Sour relations between government officials and the media are common in the country. They have characterized each government in different forms. Arrogance, a lack of transparency or press conferences, a lack of communication or communication limited to social media, and difficulties in accessing public documents, are just a few of the obstacles that hinder communication between the two parties.
For example, during the first few months of the 2015-17 mandate, Prime Minister Isa Mustafa didn’t even have a spokesperson. After appointing Arban Abrashi — who simultaneously served as minister of social welfare — Mustafa mostly preferred to communicate with citizens through Facebook, evading encounters with journalists.
In fact, in many cases Mustafa was criticized for being arrogant in his communication with journalists. He was accused of threatening a journalist who published news about his brother being ill and seeking treatment abroad. The article highlighted the lack of faith from the then prime minister in the quality of the national healthcare system. Mustafa called the journalist a “son of a bitch” and said that he would “pay dearly” for writing the piece.
Mustafa’s cabinet was also criticized for nepotism; for example, when a tender for servicing a car that belonged to the Prime Minister’s Office was given to Makcar, whose owner is Mustafa’s son.
Before Mustafa, former Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi chose to keep himself distant from the media. During his two mandates, in 2007-2011 and 2011-2014, he seldom took part in press conferences or interviews. Furthermore, some important decisions that were made during his mandates were never made public.
The biggest investment made in post-war Kosovo was for the construction of the “Ibrahim Rugova” highway during the period 2010-2013. It is said to have cost approximately 1 billion euros but the exact cost is unknown since the contract for this investment was never made public.
The sale of different divisions of the Kosovo Energy Corporation (KEK) in 2013 is also part of the continuity of non-transparency surrounding public assets. The government at the time only communicated that the state would benefit to the tune of 26 million euros from the project. Meanwhile, opposition parties and members of civil society criticized not only the low sum of the contract, but also the fact that many details surrounding it were unknown to the public, including the lack of transparency in its privatization process.
Officials in Thaçi’s government did not permit access to documents regarding the privatization of this public asset, using the justification that the documents are confidential. However, contrary to these claims, in January the Basic Court of Prishtina ruled that the Ministry of Economic Development (MED) violated the Constitution and the Law on Access to Public Documents during the process of privatizing KEDS and in the tender for the “Kosova e Re” power plant, namely by not permitting access to public documents in this process.
Furthermore, the Court ordered MED to allow the parties that issued the complaint, NGOs Gap Institute and KOSID, to have access to these documents. Meanwhile, only some parts of the contract were made public in late January.
Concept document and ‘open data’
Problems in communication between the government and the media and citizens have also highlighted by the Office of Public Communication, part of the Prime Minister’s Office. Attempting to regulate communication between the government and the public, this office (comprised of civil staff) finished composing the “Draft concept document for the service of government communication with the public” in November; on December 20, it was approved by the government.
The concept document is an analysis that highlights a series of deficiencies in the government’s communication with the public. It says that there are notable “difficulties, limitations and deficiencies regarding the implementation of the rules for government communication.” Furthermore it highlights that government communication has been one-sided.
Other issues highlighted in this analysis include a lack of human and professional capacities in the Office of Public Communication, governmental communication being mainly oriented toward media coverage of the prime minister’s agenda and a lack of communication between the government and citizens in the early phases of policy making. As a solution to these issues, it suggests the establishment of three units: a unit for monitoring and communication with media, a unit for planning, coordinating and communicating policies, and a unit for new media.
During the compilation of this draft concept, requests made by journalists were also considered, including: publishing daily decisions made by the prime minister and ministers online; publishing bills in real time, rather than waiting for them to reach the Assembly; publishing as many documents as possible online so as to increase the level of transparency; having the prime minister, ministers and spokespersons hold press conferences; disallowing a substitution of press conferences for social media communication; informing journalists regarding government agendas in a timely manner; and making materials that are discussed in government meetings accessible to the media.
Kallxo.com journalist, Kreshnik Gashi, does not believe that the government’s newly adopted concept document gets to the heart of the issue of poor official communication with media. Photo: Athde Mulla / K2.0.
However, journalist Kreshnik Gashi from Kallxo.com doubts that the approval of this document will solve any issues. The main point that Gashi criticizes is related to the orientation of this strategy, which according to him does not deal with the essence of the problem.
“The main criticism was that this strategy speaks about transparency on the one hand, but does not speak about the concept of ‘open data,’” he says.
According to Gashi, issues highlighted by this strategy are secondary and do not substantially change anything. He believes that talking about increasing the number of government communication officials, about whether or not government meetings will be public, or about whether or not journalists who report from institutions should be accredited, will not solve anything. Gashi says that this approach is like trying to solve an issue “starting from the tail.”
“We can appoint 500 new officials, but if they have nothing to offer [in terms of documents], and if they continue to use the logic of making documents public only at the end of their production, these issues will remain,” Gashi says.
He believes that it is of primary importance to make institutions accessible to citizens through online platforms. According to him, if this standard were to be created, it would be much easier to monitor the work of institutions during policy making.
“If we had the concept of open data, the government would be more transparent in a series of processes,” he says, suggesting that as long as such a concept is not applied, the publishing of any kind of government documents will continue to depend on the willingness of institutions.
For example, in January the Haradinaj government was praised for publishing the contract for the construction of “Kosova e Re” power plant, which was signed in December 2017.
Nevertheless, financial analyst and independent consultant Hekuran Murati highlighted in an editorial that commercial contracts that are part of the agreement for the “Kosova e Re” power plant have not been published in full, with the justification that they contain classified information. Gashi is also critical of the fact that the contract was not translated into Albanian, and therefore it is still inaccessible to most citizens.
Despite this exception, Gashi highlights that the current government continues to show signs of continuity with the ones that preceded it, and says that access to published documents is being denied by the Haradinaj government, even in cases where the courts have ruled for them to be released.
For example, there is the case of the court motion filed by BIRN for the Prime Minister’s Office to release prime ministerial bills from Hashim Thaçi’s mandate. In February 2017, the Appeals Court accepted the application as founded and ordered the Office to allow BIRN access to these bills. One year has passed since the court made this order, but it has yet to be implemented by the government.
According to Gashi, this is an indicator of the Haradinaj government’s transparency, as they have not respected a court ruling, despite the fact that the issue was related to a former prime minister’s bills.
Petrit Çollaku, a researcher at AGK, says that journalists have filed complaints highlighting that the current government has continuously not allowed access to public documents. According to Çollaku, this does not happen only with the government, but also in other institutions. Journalists have told Çollaku that this shutout and failure to publish public documents is hampering their work, especially in cases of investigative journalism and cases related to the spending of public funds.
AGK researcher, Petrit Çollaku, does not believe institutional claims that 90 percent of requests by journalists to access public documents are approved. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
For example, since September 9, when Haradinaj was elected as head of government, journalist Besnik Krasniqi from Koha Ditore has made three requests to access the “Feasibility Study for Trepça” — relating to the development of the Trepça mining complex — all of which have been refused.
Çollaku contests statements made by institutions that journalists are allowed access to official documents in 90 percent of cases. According to a report issued in 2016 by the Office of Public Communication, from a total number of 2,169 requests for accessing public documents, 2,050 were approved.
However, according to a AGK survey, which questioned 50 journalists from different media organizations, around 78 percent of journalists were refused access to public documents in 2016. Furthermore, the Ombudsperson, the OSCE’s Media Section, and NGOs such as GAP Institute, Kosova Democratic Institute (KDI) and BIRN — who have all worked in monitoring law implementation — have criticized institutions for not implementing access to public documents in an efficient manner.
Such criticism was also made by Albulena Sylaj-Zeqiri, a communications official within the Prime Minister’s Office responsible for reviewing requests for accessing public documents. In a discussion organized on addressing challenges in law implementation, she said that when they deny access to public documents, institutions are often failing to provide written rulings, which is required by law. Instead, they leave these requests unanswered.
Arrogance and clashes with journalists
On the surface, it seems that the current government has changed the way in which it communicates with media. In contrast with his predecessors, Haradinaj is willing to make statements in the media, and to appear at press conferences and interviews. He appointed a spokesperson at the start of his mandate and has also hired experienced journalists as public communication advisers.
However, for journalists and professionals in this field, quantity does not translate into quality.
“Haradinaj’s appearances are more for enabling him to say that he is appearing at press conferences, than for providing any information,” says Koha Ditore’s Krasniqi.
For example, in early December, Prime Minister Haradinaj made the decision to forgive debts owed by companies that bottle water, a debt of over 58 million euros. When asked why he made this decision, the prime minister responded: “Because I felt like it.”
Koha Ditore journalist, Besnik Krasniqi, believes that the prime minister’s communications team deliberately create hostility with journalists in order to protect their boss. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
In another case, when the prime minister’s brother-in-law, 27-year-old Liridon Dervishaj, was appointed to manage the Health Insurance Fund, Haradinaj stated that he had no information about this, and that he had received news about it from the media themselves.
“He was appointed through an open call. You can say that there was interference. Had I known beforehand, I probably would have told him not to apply. Since he was appointed in a righteous manner, I cannot forbid him,” stated the prime minister.
When Deputy prime Minister and Diaspora Minister Dardan Gashi was filmed firing a gun at a private party, there was an immediate public backlash and calls for him to resign or be dismissed. But Haradinaj reacted by saying: “It is not the end of the world. I shoot too.”
Kreshnik Gashi believes that such responses are part of a strategy used by the prime minister, through which he evades accountability and attempts to relativize anything that is reported, so that they are not taken seriously and so that their effect is mitigated.
Krasniqi also sees a similar approach used by people who have been appointed to the prime minister’s media communication team, as they often create hostility between themselves and journalists so as to divert attention away from the prime minister’s actions or statements.
“The spokesperson creates hostility with journalists or the public so as to protect his boss,” says Krasniqi, adding that as a consequence of these actions, cold relations between journalists and prime ministerial staff have been created.
K2.0 sent questions regarding these incidents and the criticism of Haradinaj’s communication with the public to his media adviser, Halil Matoshi, but we received no response. However, in a piece published by Gazeta Express last month, Matoshi stated that in some cases Haradinaj was arrogant in his communication with the public.
“Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj has shown a finesse of arrogance in his relation with the public, not that he is arrogant, but being the head of government, he has been unable to see things with the level of commodity and negligence that people — politicians and journalists — have gotten used to in the past,” he wrote.
One piece of criticism that attracted international attention was related to the prime minister’s decision to increase the wages of high level state officials, especially his salary, which he raised from 1,443 euros to 2,950 euros. Haradinaj justified the decision by saying that he will need to buy new ties. Citizens responded by placing many ties at the entrance of the government building.
Furthermore, a 13-year-old girl wrote a letter to him, in which she talked about the difficult economic conditions in her city, Mitrovica. The media published the young teenager’s letter, whereas adviser Matoshi called them “child abusers.”
The decision to increase wages was opposed by the Anti-Corruption Agency, which highlighted that this decision violates the Law on Preventing Conflict of Interest in Exercising Public Functions. As a result, the Ministry of Finance did not implement the decision during the processing of January wages.
Only time will tell if we will see a change in the language used by Haradinaj’s media officials and the prime minister, as well as in institutional practices in terms of providing and ensuring transparency.K
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
This article was written by Kosovo 2.0 as part of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) project, co-funded by the European Commission. K2.0 is an ECPMF project partner. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the project and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.