In 2018, Fitim Gashi, a journalist working for the media group KOHA and who has been following the work of Kosovo’s senior institutions for 10 years, sent some written questions to the Office of the Presidency, then led by Hashim Thaçi.
The questions were related to a proposed land-swap between Kosovo and Serbia — a hot topic at the time that was being discussed as an option for a final agreement between the two countries.
Not only did he not receive any answer, but when Gashi tried to ask the same questions to the then President Thaçi at a press conference, the latter said that the publication where he works speaks “Vučić’s language.”
“The question was whether Serbia would be offered any territory in exchange for the Preševo valley, Medveđa and Bujanovac, which he had said he was working to annex to Kosovo. Thaçi called such reports propaganda,” said Gashi, recalling the events of four years ago.
Thaçi, a public figure in the political scene for the entire post-war period, maintained the same approach to journalists regardless of the position he occupied at the time, from prime minister to minister of foreign affairs and eventually, president.
“I remember the habit that Thaçi had. When I asked something that embarrassed and shamed him at press conferences, he answered with ‘Someone else?!’ He just ignored me,” said Besnik Krasniqi, another journalist from KOHA who has followed the work of the government for years.
Conferences held by senior government institutions allow journalists to ask relevant and challenging questions to the people in power. As such, they are important to hold them accountable. However, Kosovar politicians have developed the habit of leaving journalists unanswered.
Different governments, the same approach
Every party or coalition in power has shown a similar non-transparent approach to the media. Not appointing spokespeople, ignoring questions at press conferences, not returning emails and often avoiding questions with indirect answers are a recurrent feature.
Under former Prime Minister Isa Mustafa from the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), who governed between 2014 and 2017, there was no spokesperson during the first two months of government.
However, even after the appointment of Arban Abrashi — who also doubled as Minister of Social Welfare — Mustafa preferred to communicate with the public through Facebook to avoid press conferences and confrontations with journalists.
Isa Mustafa’s party colleague, Avdullah Hoti, who took over as prime minister in 2020, did the same. He only appointed Antigona Baxhaku–Idrizi as his government’s spokeswoman after journalists and the civil society demanded the appointment of an information officer four months into his tenure.
The phrase that best reflects Haradinaj's approach to journalists during his rule was "believe me, you have to go back to school."
Meanwhile, Mustafa’s successor, Ramush Haradinaj from the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), who was in charge from 2017 to February 2020, is not remembered for a timely appointment of government spokespersons, but for offending journalists.
At a conference in 2017, Haradinaj was asked about a statement by the US Embassy regarding the demarcation with Montenegro. Haradinaj, despite saying that he respects the media, addressed the journalists saying that “you do not know how to read English,” and that “you report without knowing how.” The phrase that best reflects Haradinaj’s approach to journalists during his rule was “believe me, you have to go back to school.”
Lack of transparency was also observed in the first Kurti government. In his short term in 2020, when his Lëvizja Vetëvendosje (LVV) ruled in coalition with LDK, the government did not have a spokesperson for a month, prompting the reaction of the Association of Journalists of Kosovo (AGK) and also of individual journalists.
During his first 100 days, Prime Minister Kurti did not appear at any press conference for the first 45 days.
During this period, the government also failed to hold press conferences after cabinet meetings, which was deemed a lack of transparency by the institution. And that, despite the fact that Kurti himself promised transparency after having been a strong critic of past governments.
This practice has hardly changed in the second Kurti government, which came to power after the snap general elections of February 14, 2021. Although Kurti appointed two spokespeople, this action has not brought any change in terms of transparency and relations to the media.
During his first 100 days, the prime minister did not appear at any press conference for the first 45 days. Although Kurti eventually returned to press conferences, he did not adopt a better approach and some journalists feel that certain media are favored.
“Initially, the floor is given to the media that support the government; they even have had the opportunity to ask up to 5 uninterrupted questions, while I have to wait with a microphone in hand to make my question,” said Valmira Saraçi–Sahatçiu, journalist from RTK.
Not only in press conferences, but also in electronic correspondence the Kurti government seems to be closed.
Before the spike of tensions in northern Kosovo resulting from the row with the license plates of vehicles entering from Serbia, Besnik Tahiri, from Klan Kosova, sent questions to the Ministry of Internal Affairs on this topic.
“Will any decision be taken regarding the Serbian license plates that are still present in the north of Kosovo?” Tahiri asked. Despite some measures being taken soon afterwards, he never received an answer.
A press conference without questions cannot be called a conference.
Meanwhile, another common feature of press conferences, according to some journalists, is the expectation of knowing any question beforehand to then decide whether to allow it being asked.
Ideal Gola, director of information at Kosova Press, a news agency, called this approach an address to the media and not a press conference. According to him, the moment there are no questions in a press conference, it cannot be called a conference.
But, according to Alban Zeneli, professor at the Department of Journalism at the University of Prishtina, this is the strategy of the public relations office.
“The goal is to avoid unwanted topics and to give space to the topics the politicians like,” said Zeneli.
K2.0 conducted a study on this topic between 2018 and 2019. During a period of five months, journalists belonging to 10 different media organizations monitored and analyzed 52 press conferences organized by different institutions. Out of 75 questions made by the participants, only 26 received a concrete answer. In the other 49 questions, they received only a partial or ambiguous answer.
Regarding electronic correspondence, only 76 out of 152 e-mails sent to public institutions received a response. In 26 of these, the monitoring journalists stated that it was partial or not concrete.
"The higher the transparency of a country's institutions, the higher the level of democracy."
Over the years, journalists have addressed these difficulties in the AGK, a non-governmental organization whose mission is to protect the freedom and rights of journalists. This NGO has constantly reacted in such cases in order to support journalists in their job.
“Apart from the lack of answers about various topics, representatives of institutions in most cases refuse to participate in shows, interviews, and only rarely appear in debates,” said Naim Sadiku, member of the board of AGK, adding that institutions have a responsibility to respond to journalists and this approach should be changed.
Zeneli, meanwhile, believes that this approach of politicians is their way of avoiding confronting journalists’ questions.
“It’s mainly the topics they do not like, do not have a clear position on, or simply do not want to tackle when it can embarrass them, so they lead the public’s attention to the topics they want,” said Zeneli.
He further said that transparency is important because it is directly related to the accountability of powers to their constituents or citizens.
“The higher the transparency of a country’s institutions, the higher the level of democracy,” said Zeneli.
One-way communication through social platforms
Social networks constitute the newest global platform for politicians to communicate. In the 2020 U.S. elections alone, former President Donald Trump is estimated to have spent about $40 million on Facebook ads. Meanwhile, Edi Rama, Albania’s prime minister, is constantly criticized for avoiding journalists by providing important information only through social networks, where he also broadcasts on his own television channel, ERTV.
This phenomenon has also entered the political scene in Kosovo. Social networks have become information platforms, among others, for government decisions, presidential meetings or delegation visits, or for statements of political figures regarding current issues.
Politicians use social media to send their messages without the mediation of a journalist, thus not having to deal with them. Knowing that whatever they write on Facebook or Twitter will constitute media news, social networks serve as a shortcut to media without journalists. All political figures are nowadays quite active on social networks.
While the use of social networks by politicians has negatively affected the work of journalists, it has also damaged the quality of public information.
Prime Minister Kurti, for example, has about half a million followers on Facebook, President Osmani about 350,000, while the President of the Assembly Glauk Konjufca, and some of the ministers, range in the tens of thousands. These numbers are similar for the political figures of the previous governments, now in opposition.
While this form of communication has negatively affected the work of journalists, it has also damaged the quality of public information.
For the assistant professor Alban Zeneli, this form of communication affects the public, who is served news produced in a non-professional way, not even meeting the most basic criteria of journalism, that news should have at least two sources.
“Apart from missing a second source or a proper information balance, these news often come out without any background of the event about which an official wrote on social networks,” said Zeneli.
Meanwhile, RTK journalist Valmira Saraçi-Sahatçiu considers that by using social networks, state representatives choose to serve only what they want.
“This of course makes the work difficult, making getting answers to certain issues impossible,” said Saraçi-Sahatçiu.
Ideal Gola added that there have been cases when journalists have asked for additional information about the statements published on social networks and have been told to refer to them.
Such communication by politicians is unacceptable for AGK. According to Naim Sadiku, this approach is not providing accurate information, as the public only receives whatever information is launched by the elected official.
Alban Zeneli considers that this strategy’s purpose is to avoid journalists.
“On topics they do not want to talk about, they avoid questions by holding fewer and fewer press conferences and delaying answering journalists through other forms,” said Zeneli.
Feature Image: K2.0