JOURNALISM STOKES ETHNIC HOSTILITY
August 15, 2001
In a region known as the "murder capital of the Balkans,"
a stand-off between rival ethnic factions threatens to under-mine
fragile NATO-led peacekeeping efforts. In this battle, the "big
guns" fire volleys of hate-filled media messages instead of
The field commanders are TV, radio and newspaper managers –
Serbs and Kosovo Albanians – who use a fiery brand of journalism
to stoke ethnic hostility in a province where Nazi-like terror once
filled the hillsides and where violence still is common fare.
Not only are the events that surround the war in Kosovo emotionally
charged, but the journalists themselves have been affected by exposure
to trauma. How they react to conflict affects how they report conflicts,
according to the Center for War, Peace and the News Media.
A formula for change
That notion became part of the rationale for the center's post-conflict
reporting workshops — the first of their kind in Kosovo.
Until recently, neither side appeared willing to temper reporting
that reinforces prejudices, stereotypes and myths aimed at provoking
vengeance. In July, a bearded investigative journalist from the
U.S. arrived in the war-scarred provincial capital offering a formula
– and rationale – for change.
Drew Sullivan, formerly with the National Institute for Computer-Assisted
Reporting at the University of Missouri-Columbia, suggested bringing
members of the two rival factions together in a neutral zone.
After a bit of arm-twisting, the groups agreed to meet and explore
ways to increase levels of tolerance and inter-ethnic dialogue through
their reporting. "Diversity" and "multi-ethnicity"
were buzz words for training on ethnic conflict reporting. The workshop
would also would help the journalists to begin dealing with trauma's
effects on survivors, society in general and themselves.
Cautious words of greeting amid the chill of mistrust
On July 25, behind cement bunkers that protect the U.S. Office in
Pristina, two dozen Albanian and Serbian journalists cautiously
began the process of being civil to each other.
The mingling began amidst a haze of cigarette smoke, over cups of
thick black expresso in a tiny coffee shop called "Uncle Sam's."
At first, there was fleeting eye-to-eye contact, nods of recognition,
and cautious words of greeting. There also was a chill of mistrust.
The Albanians point a finger of guilt at the majority of the Serb
media for supporting a murderous regime in Belgrade or remaining
silent in the face of massive human rights violations.
From the beginning, the safety of the Serbs was a concern. The group
would have to cross bitterly divided ethnic boundaries to enter
Pristina, where, since the war, Serbs no longer are welcome. Of
the population of 40,000 who resided there before the NATO bombings,
only around 250 remain. Just walking the streets of the city could
be dangerous – and stressful.
"An enormous challenge...a real experiment"
Michael McClellan, a public affairs officer in Pristina, offered
a solution. The group could meet at the U.S.Office, a compound that
looms like a forbidding fortress, strategically located on a hill
towering over the city.
The two-week project, including five days of joint sessions followed
by reporting in the field, was funded by the U.S. Department of
State. "We knew it was an enormous challenge. A real experiment,"
says Hawley Johnson, who helped plan the program for the center.
When the conference started, introductions were quick and matter-of-fact.
Most of the Serbian journalists sat in back of the room. The Albanians
greeted each other with hugs and hand shakes. During a lunch break
at Uncle Sam's the two groups sat at separate tables.
By mid-afternoon, the common language of journalism began to bridge
the ethnic gap. In a session titled "Coming Up With Story,"
the participants explored the use of reporting as community builder.
Sullivan led a discussion on the role of the media in a post conflict
society and posed the question: "Is it the journalists' role
to function as healer?"
A defense against pain and loss
At the end of the day, the Serbian journalists filed out through
the iron gates and boarded a van provided by the Organization for
the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – an official
vehicle likely to ward off troublemakers. The driver headed to a
NATO-protected Serbian enclave a few miles out of town.
The next day, when psychologist Jack Saul joined the team to discuss
journalism and trauma issues, a dam of emotion broke as the reporters
shared memories of covering horrific events in their homeland. Saul,
director of the International Trauma Studies Program at NYU, reminded
the journalists that, "Anger and vengeance can be a defense
against the pain and loss. And maybe some of that is going on [in
There were tears as Albanian reporters described the anguish of
interviewing survivors whose families had been wiped out by the
Serbian paramilitary. There also was a sharing of personal tragedies.
Valentina Cukic, a TV journalist, was walking along a street in
Pristina a year ago in June when gunmen fired bullets into her stomach.
At the time, Cukic was editor of the Serbian-language programming
for Radio Kontakt, a multi-ethnic station. Choking back tears, she
told the group, "I was not shot by the Albanian nation. I was
shot by some criminals."
Branislav Krstic, who reports for a Serbian TV station, noted that
his life could be in danger if he promoted stories about the suffering
of Albanians at the hands of Serbs. A year before, the reporter
had been brutally beaten when he aired copy critical of Serbian
authorities. "My own people did this to me," he said,
jiggling a set of false teeth out of his mouth.
A young TV reporter, Albana Ulaj, challenged her Serbian colleagues
to explain why they didn't write more about the atrocities being
committed against Albanian civilians during the war. Her comments
were met by silence.
A groundwork for future cooperation
Then, the reality of the ethnic mistrust resurfaced.
A reporter for Bota Sot, a Pristina newspaper, informed Sullivan
that her editors would not publish stories about missing Serbs.
The reason: they were the perpetrators and should not share equal
time with victims and survivors.
Some feared it would be "dangerous" to publish stories
that appeared to equalize the suffering of Albanians and Serbs or
send conciliatory messages. One reporter noted, "The [Albanian]
public is not ready for this yet. There is too much unresolved suffering."
By deadline, Sullivan had the promise of two stories — none
produced by an inter-ethnic team. Yet, in a report, he deemed the
program a success. "We brought these groups together and began
laying groundwork for future cooperation. We started the dialogue.
Now it is up to them," he said, noting that plans already are
in the works for follow-up sessions.
Sherry Ricchiardi, Ph.D., is program coordinator for the
Indiana University Program for Journalism and Trauma, a Dart Center
affiliate. She recently traveled to Kosovo as part of a team of
journalists, educators, clinicians and students.