Reporters Without Borders deplores US ambassador Christopher Dell’s open letter (see below) to Kosovo’s Independent Media Commission on 23 February criticising Express, Koha Ditore and Koha Vision TV for using blown-up photos of text messages on a smartphone screen to show that he provided the country’s new president with last-minute advice in parliament before a vote that only just secured him the presidency.
It was clear from the photos that Dell was advising President Behgjet Pacolli’s aide, Esat Puskar, on how to proceed during a 45-minute break before a third and ultimately successful vote after Pacolli failed to be elected in the first two votes, which the opposition boycotted. If Pacolli had not won the crucial third vote, new parliamentary elections would have been necessary.
“We strongly condemn the way Ambassador Dell demanded ‘in the name of their readers and viewers’ that Koha and Express’s journalists apologize for their behaviour and questioned their professional ethics,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We are also outraged by his insistence that they violated article 170 of the criminal code, under which anyone publishing wire tap conversations or messages not specifically addressed to them is liable to one year in jail.
“The ambassador’s comments constitute unacceptable harassment of the Kosovar media, which are already harassed by their country’s own leaders and which should be able to count on more active support from a country that is generally appreciated for its commitment to the defence of media freedom.
“The contacts between Kosovo’s future president and the ambassador of a very influential country during a crucial election and at a time of great deal of political tension were clearly a matter of public interest. Reporting them was not in any way illegal. The photos of the text messages visible on the mobile phone screen did not violate the ambassador’s privacy because, as he acknowledged, they were just about political matters. They did, on the other hand, provide legitimate support for the claims the journalists made in their articles.”
The ambassador’s letter referred repeatedly to violations of privacy and interception of phone messages but the media just published photos of a mobile phone that were taken in a public place. It must have been obvious that there were journalists in the press gallery, which overlooks the seats occupied by diplomats and others. The messages were not intercepted electronically. No phone was tapped. The journalists just took advantage of someone’s negligence. That does not constitute misconduct.
The ambassador cannot demand that Kosovo’s media respect principles that are not accepted in the United States, where similar news-gathering methods would be deemed to be in the public interest and where the information would have been published without sanction. In fact, the democratic principles to which he referred allow Kosovo’s media to freely investigate links between their politicians and foreign diplomats.
Reporters Without Borders would rather see Dell speaking out more often against the constant political interference in the running of state media, notably within RTK, the discriminatory allocation of state and private-sector advertising, the unjustified lawsuits and prosecutions designed to snuff out independent journalism, the problems with broadcasting licences, the repeated tax inspections and other administrative abuses, and the lack of access to public information.
This is a difficult time for the Kosovar press and Ambassador Dell’s open letter will just encourage the country’s politicians to file more complaints of their own to the Independent Media Commission and to bring more libel actions. If his complaint is not withdrawn, it will lead to more harassment of the Kosovar media, which the US government would presumably not welcome.
Open Letter of Christopher Dell to the Independent Media Commission
I was disappointed to learn today that private correspondence and conversations were intercepted and recorded by media outlets and subsequently printed or broadcast nationwide. These outlets, including Koha Ditore, Express and KTV crossed the line in transmitting private communications that took place at the Assembly Hall on February 22, including an apparent phone call involving me. I am writing to members of the IMC regarding this unprofessional, unethical, and potentially illegal activity. I am not disturbed by the content of these communications, which reflect nothing more than routine efforts to gather information in a confused environment and purported comments relayed by third parties, including a perfectly respectable assertion that the political leaders of the country needed to make some decisions for themselves, but rather by the media’s apparently illegal act.
Just as I have called on members of the government to embrace the highest standards of transparent and clean governance, I urge members of the media to hold themselves to these same standards and to the professional conduct that they agreed to when signing the Press Code of Conduct.
Kosovo has codes of conduct for both print and broadcast media. These codes hold signatories responsible to the highest international journalistic standards, including privacy. Koha Ditore, Express, and KTV violated the spirit and intent of these codes when they intruded on personal communications. Their behavior was inexcusable.
The behavior may also have been illegal, as Kosovo’s Criminal Code forbids the unauthorized interception of personal conversations and statements.
• Article 170 (1) Whoever, with the use of special equipment and without authorization, wiretaps or records a conversation or a statement not addressed to him or her or enables another person to have knowledge of a conversation or statement which was wiretapped or recorded without authorization shall be punished by a fine or by imprisonment of up to one year.
I trust that the IMC will exercise its responsibility in enforcing its Code of Conduct, and I leave it to legal authorities to assess whether or not the law was violated and what legal steps should follow. However, I believe it is beyond dispute that the journalists involved and the editors/publishers who authorized the reports, clearly violated the ethical and professional standards expected of journalists in a democratic state.
The public – the readers and listeners of your news – deserve an apology. Members of the media have violated their own standards and the public trust. Three years after independence, your country should be able to rely upon a responsible, ethical, and professional media. I am disheartened that in spite of strong support and considerable investment of my government over more than ten years, some of your more popular outlets have yet to reach even a minimal level of professional accountability and responsibility commensurate with the positions of public responsibility they exercise.”