In the past fortnight, the public broadcaster, Radio Television of Kosovo (RTK), has been at the center of discussions and criticism in relation to alleged irregular promotions and censorship within the institution.
On August 11, through an open letter, nine RTK journalists expressed their discontent with the management of the institution, specifically with what they allege is the continuous discrimination that happens within the editorial team.
The group of journalists (Ardita Sylejmani, Arton Mulliqi, Fazli Veliu, Gentiana Kelmendi, Jehona Zhitia, Leonora Berbatovci, Valjeta Kosumi, Visar Krasniqi and Zenel Hajrizi) have claimed that the RTK management has been unwilling to address their complaints regarding promotions, unequal treatment and the selection of only a handful of journalists to follow the political agenda of state leaders overseas.
The journalists have demanded an evaluation of their work in accordance with RTK’s internal regulations, claiming that such a process has not been conducted for years. According to reports, the journalists were particularly unhappy at the recent promotion of a news editor which they believe constitutes one of these violations.
The first to publicize the clashes between journalists and the RTK management was the head of the broadcaster. On August 10, the general director of RTK, Ngadhnjim Kastrati, wrote on Facebook that a group of “politically influenced journalists… at a time when we await elections in Kosovo,” were looking to destabilize RTK.
The journalists have suggested that the internal debate was made public with the objective of intimidating them.
He added that RTK functions in accordance with the law and internal regulations, based on which all promotions have been made. According to Kastrati, the same regulations have been applied in the case of the newly promoted news editor.
“Those very journalists have been evaluated and seven of them have been promoted, but not to the position of editor,” Kastrati wrote. “It was not necessary to have nine editors in the newsroom. Their demands were to be systematized in other sectors, and I approved these requests.”
In a letter of response to Kastrati, the journalists said that these statements were false and added that their evaluations and recommendations for promotions, which were made by their supervisor and which they themselves had signed, are stuffed away in management drawers.
The journalists have further suggested that the internal debate was made public with the objective of intimidating them.
“First of all, we want to make it clear that for two months we have tried to solve this issue within the institution. As such we have expressed our concerns to RTK’s institutional mechanisms,” reads the journalists’ public letter. “The issue has been maliciously publicized so as to ostracize, intimidate and publicly blackmail us, by labelling us as [simply] ‘discontent.’ Some media even labelled us as ‘putschists.’”
The journalists added that the director’s claims that their discontent is politically influenced were made with the objective of denigrating them professionally.
“This really damages our personal and professional integrity, and also the editorial independence of RTK,” the letter continues. “We are not part of a political agenda, and we will not accept this.”
AGK stated that it is very concerned and demanded that the RTK management immediately distance itself from these claims.
To gain more information regarding the developments within RTK, K2.0 sent a series of questions to the broadcaster’s director, but received no response.
K2.0 also contacted the nine journalists, but they did not wish to comment further than what is written in their public response.
Meanwhile, the Association of Journalists of Kosovo (AGK) and the Independent Syndicate of RTK have both responded to the public falling out between the RTK management and the journalists.
In its response, AGK stated that it is very concerned with the fact that the discontent journalists were labelled as “political journalists” and demanded that the RTK management immediately distance itself from these claims.
The head of the Independent Syndicate, Fadil Hoxha, wrote on social media that the journalists’ concerns must be considered and that RTK must put an end to the practice of promoting the wrong people to decision-making positions.
Media rights lawyer Flutura Kusari also responded to the case, saying that the journalists are whistleblowers and as such they have the right to protection.
“The RTK journalists who recently reported terrible and frightening irregularities and censorship within RTK are whistleblowers and so they are entitled to protection,” Kusari wrote. “Practically, this protection implies that no one has the right to initiate disciplinary or penal procedures against them.”
Not a new issue
RTK has a long history of being criticized regarding the decisions by its management, with claims that they have intervened in the editorial independence of the public broadcaster.
A 2018 report about the level of media freedom and journalist security in Kosovo highlighted that the public broadcaster has a high rate of “uncontrolled employment” that is strongly characterized by nepotism.
Earlier this year, the manner in which RTK appointed its director was criticized by the Independent Syndicate, which highlighted that there were irregularities in the process and even addressed the case to the Basic Court in Prishtina, filing a lawsuit against the board.
Similarly in 2015, after a similar public response from the Syndicate, 12 editors protested to oppose the appointments of Lorik Arifaj and now director Ngadhnjim Kastrati to their positions as editors-in-chief of RTK1 and RTK3 respectively.
“We do not agree with this decision, because we’ve continuously faced pressure, censorship and propaganda that was implemented by these two individuals,” the Syndicate wrote at the time. “We consider that they damaged the image of RTK as an independent public broadcaster.”
One of the main long-standing criticisms against RTK is for political interventions in editorial policies, which come directly from the government, especially the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK). For example, in 2013 there were strong reactions by media representatives and members of civil society after RTK transmitted the PDK Convention live for two hours.
“RTK is a captured television broadcaster that is controlled by the Democratic Party of Kosovo and other parties.”
Flutura Kusari, media rights lawyer
The most recent European Progress Report for Kosovo states that the public broadcaster must be financially independent from the state budget so that it functions properly, free from political influences.
For Kusari, the political influence on RTK remains as it has been in the past.
“RTK is a captured television broadcaster that is controlled by the Democratic Party of Kosovo and other parties,” she said.
Kusari recalls another case that happened in January, when journalist Nebih Maxhuni published messages that showed that Hashim Thaçi’s office, through political adviser Adil Behramaj, “dictated” the questions that journalist Ridvan Berisha was to later ask Kosovo’s president.
“Such a thing was proven by the aforementioned whistleblower, who published text messages that indicate that the editorial content of RTK is determined by the office of the President of Kosovo, Hashim Thaçi,” she said. “The journalists’ complaints regarding censorship are of public interest, and instead of opposing the journalists, RTK should strive to become independent from PDK and provide journalism that is for the good of public interest.”
Kusari also highlights that whistleblowers and journalists are not protected sufficiently, due to cultural and financial reasons, among others.
“In Kosovo, there is a general culture of not denouncing evil deeds publicly. Even when whistleblowers denounce wrongdoings, they are not supported,” she said. “Moreover, whistleblowers are often silenced through fear of legal and financial consequences, such as being fired from their job or being publicly denigrated, as we are seeing in the ongoing case with the RTK journalists.”
The Law for the Protection of Whistleblowers in Kosovo was passed in the Kosovo Assembly in December 2018. It prescribes the right of a person to report or reveal information about threats or violations against public interest in the context of working relations in both private and public sectors.K
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.