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Challenges and opportunities for freedom of expression in the networked environment

The Networked Communications Environment: the Case of Kosovo

info: Submitted by Lisa Horner on Tue, 2007-10-16 15:37.

Paper for the Global Partners Freedom of Expression Project

Laura Kyrke-Smith, POLIS, London School of Economics, October 2007

To download a fully-referenced version of this paper with footnotes, please click on the link at the bottom of the page.

1. Introduction

At the time of the Kosovo war the communications environment was severely underdeveloped: there were only a few active journalists and a virtually non-existent media infrastructure. Until 1999 there was just one television station serving Kosovo, broadcast mostly in Serbian with only one half-hour Albanian news slot each day. The government banned the only daily newspaper in Albanian in 1990. Though a few private journals appeared later in the decade, Kosovar Albanians tended to get information from neighbouring Albania’s television news.

Since 1999 there has been a rapid expansion of communications technologies, massive investment in improving the reach and quality of journalism, and a subsequent strengthening of communications networks. With a population of only two million, Kosovo now has the largest number of electronic media outlets per capita in the whole of the former Yugoslavia. Yet while positive developments are increasingly evident, the reach of networked communications remainds limited, and as yet has had little impact on enhancing and expanding freedom of expression in Kosovo.

2. Kosovo’s communications environment: an overview

‘Traditional’ media – TV, radio and newspapers – are overwhelmingly the most popular media consumed in Kosovo. Internet usage, however, is significantly increasing, and the internet will form the main part of this study. The high cost and basic design of mobile phones mean that, despite rapidly increasing usage, their potential to form part of the networked communications environment has almost entirely been overlooked to date.

2.1 ‘Traditional’ media

The overwhelming majority of media consumed in Kosovo is ‘traditional’: TV, radio and newspapers. 116 licensed broadcast media are now operative, including ninety-four radio stations (four Kosovo-wide) and twenty-two TV channels (three Kosovo-wide: RTK, RTV21 and Koha Vision). Following a brief lapse after the war, due to the destruction of infrastructure, TV has consistently remained the most popular source of information in Kosovo. In June 2007, 87% of the population stated TV as their primary source of news and views, while only 4% preferred radio. There are an increasing number of cable television channels available, which go unregulated, in Albanian, Serb and English.

Newspaper readership is very limited: the June 2007 survey put total readership at just 6% of the population. Explanations typically given for the unpopularity of newspapers include low literacy levels, low investment in developing print media, which has not received donor funding, and the poor quality of its content. Ten Albanian-language dailies currently operate with a total combined circulation of 20,000, and Koha Ditore is consitently the most popular. Despite limited circulation, however, newspapers such as Koha Ditore are influential in that political elites read them.

Most media in Kosovo – and certainly all Kosovo-wide media - are available only in Albanian language. While Kosovar Serbs tune in to some local Serb-language radio and TV stations (recently strengthened by KOSMA, a network of five local Serb radio stations), these tend to be for entertainment purposes only. For TV and radio news, Kosovar Serbs tend to consume media from Belgrade: Radio Television Serbia (RTS), Serbia’s state broadcaster, is the most watched.

There are no local daily newspapers in Serb language, but a few bi-weeklies exist such as the Civic Herald. Only one news agency in Serb-dominated north Mitrovica carries the Civic Herald, which sells about 1,000 copies of each edition, and you cannot buy the paper in Pristina. The most popular dailies among Kosovar Serbs are Belgrade-based: Vecernje Novosti, Blic, Kurir, Press and Glas Javnosti.

2.2 Mobile phones

The mobile phone network is dominated by Vala-900, which is directly owned by Monaco Telecom but forms part of the publicly owned Post Telecom of Kosovo (PTK). Vala-900 was given the first GSM license in 2001, and 25% of Kosovo’s population are now subscribers. This is a far lower subscription figure than the EU average, and than elsewhere in the region: Serbia as a whole, for example, has 67% subscription rates. But usage is rapidly increasing, and the Ministry of Transport and Communications plans to increase mobile phone penetration to 45% by the end of 2010.

Monaco Telecom retains its monopoly, having renewed its contract in April 2006 for the next three years. But complaints about its services are widespread. With the status issue unresolved, Kosovo has no dialling code of its own, instead using the Serbian code (+381) for landlines, and +377, routed through Monaco, for mobile phones. The use of international dialling codes entails unnecessarily high costs, and consumers express anger at accusations that at least half of the profits made by PTK go to Monaco Telecom.

As complaints about high charges and increasing demand for choice of new mobile phones increased, a monopolies tax was introduced in 2005 to bring new players in to the market. A tender was opened for second provider. After Kosmocell failed to pay for the license on time, IPKO Net, part of the Telekom Slovenia Group, finally won the tender. It is yet to be seen whether the entry of a second provider will drive down prices, as IPKO Net’s establishment has become tied up in accusations over irregularities in the tender process; a case being taken to the Kosovo Supreme Court. In addition, Aurora Israphone was in 2006 offered a license for international voice and data services.

At present, many turn to the ‘illegal’ mobile phone provider, Telenor (Mobtel), to avoid the high costs. Macedonian Mobimak and Cosmofon, Montenegrin Promonte, and AMC from Albania are all also reported to be expanding their networks across Kosovo’s territory, with no proper legislation in place to counter their activities. Finally, some foreign operators have mobile networks active around military bases.

Most mobile phone handsets are basic, and do not enable access to more advanced services such as video messaging and the internet. Mobile phones tend to be used for calls only; indeed often only to give people missed calls, for often people cannot afford to top up credit. Mobile phones, therefore, currently have only limited potential to form a component part of a more established networked communications environment.

2.3 Computer and Internet provision

The reach of technologies necessary to support networked communications remains limited. In Kosovo’s reconstruction since 1999, donors have consitently been more interested in funding local traditional media than getting Kosovo connected to the internet. The establishment of infrastructure such as IPKO Net, now one of the main internet providers, relied almost solely on local private initiative.

In October 1999, just 0.4% of the population were internet users. By December 2003 there had been a slight improvement: 6.3% of the population used a computer on a daily basis, but still only 3.5% used the internet. By September 2006, statistics gathered for Serbia as a whole showed 14.3% of the population to be internet users. This figure accounts for increased computer and internet usage in Kosovo, but ongoing disruption caused by the war in the region puts the figure lower than the Serbian average. Even the Serbian average remains well below average South East European levels.

Increased usage has been linked to cheaper and easier internet provision. It is now possible to purchase an internet and cable TV package for just 9.90 Euros per month, and there are three registered internet companies operative: IPKO Net, Darda Net and Kujtesa. Darda Net only offers dial up connections, but IPKO Net uses a wireless network. IPKO Net is the main internet services provider in Kosovo, providing services such as internet access, data transport and inter-office telephony to more than 2000 business clients, and over 1000 personal internet users.

Internet access is split along socio-economic lines. Those with access tend to be the Albanian English-speaking Pristina-based elite, and their internet access is through work in businesses, and in governmental and international organisations. While 15.9% of the population regularly access a computer, only 3% have a computer at home (2003 figures). Rates of consumption in rural areas are particularly low.

One major stumbling block to increasing Kosovo’s internet access is the lack of registered domain name. If Kosovo becomes independent, the .ks domain could be adopted, but currently websites can only be hosted via domains such as .com and .net. The absence of ‘national’ ownership of a part of the internet complicates the process of establishing a online presence for individuals and businesses, keeping the internet distant from the lives of ordinary Kosovars.

3. News online: expanding access to information and public debate?

The news media is increasingly operating online, in an attempt to adapt to the networked communications environment. ‘Traditional’ media are moving online, and new media organisations are also establishing an online presence. But the process by which this is happening puts public debate second to information provision, and has only limited impact in enhancing the ability of the majority to exercise their right to free expression.

3.1 ‘Traditional’ media online

‘Traditional’ media have made a concerted effort to expand their internet presence. Most of the major newspapers and television channels have websites where content can either be directly accessed or downloaded as a .pdf file. Baton Hoxhiu, Editor of Gazeta newspaper, has led the move online. He explains the potential for success:

“We put our newspaper in a .pdf online. Just last month 2.5 million hits per month… The Director has started negotiations with Google because when we have such a huge amount of hits we’re ready to get some ads. And we're negotiating with some big companies to start changing the .pdf to create a portal or something of that nature. Now we don't have any really good sites for information, but soon we can have them”.

Some of the new websites of the traditional media are attractive and user-friendly. RTK, for example, maintains an up-to-date site on which TV content is available for download with software such as RealPlayer. The website is available in English, Serb, Bosnian, Turkish, Roma, and Albanian, and receives a high number of hits. But even so, such websites have only minimally realised the potential of networked communications.

First, many of the beneficiaries live not in Kosovo but abroad. As Hoxhiu admits of Gazeta’s site, “people in the diaspora read it – in Germany, the US.” Second, some services, including access to the entirety of Koha Ditore’s site, are available to subscribers only; of which there are very few. Third, newspapers such as Lajm are slow to upload editions; there may be a wait of a month or more before the news appears online.

Fourth, it remains questionable whether traditional media online increase access not only to information but to public debate. In the UK, newspapers in particular have tended to prevent mass migration of audiences towards online media by encouraging forms of ‘citizen journalism’ including blogs and online discussion forums. In Kosovo, of the traditional media websites only Zeri has discussion pages, but with very few comments.

On the whole, traditional media continues to suffer the same pitfalls offline and online: almost full control of content by dominant political or business leaders. As Youth Initiative for Human Rights’s Alfred Marleku explains, “if you are PDK, you read Epoca e Re ... If you are with Veton Surroi you will read Koha Ditore … People read what they want to hear”. All newspapers, except Express and possibly Zeri, are allied to political parties. Across newspaper, TV and radio, and now internet, analysts frequently complain about ‘protocol journalism’ of poor quality; factually inaccurate and overtly biased.

3.2 New Online Sources of News and Views

For online news, by far the most popular are the Albanian language websites of the BBC and Voice of America: The English-language version of B92 TV, radio and internet, produced in Belgrade but accessible via the internet in Kosovo, is also a popular source of news among young liberal-minded Kosovar Albanians.

Alongside these sites, there is some increasing local online news capacity. The news agency Kosovapress, originally linked to the KLA, now has an established online presence, with a significant number of visitors both in Kosovo and Albania. Other online sites indigenous to Kosovo include that of the news agency Kosovalive and NewKosova.org. Nezir Rama, Kosovapress Editor, tracks the expansion of online presence:

“Kosovo has 70,000 employees working in government institutions, and they have free access to internet – and so this is most of our readership. We have new pages where they have job adverts, competition for tenders, buying and selling ads, and online polls. This is all free for subscribers. We are thinking of ways to attract new interest in our site. We also have highlights of news stories sent to subscribers by email. Google have just started advertising with us – they pay by clicks”.

The major drawback of Kosovo’s online news sites is that they are available only in Albanian. Kosovapress have a tab on their site for a Serb language version, but no Serbian content as yet. Kosovar Serbs use online media from Serbia, from news agencies including Tanjug, Danas and Beta. The Serb-language version of B92 is popular among more liberal Kosovar Serbs.

For those with online access in the first place, access to information has certainly increased. The most up-to-date and high quality news, however, is not indigenous: Kosovo remains dependent on the international community for substantive online news content. Moreover, most news tends to be put online in traditional format, and final authority over what information can be accessed remains in the hands of the media outlets. News is not presented in formats that inspire debate, and, with the exception of an occasional online poll, few opportunities are created for this to develop.

Finally, it remains difficult to make any impact in Kosovo with solely an online presence, as Balkans Investigative Reporting Network’s Jeta Xharra acknowledges. BIRN operates first and foremost online. But “You can’t make impact via online and print articles”, Xharra says, “this is why there was a need for a ‘question time’ style programme on TV”. Xharra’s ‘Jeta Ne Kosove’ is one of the most challenging and scrutinising programmes on TV. Other online news sources have also tried to link up to ‘traditional’ media; a further example being Kim Radio, available online.

4. Politics online: increasing debate, strengthening democracy?

4.1 Political institutions online

Political parties have been relatively quick to capitalise on the opportunities created by networked communications. The League for a Democratic Kosovo (LDK), for example, has a comprehensive website with vast sections dedicated particularly to the history of the party and to Ibrahim Rugova. Kosovo’s political institutions have also developed an online presence. The President has his own website, with comprehensive information in Albanian, Serb and English. The Kosovo Assembly also has a fully developed website with information about new laws, Assembly members, and so on.

What these websites lack, however, are forms of interaction or opportunities for engagement. Unlike sites such as theyworkforyou.com, websites of Kosovo’s political parties and institutions offer only selective information, without opportunity to ask further questions, contact ministers, or get involved. The LDK’s website offers very little factual information on party policies or platforms. Like many others, it is only available in Albanian: there is no attempt to draw Serb speakers in to a better understanding of or interaction with their political activities. There is a certain sense of showiness about these websites and, given the full provision for English speakers, one gets the impression that they are directed not to Kosovo but to the outside world.

Given their superior resources, international institutions in Kosovo were particularly quick to set up websites upon arrival; but the same limitations apply. Most websites include online updates of the organisation’s activities – the EU for example produces the online magazine Kosovo Express!, and UNMIK produces Focus on Kosovo – but these are not always available in local languages and are more for the benefit of the international community than the locals. They are certainly not created with the purpose of increasing full and debated access to information; former UNMIK Press Officer Jeff Bieley described Focus as “straightforward propaganda, repackaged in an attractive form.” And they are certainly not designed to encourage feedback and debate. Given the generally high levels of frustration at the lack of transparency of international institutions – especially as the Ombudsman’s powers decline – this is a wasted opportunity.

Finally, local communes now also have their own websites, sponsored by the Soros Foundation. Although many pages are still under construction, existing content is kept up-to-date and is a useful source of news and practical information about the locality, available both in Serb and Albanian. There are other moves too to use the potential of networked communications to make politics work more effectively at local level, such as the UNDP sponsorship of the Association of Kosovo Municipalities to join the region-wide Local Government Information Network, an online database for information sharing. This is, however, for the benefit not of the public but of civil servants, and its primary aim is to circulate information relating to EU integration.

Governmental institutions, in sum, have been quick to establish their place in the networked communications environment. Yet they see this environment as one in which to advertise, not to interact. Their presence is not to foster debate around policy, or extend the reach of their institutions to incorporate more people in the political process. For government, the internet is purely a platform for campaigning or for self-promotion. Perhaps if/ when Kosovo’s final status has been resolved, and there is less competition for political influence and recognition between local and international institutions, then a more interactive and less propagandistic online presence will be established.

Finally, one dangerous development is other governmental websites – notably the Serb government – using networked communications to antagonise the situation in Kosovo. The Serb Ministry of Foreign Affairs website has a section on ‘Terror in Kosovo’ with emotive photographs and captions of burned villages and injured Serbs.

4.2 Political blogging and discussion forums

Since balanced and intelligent political debate in the networked communications environment is facilitated neither by political institutions nor by online media in Kosovo, it would be left to individual or organisational blogs and discussion forums provide this opportunity. But in this area, too, improved public debate is rare.

At present, the overwhelming majority of political debates centre on Kosovo’s status. On websites hosted outside of Kosovo, such as B92 and the BBC Albanian service, there are forums where developments are discussed quite thoughtfully. The status process itself, however, is a murky business to most Kosovars. Besides tokenistic gestures such as the establishment of the website of the Special Envoy to UNMIK, international organisations – particularly the UN - have not exploited the potential of networked communications to increase transparency and keep the local population informed of political and diplomatic developments. While the status process remains distant, and frequent delays in decision-making occur without explanation, political debate within Kosovo reverts to old and tiresome arguments about ethnicity and history.

Even in contributions to the liberal Western press, the same patterns occur. In one example from 2006, Mark Tran wrote a neutral article, printed on Guardian Unlimited, on the status process. In just the second comment posted, debate is dragged back to the seemingly irreconcilable argument over who arrived in Kosovo first. “In the battle of Kosova some 500 years ago…”, it begins. And then the inevitable shouting match. “The Serbs have proven to be the modern day Nazis and, alongside their Israeli allies, should be ostracised from the world community,” one comment offered. No, it’s Albanians who like to kill, another respondent proposes, “just look at the cleric Hamza”. Another post suggests reconciliation might be needed. The reply comes quick and fast: “Well God forbid but if someone were to rape ur sister and was ur neighbour and after a year or so got released you saying that you will live next to him like nothing happened?” In just this one example, debate continues through hundreds of comments, but gets no closer to resolution. “For last 100 years albanians have been victims of worst forms of ethnic cleansing and genocide and anyone who denies knows nothing about balkan history…kosovo wasnt isnt and never will b ur land”, ‘Al’ signs off. A whole range of other ethnic and historical conflicts – Muslims v. Hindus, Iraq, Israel v. Palestine, East v West – are brought to the debating forum, with equally nasty and despairing overtones.

On domestic policy in Kosovo, too, debates tend to be simplistic or speculative; more rooted in generality than specifically policy or personality-oriented. A favourite topic of conversation is corruption in politics. On one mixed English-Albanian forum, one participant notes “I think that we all can agree that they are very few (if there's anyone at all) of our politicians that haven't stolen!… They don't care about Kosova! All they care about is the money.” While access to political information remains limited, public debate online remains uninformed and unsophisticated. There are a few very positive initiatives to address this deficit, such as the KIPRED Academy online; but at present such initiatives are only in an early stage of development.

What networked communications has certainly promoted is political self-scrutiny within ethnic communities; a positive development. It has long been prevalent in ‘traditional’ media, but is expanding at more popular and contributory level on blogs and discussion forums. On one Serbian-language forum, Belgrade.org.yu, some quite thoughtful comments emerged, for example, about possible consequences such as refugee flows, after a fake news story was posted about Kosovo unilaterally declaring independence.

But domestic political debates do not take place across ethnic lines. Inflammatory discussion of ethnicity within communities is rare, and the NewKosova.org discussion forum is not alone in establishing a clear code of ethics in which the first point prohibits ‘inflammatory or hateful comments related to race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or age’. But as soon as political debates cut across ethnic communities – as over the status process – debate turns nasty and counter-productive.

Finally, it must be recognised that frustration with politics is often so high that many people simply despair and ignore it. Most bloggers and contributors to forums prefer to write about daily life or about entertainment news, or have private conversations more along the lines of MSN than news media.

4.3 Political debate: any impact on politics?

As discussed in Section 3, attitudes on the internet are very similar to those in the ‘traditional’ media: the emphasis is on seeking ownership and editorial dominance, not creating a forum for debate. In politics, networked communications are used to communicate the results of elite-level political decision-making; they are not part of the governing process itself. They shed little light on the mechanisms of government, and offer little insight in to how decisions are taken, and of course little consultation: for Kosovo’s politicians, networked communications are purely communication of outcome.

But nevertheless, an increasing number of people are independently using the networked communications environment to express their views. As yet, this has gone untouched: politicians and civil servants, local and international, do not yet consider it a pressure point. The international community, Independent Media Commissioner and Kosovo’s institutions of government have regularly been accused of clamping down on Kosovo’s independent media. Most recently, the promulgation of the Law on Access to Official Documents led to protests by the Association of Professional Journalists on World Press Freedom Day 2006. But as yet debate on the internet remains free and unregulated.

Institutions of government, then, neither fully embrace nor clamp down on debate within the networked communications environment. So has it boosted democracy in the broader popular sense? As Zoran Jovanovic, a lecturer in journalism at Mitrovica university, concludes, democratic thinking is not valued in Kosovo, and it is not the role of networked communications to force democratic thinking upon people. He writes, “although network communications have allowed a more significant number of people to express their opinion on politics, they have not particularly boosted the buildup of democracy in Kosovo. This is so because here democratic awareness and tolerant thinking are not cherished.” People’s opinions remain unchanged, and debates remain packed with potent emotion: “[networked communications] do provide a better image of reality, but do not change this reality or open doors to optimism, because they are entangled in the dark ideas of the past and lean on the depressed paths of the present.”

5. Society online: acting together as agents for change?

5.1 Emergent social groups

The networked communications environment in Kosovo has offered the potential for some previously marginalised groups to emerge in the political and social arena. The Kosova Women’s Network is one such example. This was established by the US-based Advocacy Project, which provided integrated information support from 2001 to help KWN expand its use of information technology, produce a website, and publish a regular newsletter. Although initially an Albanian womens’ organisation, this group has now formed links with womens’ networks in Serbia to better advocate on behalf of all women in Kosovo under the banner of the ‘Women’s Peace Coalition’.

The networked communications environment has allowed links to be formed which transcend the ethnic divide that predominates in society – creating the physical separation of communities – by allowing people of all ethnic background to find other common links. In a letter from KWN to the Advocacy Project, Director Igballe Rogova stated: “We were invisible before you helped us. We tried to be visible verbally in different meetings, conferences etc, but that was not even close to the way we got visible through website and newsletter. We are visible worldwide… The wall came down.” Another example of identifying common interests beyond ethnicity is the information sharing website of the Kosovar Association for Political Science Students, aimed at academics and students across Kosovo. However all these initiatives suffer financial insecurities, and the permanency of their presence is not guaranteed.

5.2 Networked Communications: Bridging the ethnic divide…?

Since 1999 there have been several attempts to tap in to networked communications to promote positive change and, in particular, reconciliation. The Youth Initiative for Human Rights, run by students and youngs activists, works directly to promote dialogue between different ethnic communities, through scholarship and exchange schemes. The internet is a crucial aspect of its work: it has created blogs such as Serbia Waking which encourage thoughtful and positive commentary on all aspects of daily life and politics in the Balkans. Networked communications allow dialogue to continue beyond the direct experience of the exchange and scholarship, and provide an opportunity for building lasting relationships between those often living in enclaves of single ethnic groups.

There is other evidence too of NGOs using the internet to come together for positive change. The Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe, based in Pristina, set up a website in 2002 for sharing resources between Albanians and Serbs on environmental protection. It is still running now, but it is only available in Albanian. There are also a number of individuals who have taken the initiative to establish online forums for cross-ethnic debate, such as Samostalna liberalna stranka run by a Kosovar Serb, Igor Milic. In addition, there are regional initiatives such as OneWorld.net’s information website, which aim to keep all ethnic communities informed of developments in the news in Kosovo. With increased EU integration imminent, these kind of regional partnerships and dialogues are seen as essential to Kosovo’s future.

Networked communications have also interestingly provided a forum in which the ‘traditional’ media can be monitored. Until funding and energies were also exhausted in 2006, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights produced regular online reports of print media content, in which incidents of hate speech would be identified. The reports were produced in English, and were known to read by the international community and institutions of government. Networked communications in this regard have great potential to act not only as a communications arena in their own right, but also as a space to critique – and ultimately transform – ‘traditional’ media standards and practices.

Finally, there are some small signs that direct face-to-face meeting and debate may be opened up by the internet, for example a posting on on regularly maintained blog by an international based in Kosovo (in English). “A fan in Belgrade is seeking to establish communication with people in Kosovo to facilitate better communication and understanding with people in Kosovo. He seems genuinely interested. So, if there are any readers in Kosovo that might be interested in making a penpal or email pal in Belgrade, let me know and I will put you in touch with this person.” Networked communications opens up possibilities for increased ‘real life’ communications.

Contrary to interpretations that suggest networked communications make access free and easy, lack of funding and resources remain the major stumbling block in developing such positive initiatives. KosovaKosovo.com was established in 2005 by Beta and Kosovalive news agencies, and the Centre for Democracy and Reconciliation in South East Europe, to serve as a trilingual (Albanian – Serb – English) online information exchange forum. At its peak, it had about 7000 pages read daily, mainly by Serb and Albanian academics and journalists. As well as news stories, edited on alternate days from Belgrade and Pristina, the website featured ‘peace polls’ and expert commentary on key issues such as the status process, followed by discussion forums in both Serb and Albanian. But by 2007 funding dried up, and the website was forced to close down operations. The Kosovo Initiative Program (KIP) is a further example of an online forum designed to bring together 17 NGOs to unite and share good practice. But this project, like many others such as the South East European Refugee Assistance Network, seems to be stuck in the early stages of implementation; not yet secured funding to get off the ground.

5.3 … or encouraging ‘cultural tribalism’?

Despite these positive examples, on the whole the internet is used negatively by groups both inside and outside Kosovo, to promote their own agendas. As Alfred Marleku notes, “the internet isn’t easily used transformatively – instead it’s about reinforcing existing communities.” This relates to broader societal attitudes, as IREX’s Andrew Clayton sums up: “there is a limit to the amount of civil society guff that you can promote, because people just aren’t interested really.” Networked communications have proven particularly prone to promoting ‘cultural tribalism’ over dialogue, as forums and blogs create a space for opinions to radicalise as individuals egg each other on; supporting, normalising, and augmenting their already radical views.

Youtube is one forum which seems to generate particularly vicious forms of ‘cultural tribalism’ through the potent combination of video imagery, soundtracks and written commentary. There is the occasional factual video, such as ‘life in South Mitrovica’ and ‘life in North Mitrovica’ posted by the European Stability Initiative. These videos cover political and economic issues with the overarching message that ‘life is difficult’ on both the north and south sides of the divided city. But such postings tend to be lost in a sea of horrific imagery from 1998-99, KLA anthems and Serbian Orthodox hymns, maps of ‘Greater Albania’ and the ‘Nazi Serb Kingdom’, and a wealth of vicious commentary.

The forums on the BBC Albanian Service attract the most thoughtful commentary. One contributor reflects: “I ever since wonder why the Albanians hated us so much. Maybe because Serbs were Christians and they were predominantly Muslim?”. Another Albanian talks about a former Serb teacher: “I really hope that my teacher Ratko has survived as well and is doing well somewhere in this world... I just wish I could meet him one day and enjoy a good conversation with him.” B92 is another such space whether more interactive and reflective debate takes place. But while few Albanians understand Serb – and vice versa – English is the only language through which such communication can take place; and its only the educated elites with knowledge of English. Networked communications have offered no solution to fixed linguistic barriers.

Most mono-ethnic sites are deliberately antagonistic, such as one blog in Albanian and English entitled Countdown to Independence. Serb-language sites tend to be more bitter, and more provocative. One Albanian comment on a Serb blog is indicative: “I felt really sad when I looked around here and I just wanted to grumble for once the despair and the gloom I experience when I see around the web how much hate you guys have against us…” Overall, there is little direct hate speech, but instead deliberately provocative language, such as the use of ‘schqiptari’ to refer to Albanians. As Nezir Rama from Kosovapress explains, “this is like calling the French ‘frogs’; it is very offensive to us.”

Potent imagery contributes to inciteful commentary, and simultaneously creates a collective memory bank of hurtful images which would not have been possible without the internet. Imagery may be inciteful in itself or accompanied by comments which encourage a particular orientation: “a Serbian flag flies over Serbian sky” is the caption for one photo of the Banjska monastery (in the north of Kosovo) on a Serb website.

Where blogs and discussion forums have been productive in increasing debate within ethnic communities, such as NewKosovo.org, what is problematic is that the other ethnics groups, because of the language barrier, to not have access to witness or participate in it. Such access could contribute to developing a greater awareness of debates internal to the other ethnic community, and thus serve to humanise one in the minds of the other; but networked communications in Kosovo have not yet opened up this possibility. In general, ongoing inter-ethnic mistrust and hostility is caused by physical separation and distance as much as any kind of fixed ‘hatred’. In narrowing these gaps, networked communications could have a far more significant role than presently.

6. Going global online

While Kosovo’s status remains unresolved, the social, economic and political situation in Kosovo is intertwined with global developments. Transnational communications and Kosovo’s networked communications environment are inextricably interlinked too.

6.1 Forging transnational links…

Some argue that the transnational links improve the potential for networked communications in Kosovo itself. Fatos Bytici, a Pristina-based Reuters journalist, argues that standards will have to improve within Kosovo’s media, and a more democratic media space will have to be opened up, as a result of increased competition for media space via the internet. “If RTK is not giving you independent news, then people can read news elsewhere, from outside, like Reuters and satellite news. International standards are being accidentally imposed on Kosovo by internationalisation of the news media.”

Balkans Investigative Reporting Network’s Jeta Xharra also notes the legal impact of transnational networked communications, noting that because their publications might now come out in the UK, UK libel law could also apply to them. “The kind of laws that BIRN applies are absurdly stringent to most people locally – but BIRN is determined to uphold them, and this is all due to the internet. RTK also goes out on satellite, so is also subject to stricter international libel laws. So now, by law, there is no place to hide. This is the good side of internationalisation of the news agenda.”, says Xharra.

Transnational networked communications have also linked Kosovo better to the wider world to share knowledge and experiences through projects such as the Robert Bosch Foundation- funded Transatlantic Internet Seminar Kosovo/a (TISK). This project linked students in America with students from the Balkans for interactive online teaching and forums. International diplomatic processes – so relevant to Kosovo – have also been made at least slightly more accessible through websites such as that of the UN Special Envoy available both in Serb and Albanian. Finally, there have been attempts to assist the diaspora in contributing to development of Kosovo, but these are often distrusted, and people still prefer to give through existing family ties.

6.2 …but distorting indigenous debates

There is, however, a negative side to the transnationalisation of communications. Nezir Rama points out that most of the inflammatory material on the internet is produced by Serbs and Albanians outside Kosovo and then projected in to the region through the internet. This potentially serves to radicalise opinions and to focus debates away from the issues that matter to Kosovars on the ground; sometimes militating against ethnic reconciliation. Global networked communications allow international framings of debates to be projected on to Kosovo; such as the increasing tendency for debates over Kosovo’s independence to be swept up in global debates about the ‘war on terror’.

One example is the website of the American Council for Kosovo, which claims that an independent Kosovo would be “controlled by criminals and terrorists… a rogue state in Europe.” Explosives for the 2003 Madrid and 2005 London bombings came through Kosovo, it claims, while featuring links to sites such as www.jihadwatch.org. There are both information sites, such as the website of the American Serb Unity Congress, and blogs, such as that of Jewish comedian Julia Gorin, in this category. Gorin, likening Kosovar Albanians to Palestinian ‘terrorists’, is particularly prone to stressing the Muslim strand of Kosovar identity. Commenting on a photo of the 2006 ‘flag day’ protests, Gorin writes: “Note the amount of fezes in this crowd of “secular” Balkan Muslims. And where are the womanfolk? I see only males at this rally, kind of like at most protests in the Muslim world”.

The result of the projection of global concerns on to Kosovo most frequently portrays Kosovo as troublesome, problematic. But Kosovars own self-representation in the global networked communications environment also tends to have negative connotations. A quick glance at youtube, shows only the most radical opinions of Serb and Albanian ethnic groups. There are also several websites dedicated to maintaining high levels of frustration and antagonism against NATO and the international community.

Rather than having a unifying effect, the effect of networked communications has equally been to create distance by reducing a sense of shared understanding between Kosovo and the rest of the world. There has been a demonisation of Kosovo by outside websites, and a negative representation projected outwards. This may still be due to the underdeveloped infrastructure in Kosovo: only those most determined to have their say – those most radical – pursue integration in to the worldwide communications web. But it also indicates the failure of the networked communications environment per se to promote understanding over disconnection. The outcomes of interaction in networked communications are highly dependent on the individual user; and so far these users have tended to be the most radical. Moreover, the case of Kosovo highlights the ongoing problem of promoting global connectivity when physical distance remains.

7. Conclusion

Where finances, resources and personal or organisational initiative allow, the networked communications environment in Kosovo has significant potential to increase access to information and public debate, bridge ethnic and other societal divides, and better integrate Kosovo in to a global communications environment. This potential, however, remains untapped in five key aspects. While the case of Kosovo is made unique by its history and by the complex makeup of society, the five limitations are to be found in many other countries and societies currently making the transition in to the era of networked communications.

First, in terms of expanding access to information and debate, the networked communications environment in Kosovo has been limited by the limits of the physical infrastructure. Information online is therefore accessible only to a wealthy few who have access to the technology and the financial resources in the first instance, often residing outside Kosovo. Access to information overall has not been expanded.

In addition, the ‘traditional’ media continues to thrive and investment in ‘new’ technologies is reluctant. Some would argue that it is possible for there to be too much media to have coherent space for public debate. When various ‘traditional’ media are already in abundance, it is diffcult to convince people of the need to invest in newer networked forms of communication. ‘Word of mouth’, moreover, remains a core form of communication in Kosovo, and the argument remains popular that networked communications – or even ‘traditional media’ - is no substitute for direct contact.

Second, among users, access to information has been improved, but the quality of information received is often poor and selective. Few online media are truly ‘interactive’: most are only at the ‘emerging’ static information site stage, or in some cases the ‘enhanced’ stage. The majority consider networked communications a forum for self-promotion of often radical opinions; few value the networked communications environment for its potential to increase genuinely popular debate.

Third, because access to information remains restricted, the increasing volume of public debate within the networked communications environment is often ill-informed and unsophisticated; frequently inflammatory. The question is raised as to whether freedom of expression is the right benchmark in a post-conflict situation. When views are radicalised, should the priority instead be numbing extreme views and resetting debate to a more neutral point? Networked communications have tended to work against this.

Fourth, only a small minority have attempted to realise the potential of networked communications to promote not just debate but become a force for unity. In terms of increasingly acting together for change, the most productive communications have tended to be within ethnic groups or emergent social groups such as women. The language barrier remains a fundamental stumbling block to greater reconciliation, and networked communications have not yet contributed to overcoming it.

Finally, knowledge sharing and creation through networked communications has not to date been indigenous to Kosovo. As in many other ‘developing’ countries, Kosovo is dependent on international organisations such as the BBC and VOA, or otherwise on outside donors (from whom funding can often dry up before a project is complete) to provide quality content. In this respect, while information may be increasingly accessible, the process of it becoming so has resulted in a loss of indigenous information capacity, and only a weak sense of ownership of its production. Where Kosovo has internally made a concerted effort to get online, there is often the sense that it is externally directed; driven by a campaigning agenda towards external stakeholders. Expression remains freer abroad than within Kosovo, and it is abroad that opportunities for progress seem to lie: a point only highlighted by networked communications.

Bibliography

Balkan Update: ‘IPKO Net granted a license for second mobile provider in Kosovo’

Balkans Investigative Reporting Network: ‘Belgrade media keeps Kosovo Serbs in the dark’

Index Kosova

International Journalists’ Network: Kosovo Law on Access to Official Documents

Internet Traffic Ratings

Internet World Statistics

Lajqi, G: ‘Telecommunications in Kosovo’

Nettime: ‘Getting Kosova on-line’

OneWorld.net: ‘Association of Professional Journalists dissatisfied with government Law on Access to Official Governments’

Stelacon: ‘Kosovo Telecom Today’

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Youth Initiative for Human Rights: ‘Report on Written Media in Kosovo, August – October 2006’

UNMIK: ‘Press Release: Creating a Free and Sustainable Media in Kosovo’

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World Bank: ‘Economic Briefing, 30 September 2006’

Interviews

Jeff Bieley: Head of Press Office, UNMIK (7 December 2006)

Fatos Bytici: Reuters (6 December 2006)

Andrew Clayton, Chief of Party, IREX Kosovo (4 December 2006)

Ilir Dugolli, Head of Special Research Projects, Kosovo Institute for Policy Research and Development (3 December 2006)

Willem Houwen, Director, Kosovo Institute for Journalism and Communication (7 December 2006)

Zoran Jovanovic, Mitrovica University (7 September 2007)

Alfred Marleku, Youth Initiative for Human Rights (4 December 2006)

Igor Milic, freelance Serb journalist (24 September 2007)

Nebi Qena, Head of News and Current Affairs, Radio-Television Kosovo (7 December 2006)

Nezir Rama: Editor, Kosovapress (7 December 2006)

Naile Selimaj: Independent Media Commissioner (9 December 2006)

Mark Thompson: freelance writer and consultant (21 April 2007)

Jeta Xharra: Balkans Investigative Reporting Network (7 December 2006)

Annex 1

The following is a list of the major online media and organisational web presence in Kosovo:

1. ‘Traditional’ media in Kosovo now with online presence:

Gazeta Express
Iliria Post
Java
Koha Ditore or alternative site
Lajm
Zeri

Radio Television Kosova

Kim Radio

2. Online news media sources:

In Kosovo:

Kosovalive news agency
Kosovapress news agency
Kosovo Information Agency
Kosovo Information Centre
New Kosova

In Serbia:

Beta news agency
Tanjug news agency
Danas news agency

International:

B92
Balkans Analysis
Balkans Investigative Reporting Network
BBC Albanian Service
Voice of America Albanian

3. Blogs, discussion forums and information sharing websites:

Pro-Albanian (Albanian and/or English language):

Free Kosova
Give Peace a Chance
Kosova Report
Kosova.de

Pro-Serb (Serb and/or English language):

Belgrade.org
Byzantine Sacred Art
Kosovo.net
Serb Blog
Serbianna
The Diocese of Ras-Prizren and Kosovo-Metohija

Neutral:

Balkan Report
Civil Dialogue
Kosovo Cultural Heritage
KosovoKosova
Samostalna liberalna stranka
Youth Initiative for Human Rights blogspot

International:

Julia Gorin’s blog
News from Pristina
OneWorld.net
South East Europe Online
Youtube

4. Kosovo organisational websites:

NGOs and advocacy groups:

Association of Professional Journalists
Kosovo Institute for Policy Research and Development (now has online academy)
Kosovar Association for Political Science Students
Kosovo Women’s Network (with more information at Advocacy Net)
Youth Initiative for Human Rights

Political parties and government organisations:

Fatmir Limaj
Government Portal
Kosovo Assembly
LDK
Mitrovica commune
Official website of the president of Kosovo
PDK
Peja commune
Pristina commune
Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

International organisations:

EU in Kosovo
OSCE
UNMIK
UN Special Envoy to Kosovo

5. International organisational websites:

American Council for Kosovo
American Serbian Unity Congress

6. Communications companies operating in Kosovo

IPKO Net
Kujtesa
PTK

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