at the end of last year. This is the second most important position in the RTK management hierarchy.
Zajmi is a journalist with ten published books and is a member of the Kosovo Writers’ Association. She holds a sharp gaze and rarely shows a sense of humor.
Two more candidates were running for her post: Adi Krasta, a famous presenter from Albania, and Rilind Gërvalla, a donor of the ruling party, LVV, who later, through a complaint, contributed to the disruption of the process in which Zajmi came out first.
All three candidates were interviewed by the RTK recruitment commission, composed of Arta Avdiu, the chairperson, and members Berjana Mustafa, Xhevdet Sfarqa, Zana Spahiu and Srboljub Kuziq. They awarded Zajmi more points than the two men who followed her.
Arta Avdiu, the chairperson of this commission, explained to BIRN that she had ranked Zajmi first on the list “…based on her experience at RTK and taking into account her proficiency in foreign languages.” Zajmi speaks English, Italian, Turkish, French, and Serbian, in addition to Albanian.
Speaking with enthusiasm about the moment she learnt she had been ranked first in the recruitment process, Zajmi said: “It was the first time I was applying for a top managerial position, and when I heard the results, I felt that finally, someone was acknowledging my work “ she said.
“When the points I earned from the interview placed me first for that position on December 19, Boletini [Chairman of the RTK Board], one day later, on December 20, invited me to a meeting and told me that ‘this job contest is tainted and there were rules violations’,” Zajmi quoted Boletini as saying.
Zajmi said she had insisted on knowing what were the violations but Boletini did not provide details.
The meeting took place in the most prominent building in Prishtina, the Radio Kosovo triangle block, which has the tallest antenna in the city that overlooks the capital.
Following that meeting, the interview results were annulled and the process was rerun. Interviews were organized for the second time, by the same commission because the candidate who came third, Rilind Gërvalla, filed a complaint.
Besnik Boletini, who told BIRN that he does not interfere in RTK competitions and recruitment, does not deny meeting Zajmi but claims this was a chance meeting.
However, Zajmi has provided BIRN with correspondence showing Besnik Boletini had arranged the meeting. “Hello Ilire, can we meet tomorrow at 09:00, at the radio?” reads the message that Zajmi received on December 20 at 8.01pm from Boletini.
This was arranged by Boletini at a time when RTK administration had not yet informed the candidates about the interview results for this position.
“The Recruitment Process for these positions is not handled by us on the Board… the entire procedure is managed by the management, where selection committees are formed. What we are trying to create, and what I consider to be progress, is a meritocracy, where the most meritorious are chosen,” said Boletini on August 16 when asked about another recruitment process.
This was the theory. Zajmi’s practice proved otherwise.
For Zajmi, the meeting was felt as pressure to discourage her from taking this job.
“I wrote to the administration on January fourth and fifth to seek clarification on why interviews had to be conducted for the second time when I had initially come out first in the interview. I received no response,” she revealed.
Arta Avdiu, the chairperson of the RTK commission, confirmed to BIRN that interviews for this competition were rerun by the same commission after Rilind Gërvalla, an RTK journalist and LVV financier, filed a complaint. This complaint allowed Adi Krasta to be appointed Deputy General Director of RTK, while Gërvalla was appointed Director of Television in the next job contest.
According to Zajmi, all this process began from the moment she was invited to meet Boletini.
“Board members [of the public TV] are not supposed to meet with candidates during an open job contest because it is considered interference, it is an open influence on the recruitment process,” said Zajmi.
However, Boletini denies interfering in recruitment.
“I have never encouraged or discouraged Ms Zajmi from participating in any competition at any time and under any circumstances. I have never told her to enter a race or withdraw from one,” Boletini said.
Chapter 19 of the Penal Code of the Republic of Kosovo contains several provisions related to employment rights’ violations which are subject to fines or imprisonment of up to two years.
More specifically, Article 219 states: “Anyone who denies or restricts the right to employment on equal terms as determined by law to other persons is punished with a fine or imprisonment for up to two (2) years.”
Zajmi explained that she was motivated to tell her story, eight months after it happened, because she had read Boletini’s statement published on BIRN on August 22, 2023, where he said that women should not be afraid to apply for high positions, but should rather be encouraged.
Boletini, referring to another recruitment process, when asked whether he had a conflict of interest when he met with a female candidate for coffee, and she subsequently won an open competition, decided to address the issue from a gender perspective.
“The hypothesis to make such connections [between a coffee meeting and securing the job] can be discouraging and intimidating for women, who unfortunately in our society, despite their professional qualifications, are often not accepted for jobs due to gender stereotypes, age, family planning, or other discrimination. We all need to fight against this,” he said in the article published on August 23.
Zajmi later applied for another post, Head of Online Media at RTK, a position she held as acting director for a year and a half. She was put in front of the recruitment body for this post consisting of three men: Rilind Gërvalla, who was a rival candidate to Zajmi in the deputy director job contest and had filed a complaint in that competition, Arben Nushi, an IT person at RTK, and Vlada Petrovic, from RTK 2 production. When the three men did not score Zajmi as the highest candidate but another woman for this post, she challenged RTK for violating recruitment rules and filed a complaint with the Labor Inspectorate, LI.
On 19 July this year, LI ruled in favor of Zajmi and fined RTK 1,500 euros for injustices against Zajmi in the application for the position of Head of Online Media. Mentioning several violations, IP stated that RTK, among other things, had engaged in gender discrimination because the evaluation commission for this position consisted of three men. According to the rules, the commission should have had at least one woman.
Zajmi is convinced that “women at RTK are not encouraged to be promoted in their careers”.
“Actually, the opposite happens. Women with professional backgrounds, dignity, work experience, and ego are discriminated against and fought against,” Zajmi told BIRN on August 21.
The Radio Icon unwanted by the RTK Board
Flora Durmishi has been a journalist since 1978. She was the first voice that Kosovo Albanians heard on the radio in 1999 after Albanians returned to work after the mass, ethnically motivated expulsions of the 1990s.
She said that right from the very start of her application process, she received a problematic message that she did not believe initially, but turned out to have been accurate. “Flora, the Board doesn’t want you,” she said that Shkumbin Ahmetxhekaj, the Director General of RTK, had told her.
Nevertheless she applied for the Director of Radio post that opened at the end of 2022.
She claimed that even though the General Director of RTK [Ahmetxhekaj] told her that “The Board does not want her”, she decided to run for the post “because I wanted to set an example for younger women that if you are good at your job, you demonstrate it, and there is nothing to stop you from competing internally and externally, and in the end, let the best [whether a woman or a man] win”.
Ahmetxhekaj confirmed that such a conversation with Durmishi had taken place, but, he claims, in a friendly conversation he was “referring to the fact that the board had refused another of my colleagues whom I considered important for my team”.
Despite his claims, the professional committee that interviewed Durmishi marked her not only as the highest ranked candidate, but way ahead of both the men that were running for the Director of Radio post.
In the competition for the Director of Radio held in October 2022, which BIRN monitored, Durmishi had 22 more points than her opponent. The results show that Durmishi scored 88.4 points, Pajazit Krasniqi 60.2, and Blerim Sopi 56.4 points. The assessment was made by a commission composed of Ariana Palllata, Haki Kikaj, Zylfije Jakupi, Florije Bublaku and Selami Selimi, all employees at RTK.
Being the best did not count. On October 13, the message that the board did not want Durmishi came true. Without any justification, five board members voted against appointing the most qualified candidate to this top managerial position in RTK.
Besnik Boletini, Arta Berisha, Fatime Lumi-Qehaja, Albulena Mehmeti, and Driton Hetemi did not vote for Durmishi to become head of RTK Radio.
One member of the RTK board, Shukrije Rama, was vocal in favor of Durmishi and asked other board members to justify their refusal.
Fatime Lumi-Qehaja, another woman on the RTK board who refused to vote for Durmishi, told her that she does not owe her an explanation as to why she did not vote for Durmishi.
All refused to answer why they did not vote for Durmishi to secure the job when asked by BIRN on August 22.
When the job contest for the RTK Radio Director reopened a few months later, most of these men and women had no problem voting Arsim Halili into the job, a journalist who had been reprimanded for his homophobic language in 2016 by the Kosovo Media Ethics Council, KMSHK.
Durmishi explained that her goal was not to be supported by the board “because of gender quotas, but because of my professionalism.”
“After I came first in the contest, I was surprised and disappointed that not only the men [Besnik Boletini and Driton Hetemi] but also three women on the RTK Board [Arta Berisha, Deputy Chair of the RTK Board, Albulena Mehmeti, and Fatime Lumi] decided, without any justification, not to support me,” she said.
Durmishi said she has decided to speak out now, several months later about this, as “by speaking out, I hope to change this discouraging environment for future generations”.
The legal specialist who sued RTK for gender discrimination
Mihrije Beiqi is not a journalist but a legal graduate who first got a job as an administrative assistant in November 2021. Since then, she continued to be promoted and served as the Human Resources and Administration Manager from 2005 to 2013.
Today, she holds the position of Media Legislation Manager in the Development and Strategy Department at RTK. When the new board and management was elected at the end of 2021, Mihrije felt that with gender equality on the RTK Board, a new chapter was beginning at RTK. She hoped that at least one of the four highest managerial positions at RTK would be awarded to a qualified woman.
The highest administrative position at RTK is the Head of Common Services, which oversees all administration and is the fourth most important position at RTK. When the competition for this position was announced on July 29 last year, Beiqi also emerged on top when competing against candidates from both within and outside RTK.
Beiqi scored the highest number of points: 88.6. As in Durmishi’s case, the men ranked lower, with Naser Thaqi scoring 70.2 points and Faton Mehmetaj 41.8 points.
The members of the commission that evaluated these three candidates through interviews were Ilire Zajmi, Hyrë Tejeci, Erdoan Mikullovci, Mirjana Radovanovic, and Besar Krasniqi.
Just as with Durmishi’s case, when Beiqi’s name was sent to the board, it did not support her appointment without explanation.
BIRN has seen the August 25 decision which only states that “the RTK Board, with 1 vote in favor and 8 against, does not approve the proposal of the RTK General Director to appoint Mihrije Beiqi” for this job.
The decision provides no reasoning.
Following this, Beiqi filed a legal complaint to the Basic Court of Pristina at the end of 2022. In her legal complaint Beiqi argues that she was discriminated against because she is a woman. She makes her case by listing three decisions related to RTK’s male employees in which the RTK Board gave detailed reasons for their decisions and published them on its official website, while this did not happen for Beiqi.
Labour dispute lawsuits in Kosovo can take years, as most cases are first heard in the Basic Court and then in the Court of Appeals. While she awaits a court decision, Beiqi argues that what happened to her was a setup.
“So, they deliberately discriminated against me, a qualified woman in RTK who came first in the job contest, in favor of a man with lower managerial experience than me but who came from the government to be employed in the media,” Beiqi emphasized.
Beiqi is referring to Alban Fetahu, who was working in the Ministry of Finance, and was later chosen to be head of administration in RTK. BIRN filed a freedom of information request for Fetahu’s CV to confirm his managerial experience but neither the RTK, nor Fetahu responded.
Beiqi said: “As a law graduate from UP [University of Pristina] and with 17 years of managerial experience, I have been discriminated against, both on educational and gender grounds, by excluding me from a position where I came first in the competition as assessed by the evaluation commission.”
“They gave the position to a man with lower managerial experience than me, but who has come from the government to be employed in the media.”
Regarding Boletini’s statement on August 23, 2023, to BIRN that women at RTK should not be afraid but encouraged, Beiqi said: “It is a cynical statement because candidates are being selected based on the preferences of individuals close to the Board before being recruited by RTK. This is evident because we have a purely male management in RTK today.
“It is absolutely not true that women are being encouraged at RTK. There are no equal rights. The field is uneven especially for those women who have professional competence and dignity. Women are clearly excluded even when they score higher than any other candidates,” Beiqi concluded.
“We Vote However We Want”
All three women have also closely observed the testimonies of RTK’s leadership in the Kosovo Assembly when invited to report.
During one of these accountability sessions before the budget parliamentary committee, Beiqi heard Boletini responding to a parliamentarian’s question about why he did not vote for candidates who had come first in the job contest in RTK.
“I heard Boletini responding to the member of parliament ‘we vote however we want. Those who don’t like it can take us to court’, that irritated me a lot,” Beiqi said, disheartened.
BIRN found this statement in the Kosovo Assembly minutes which occurred on October 28, 2022, when Eman Rrahmani and Visar Korenica, MPs from Vetëvendosje, confronted Boletini with the fact that the Board had not provided any reason, neither in writing nor orally, for not voting for Durmishi, whom the RTK Professional Commission had ranked first.
Boletini stated that he voted based on his beliefs. Eman Rrahmani insisted that beliefs could be prejudiced, so there should be a process in which the candidate ranked highest by the evaluation commission should be informed why they are not being voted for by the board.
As an example of this, Rrahmani mentioned that Boletini himself had been voted in as a board member based on the ranking he had received during the interview, not according to the “beliefs” of the board members.
“For each decision made by the Board, there should be rationality behind the decisions and documentation. [To write] a description of the candidate’s weaknesses in the CV, to state whether there were any issues with the [candidates] CV, or what?,” said Eman Rrahmani, a member of the Budget and Finance Committee from the ranks of Vetëvendosje. This approach was also supported by Visar Korenica, a committee member, and Armend Muja, the head of the parliamentary committee for budget and finance.
Despite the fact that three MPs asked for the rationale behind the decision regarding Durmishi, Boletini refused to provide reasons to both the deputies and those who select the members of the RTK Board.
In response, Boletini said: “We absolutely do not take any responsibility for our vote if we do not trust a professional [to do the job].
“Candidates have the right to use all legal mechanisms… I don’t justify how I vote on the Board. You are asking me for accountability… Let them seek accountability in court,” Boletini concluded.
This confrontation would stick in Beiqi’s memory.
Beiqi felt that the suggestion that these issues should “go to court” was cynical because labor dispute cases in the courts drag on to such an extent that parties may reach retirement age before their case is reviewed.
“Besnik Boletini’s statement in the parliamentary committee that candidates are not voted for because ‘we vote as we please’ is pressure, discrimination, and blackmail against all the women who have applied for job contests at RTK and those of us women who work within RTK,” Beiqi said.
RTK: We Have Selected Eight Women in Leading Positions During This Year
Regarding the criticisms that there is gender discrimination in RTK and especially for women that have made a career in RTK, Ahmetxhekaj stated on August 21: “During this year, in five internal job contests for leadership positions, four of them have been won by women, all of whom have been part of RTK: Heads of the Legal Office, Marketing, Online Media, and International Relations.
All these positions are lower-ranking than the ones Zajmi, Durimishi, and Beiqi applied for.
“So far, we have had three acting chief editor positions in RTK1, 3, and in the two channels of Radio Kosovo; and acting directors in Finance, as well as in Administration and Human Resources,” added Ahmetxhekaj.
Arta Avdiu, who was appointed as Acting Television Director at RTK from September 2022 until March this year, before a man was selected for that position [Rilind Gërvalla], told BIRN that there is no encouragement for women to advance in RTK.
“At the last management meeting, which was around May when I was present, I made a comment in front of everyone, saying that what we have is ‘macho management’. At the beginning of my tenure as director, the General Director, Ahmetxhekaj, had declared that during his stewardship at the RTK, there would be more women in management. Unfortunately, that did not happen,” said Avdiu.
During the five months she served as the television director, she stated that she had noticed that “women definitely make more effort than men, but, as it happens in our society, also in RTK, they are not being promoted.” All the men currently leading RTK in senior management positions are set to hold these positions for an average of three to four years.
This implies that senior management positions for women are entirely usurped by men for a full term. This applies to all except for Besnik Boletini, the Chairman of the RTK Board, whose term expires in December 2023, at which point the parliament has the right to either extend his term or choose someone else in his place.