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Reporting From Kosovo ‘Powder Keg’ Is A Heavy Responsibility

Czech Republic--Arbana Vidishiqi, Pristina bureau chief and head of Kosovo unit with RFE/RL's Balkan Service. Prague, April 17, 2015.

Arbana Vidishiqi hopes journalists can help build democratic institutions in Kosovo

Arbana Vidishiqi exudes none of the bitterness one might expect of someone who was forced to leave northern Kosovo amid escalating ethnic tensions that eventually consumed her family's home, along with many others, in flames.

On the contrary, Vidishiqi, the Kosovo bureau chief with RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, is implacably positive about her country’s future. Though massive obstacles still hinder Kosovo's path toward democracy and pluralism, she believes journalists like herself can help society surmount them by reporting on such issues as government transparency, religious tolerance, and respect for minority rights.

After completing her Computing and Communication degree at the Hendon College in the UK, Vidishiqi joined the Kosovo bureau in 1999 in the midst of a war fueled by deeply rooted animosity between the majority Albanian and minority Serb communities. Thousands of people, mostly ethnic Albanians, were killed, and up to a million were displaced both internally and abroad, according to some estimates.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but is still not recognized by nearly half of UN member countries, including Serbia and Russia. National and municipal elections held since independence have been generally viewed as free and fair, if marred by low voter turnout, though the Serb community is increasingly willing to participate in the process both as candidates and voters.

A hard-won peace reigns today, but clashes are common, adding to the responsibility of journalists in Kosovo to provide fact-based reporting, lest they feed the flames of violence with incendiary broadcasts.

“The northern part of Kosovo is such a powder keg that one minor incident can burst into an interethnic conflict,” Vidishiqi said. “This means when news is breaking, you can’t just post two sentences about it and cause a panic. I’d honestly rather be late than wrong.”

In March 2004, Kosovo national media, the public broadcaster in particular, were accused by the OSCE of inciting violence by aggressively reporting unsubstantiated claims that three Albanian children who had drowned in the Ibar River had been chased into the water by Serbs. Investigators found no evidence to support the accusation, but since it had already been widely broadcast, the damage was done. Over the next 48 hours, riots erupted across the country leaving 28 people dead and hundreds of Serb homes, churches, and institutions burned.

In addition to reporting on potential flashpoint stories responsibly, Vidishiqi values the Kosovo bureau’s informed coverage of Islamic extremism. Kosovo ranks number one out of 22 countries surveyed in a new report on the per capita flow of militants to Syria and Iraq. Kosovo sends 125 fighters for every 1 million citizens (out of a population of 1.7 million), according to the Kosovar Center for Security Studies. By contrast, the highest number of foreign fighters overall among the countries studied were from France and Russia, but with only 18 and 11 fighters respectively per 1 million citizens.

“The media in Kosovo typically does not draw a distinction between moderate and radical Islam, and this is where we come in,” she said. “We talk to moderates and scholars who can explain how an extreme sect can develop within an otherwise peaceful religious community.”

Kosovo--Pranvera Abazi, mother of eight-year-old Erion, whose father took him to Syria without Abazi's permission.
Kosovo--Pranvera Abazi, mother of eight-year-old Erion, whose father took him to Syria without Abazi's permission.

In September 2014, the Kosovo bureau interviewed Pranvera Abazi, whose husband went to Syria to join Islamic State militants without her knowledge, taking along their 8-year-old son.He was reunited with his mother in October last year.

A significant exodus of Kosovars fleeing crippling poverty has also taken place in recent months. In February 2015, the Balkan Service broke the story of the sudden spike in migrants trying to cross into Hungary from Serbia in the hopes of finding work in the EU. The Kosovo bureau interviewed migrants flooding Pristina’s downtown bus station. They explained the desperation driving them to risk what little they have on an uncertain future abroad.

Vidishiqi says her family home in the north was rebuilt two years ago, but as it is located in one of the epicenters of continuing ethnic tensions, her family still doesn't feel safe enough to return. Like the development of Kosovo itself, progress is slow but not out of reach, in her view.

“It’s such an energetic country, regardless of all the problems” she said. “If you visit Pristina, yes it’s dirty, yes it’s messy, but it’s alive.”

--Emily Thompson