Media Freedom in Kosovo

Europe’s newest country is also home to a young media environment. Despite some recent attempts to further improve the legislative framework that guarantees freedom of speech and the press, a number of serious challenges to media freedom remain.

In the 2017 Press Freedom Index by media watchdog organisation Reporters Without Borders (RWB) Kosovo occupies the 82nd place of 180 countries. Comparing the assessment with 2015, the country gained eight ranks. In a regional comparison the young state thus performs considerably better than neighbouring Balkan countries like Macedonia (111th) and Montenegro (106th), and even outperforms some EU member states, such as Bulgaria (109th). On the other hand, Kosovar media are far less free than, for instance, those in Romania (43th), in the assessment of the NGO. Freedom House, another organisation observing freedom of the press around the globe, views the Kosovar media landscape as "partly free". The Kosovo-based Institute for Development Policy (INDEP) in 2012 compared all press freedom analyses and found four main challenges for independent media: continuous pressure against journalists, access to information, lack of professionalism and the framework and funding of the national broadcaster.

From the strictly legal perspective, the constitution and specific laws adequately safeguard media freedom. Article 40 of the 2008 constitution guarantees freedom of expression, article 41 access to public documents and article 42 media freedom and pluralism. Specific laws drafted by European experts supplement these constitutional rights. Their mere existence, however, cannot alone ensure that Kosovar media enjoy professional freedom. Their proper practical implementation is equally important, just as a strong and independent judiciary to enforce them.

Some positive steps in the development of the legislative framework have been made in the last three years. The removal of two provisions from a draft penal code caused relief among those concerned about the state of media freedom in Kosovo, as this prevented the criminalisation of libel. Yet, the civil offence is still punished with large fines and cases against journalists are filed with worrying frequency. The burden of proof falling on the accused journalist, the IREX Media Sustainability report 2017 thus holds that the current regulations governing libel and similar offences are discouraging journalists from reporting on certain issues and persons. The second provision in the draft penal code was intended to force journalists to reveal their sources, which would have put journalists reporting on public figures and corruption as well as their sources under considerable risk. A strong alliance of opponents of the two provisions managed to have them removed and a new code was passed without the relevant articles. What is more, a law on the protection of journalists’ sources was passed in 2013 and praised by media experts and professionals alike.

The law on access to information, although in place, falls short in practice. Institutions are hesitant in replying adequately to information requests and rarely publish any information proactively. The 2017 IREX report claims, that "most government institutions have internal regulations that bar officials from speaking to the media without obtaining permission from the highest levels." An investigation on press freedom in Kosovo published by RWB in 2010 found that when information is actually provided, "the public is not informed of more than one per cent of the real substance and reliability of the data." More recent reports do not indicate that the situation has changed for the better. The 2017 IREX report adds that "journalists were barred from covering court cases involving a high official charged with corruption. They were denied access on the grounds of protecting the privacy of the defendant, and public interest in this matter was not taken into consideration."

Next to access to information, pressure on journalists is a major obstacle for media freedom in Kosovo. "The Association of Kosovo Journalists (AGK) registered about 27 death threats against journalists in 2015, and many others were blackmailed or censored," according to the IREX report 2017. While INDEP report focuses especially on direct pressure in form of (physical) violence or threats, lawsuits and financial pressure are also a concern. The inadequate prosecution of such crimes against journalists is cited by INDEP to be the main reason for this continuing trend of violence. The IREX report criticises that such instances do not even cause public outcries and argues that the level of threats is "intolerable for a country aspiring to EU membership." Such pressure not only stems from government or municipal officials, a report by the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) based in Vienna also denounces the large number of threats from the realm of business.

A third issue elaborated upon by the INDEP report is the influence of the government on the public broadcaster Radio Television of Kosovo (RTK), which was established in the immediate aftermath of the war. Although law protects the editorial independence of the public broadcaster, the current financing from the state budget and the politicised board are said to jeopardise this. As a result, the channel produces little coverage critical of the government.

To some extent, these limitations of media freedom may be understandable in a country as young as Kosovo. Improvements are, however, much needed if the country wishes to thrive as a democracy and join the European Union eventually.

Lina Rusch, KAS Media Program South East Europe

2016 adjusted by Rebecca Kittel, KAS Media Program South East Europe

2017 adjusted by Lena von Holt, KAS Media Program South East Europe