War was still raging in the former Yugoslavia on January 31, 1994 when RFE/RL started broadcasting in the Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian languages. The South Slavic Language Service, as the Balkan Service was then known, was a brave voice against conflict and an advocate for tolerance, reconciliation, and peace. It would expand its audience and languages over the ensuing decade to include Albanian, Montenegrin, and Macedonian. On the service’s 25th anniversary, Director Arbana Vidishiqi sat down with RFE/RL’s Pressroom to discuss its impact.
RFE/RL PRESSROOM: RFE/RL’s Balkan Service was launched as voice of moderation in the 1990s amid a devastating war. Twenty-five years later, how has its role changed?
ARBANA VIDISHIQI: Unfortunately, the Western Balkan countries are still very much in need of a voice of moderation. Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro – the five countries we cover now – all face bitter inter-ethnic relations, a rise of aggressive nationalism, poor economic outlooks, a rhetorical war on corruption, and a youth battling with two choices, unemployment or migration. Lately, there has been much talk about new wars in the Balkans. The wars of the 1990’s will not come back, but fires can be ignited that are difficult to contain.
PRESSROOM: What are the biggest challenges the Service faces today?
VIDISHIQI: Like with any other serious media outlet, we face a serious challenge from today’s different propaganda industries. What is genuine news and what is disinformation? How do you reach that layer of your audience that might be a potential victim of a disinformation campaign? And all this, with the head-spinning evolution of social networks and the role they play in today’s information space.
PRESSROOM: Does the threat of disinformation in the Balkans come only from Russia, or from elsewhere?
VIDISHIQI: Moscow is taking the opportunity to undermine Western influence and fan the flames of underlying conflicts. It is actively using Kremlin-sponsored media to spread propaganda in the countries across the Balkans, specifically in Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Republika Srpska part of Bosnia. But besides Russia, someone else has increased its presence in the region – radical Islamists, in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Balkans was one of the largest recruiting grounds for ISIS extremist group. About 900 nationals of Balkan countries have traveled to Syria and Iraq.
PRESSROOM: How do you define your audience?
VIDISHIQI: The future decision-makers, the next-generation influencers. Our audiences are unique in each country, but they also have so much in common. Our mission is to provide information, fact-based and fact-checked. It’s not easy though. The competition is tough, the propaganda is aggressive, and we need support to succeed.
PRESSROOM: What makes the Balkan Service’s coverage unique?
VIDISHIQI: There’s no other media outlet like it in the region. Macedonian, Albanian, Bosnian, Serbian, Montenegrin speakers in one format, with one mission, and yet, many different platforms, sewed together specifically for our unique followers. We all speak the same language of values within the service, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds. That’s something very worthy of mentioning as we celebrate our 25th anniversary.
Arbana Vidishiqi is the director or RFE/RL’s Balkan Service and head of the service’s Kosovo Unit. She joined RFE/RL in 1999 as a Pristina-based political affairs correspondent, becoming chief of the ethnically diverse Pristina bureau in 2001, during the volatile inter-ethnic tensions that followed the 1999 war in Kosovo. Vidishiqi is a native Albanian speaker and is fluent in English and south Slavic languages.
Contact her at VidishiqiA@rferl.org
+420 221 123 084