Systematic targeting of journalists during the pandemic

Tatjana Lazarević Vreme ličnost godine
Tanja Lazarevic, novinarka, Kossev, 04.01.2019 Kosovska Mitrovica, Foto Marija Jankovic

Translation provided by KoSSev

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, four incidents involving journalists and the media occurred in North Mitrovica. On the eve of the World Press Freedom Day, Tatjana Lazarevic, editor-in-chief of KoSSev, spoke about her detention and press freedom, as well as the situation with the coronavirus pandemic in the Serb-majority areas in Kosovo for the Glas razuma portal. This portal is run by students of the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Belgrade.

The KoSSev portal has recently been criticized by the North Mitrovica emergency team (sponsored by Serbia) because you live-streamed one of their conferences. How do you comment?

On the one hand, it is an elementary ignorance of journalistic work and the public’s right to information. On the other hand, it is an elementary ignorance of the role and obligations of public servants and members of local governments that provide service to citizens. It was a regular press and public conference and live-streaming such events should be something completely normal.

The coronavirus pandemic raised many questions, including the question of who is illegally sharing information about the infected. How do you comment on the fact that citizens have confidential information from the medical records of the infected on their phones?

I see it as a flagrant violation of the right to privacy, as a serious breach of the work discipline and ethics of the medical profession. We have had a number of such cases in North Mitrovica. Private information of almost 200 tested persons were shared online; even some Pristina media published it. Also, we have had cases in which the potentially infected were stigmatized. We have seen many examples of solidarity and empathy, but we have also seen that we live in a dog-eat-dog world. I’d love to see an epilogue of this, but I don’t really expect it.

While some citizens are ignoring the measures, I have the impression that the majority of people respect them. Many citizens, however, have special permits that allow them to move even during curfews. Initially, the citizens of the north were confused over which measures they should respect – as it was insisted that both measures imposed by the Serbian-sponsored emergency team and the Kosovo government should be respected. However, the introduction of the 90-minute movement measure, which was publicly announced by a government representative in Belgrade, cleared up some things.

You were recently detained by the Kosovo police for allegedly failing to comply with the measures and charged with „failure to comply with health regulations during the epidemic“. What is happening with your case now? Do you still believe that your detention had a different background than the one presented?

I still firmly believe that it was an ambush. Several facts speak in support of this and there is nothing to say it was a coincidence. I described it as a tabloid-like ambush. The most obvious proof of this is a series of articles and photos published by the Kosovo online portal, which alleged that the police apprehended me „while taking a walk“ during curfew, along with paparazzi photos taken when the police stopped me when I still did not understand what was happening. The same portal published statements that supported the allegations that I had broken the measures – an epidemiologist said that no one should abuse the right to move – with the headline saying „journalists must not abuse…“ In addition, an analyst, who frequently gives statements to this portal, claimed that I jeopardized and shamed the journalistic profession. Finally, there were allegations that it is necessary to have a different movement permit, etc. The fact remains that I had the necessary permission, that I did the right thing, and did not abuse my job. This example also showed a deep ignorance of the journalistic profession by local structures, including the police. Those who have followed me, while plenty of things indicate that they did, did not understand the journalistic role and scope of our work. If they had, they wouldn’t have done it.

Working as a journalist and editor of an active portal like KoSSev and with a small editorial board such is ours, in a small environment like North Mitrovica, with all the pressures we face, means that you have no free time and that you have an allocated time for a walk or to eat and socialize. Even when I socialize, eat, do chores – I work. You can’t switch off. Bearing in mind the work we do with KoSSev, free time for me – or as the tabloid put it “detained while taking a walk during curfew” – was an essential luxury that I can rarely afford, and I certainly did not on that day. 

The questions of the inspector who took my statement were ridiculous – that I can’t be an editor and a reporter at the same time, how I should know what my working hours are, and so on. 

As for my case, after being officially told – „you will receive criminal charges and the prosecutor will contact you” – this has not happened yet, even though I was unofficially told that there is „no case“. In the meantime, I filed a report with the Kosovo Police Inspectorate for illegal detention and unlawful photographing, that is, failure to act on the restriction of movement.

Some media outlets published photos of your detention that must have come from police records, how do you comment on this move by your colleagues?

These are not my colleagues. Colleagues do not sneak around in bushes. Colleagues don’t lie. Colleagues are not tabloid. Colleagues do not draw a target on each other’s foreheads. Colleagues do not expose journalists who are just doing their job to public ridicule and defamation. Colleagues do not publish videos and texts with dangerous and inaccurate content after which the person targeted by them is assassinated. There are media and media outlets, but journalists do not work in all media outlets.

Numerous journalistic organizations have condemned these acts. Were you surprised by the support of your colleagues or did you expect such a reaction?

I’m not surprised, but I’m very, very grateful. The case obviously represents a threat to the freedom of the press, and endangerment as well. Four par excellence incidents against journalists took place in North Mitrovica in a short time – two against us, an Albanian colleague from Gazeta Blic was previously attacked, and the latest case of assault on Nenad Milenkovic, the owner of RTV Puls and the private company “Puls inzinjering” from Silovo. Unfortunately, this shows that one can no longer speak of sporadic intimidation, but it opens the ground for mapping these incidents as a systematic targeting of journalists during the pandemic.

Nenad Milenkovic, owner of RTV Puls from Silovo, was assaulted by four masked attackers. What kind of atmosphere does this create and do you think that private reasons lie behind the attack on Milenkovic or was it related to his media work?

On that day, he was not involved in any media-related capacity. The only thing associating him with the media is the fact that he is the owner of RTV Puls and that he was in the company of journalists employed by that television and driving a jeep with RTV Puls tags. By his admission, he came to submit documentation for a public procurement competition for the construction of buildings. He said that he is positive that he had been attacked because of it. He accused the municipality of illegal activity in connection with the competition but also of being behind the attack. As a rule, the epilogue must be provided by the police, the court, and other competent institutions. I convey what he said and testified, but the municipality denied everything. Police said surveillance cameras were not working. I would be surprised if the case was solved. Even if it happened, I would suspect the motives again and in whose interest it would all be. Unfortunately, it would be hard for me to believe it was done for the sake of public interest.

Does your portal cooperate with the Albanian media? What sort of cooperation do you have?

We cooperate with some media outlets and in many cases, it is very correct cooperation. I would also like to point out, as a shining example, as well as the exception, the solidarity, and support that – apart from Serbian journalist associations – I received from the Association of Journalists of Kosovo regarding my detention. The head of the association is regularly in touch with me. She was very interested in the case. They gave me their support, as did some other colleagues from Pristina, and together with my NUNS professional association, they also launched regional and international initiatives. I would like for this exception to become the rule. For us to be connected and show solidarity based on our faith in professionalism and our sole purpose – to serve the public, instead of being divided by local courtyards and constraints which often have a political background and ethnic prejudice. On the other hand, I would have plenty of bad things to say when it comes to cooperation and exchange between the media reporting in Serbian and Albanian languages ​​in Kosovo, but in order to do so – we would need expert discussion.

Do the media in Kosovo, either Serbian or Albanian, have the conditions for free and objective reporting?

Of course they don’t. Still, I always believe that in the end, the choice is yours – whether you would accept these limitations and never move away from self-censorship or censorship. Speaking of the latter, that would mean that you’re no longer a journalist. Or you could try doing your job responsibly and decently even in these circumstances. Also, the Serbian and Albanian media are in a completely different position and status. Small media outlets reporting in Serbian are plagued by serious problems, including uncertainty around funds, the lack of funds for journalistic activities, and a serious shortage of human resources, which makes them easily susceptible to political or business influence. Not to mention the common understanding that the journalist serves the authorities and politicians, even if invisible at first glance, or, as I often hear from my colleagues, that the journalist serves „Serbia“ or „Kosovo“ – which is used as a euphemism for the absolute misuse of the media for political agendas. Let me be clear, I have nothing against the media or media employees who work for specific political or profit-related agendas. There are such people and they are entitled to exist and to promote these kinds of editorial policies. But the fact is that they are not journalists. The journalist only serves the public. I have nothing against someone being a „good Serb“ or „Albanian“. But this is where patriotism lies – in each of us doing what we love and can do the best and in being the best at what we do.

Finally, how and in what way had corona changed life in Kosovo? What is your impression?

Certainly, the same as everywhere else, but to what extent and with what consequences – we have yet to see. I think that time has come to make that list with the pluses and minuses – what was wrong, what did not work, and whether there were positive changes and what they were. The most tragic thing is that people died, many people suffered, and many will be even poorer. I also believe that many people have turned to what they carry inside themselves, that they have returned to that lost connection with their own souls, family, friends, books, all the little things in our lives that we have stopped noticing. I also believe that many of us will learn to appreciate and find life right in our own peaceful corners.

Interview conducted by Andrija Lazarević/Glas razuma

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