PRISTINA, SERBIA — In the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica, it's not just the UN-patrolled bridges over the Ibar river that separate Albanians and Serbs. Newsstands on either side of the river sell very different stories about life in Kosovo.
Such competing – and often inflammatory – accounts have fueled ethnic tensions between the majority Albanian population and the minority Serbs in this tiny but troubled Serbian province.
Wednesday in Vienna, last-ditch talks are scheduled to begin over a controversial United Nations plan for Kosovo's future. While Serb and Albanian politicians wrangle over the plan, in Kosovo a fledgling independent Serbian-language media is struggling to present their shared homeland's story in a less divisive way.
"We're really just trying to give them in-depth information about what is happening in Kosovo and what is happening in Serbia," says Jelena Bjelica, the editor of a year-old Serbian-language newspaper whose mixed-ethnicity staff of 14 is determined to simply run the news straight. "I'm not in line with the Serbs and I'm not in line with the Albanians."
Ms. Bjelica, originally from Belgrade, the capital of Serbia to whom the province still technically belongs, is one of the only Serbian journalists who has continued to report from Pristina since Yugoslav troops were expelled by NATO in 1999. Until then, most of the media in Kosovo had been in Serbia. Today, there is a flourishing Albanian media, but the seeds of an independent, Serbian-language media in Kosovo are struggling to sprout in a harsh climate.
There are only two local Serb-language publications produced in Kosovo other than Bjelica's Gradjanski Glasnik, or Civic Herald; one is aligned to the government in Belgrade and the other to the Serbian Orthodox Church. There are also a handful of TV and radio stations, but none of these have a broad, national audience and almost all operate on shoestring budgets.
"There is no Serbian Kosovo-wide media," says Isak Vorgucic, a former Orthodox priest who now owns Radio KIM, an independent Serbian-language radio station that broadcasts in central Kosovo. "There really is no Serbian press in Kosovo. We don't have a daily newspaper."
In the absence of a strong local media, most Serbs in Kosovo still get their news primarily from television and newspapers based in Belgrade, which are adamantly against any form of independence for the province.
Bjelica – one of only about 140 ethnic Serbs still living in Pristina – and her Albanian friends thought there was a market for a quality paper specifically for Kosovo's Serb population.
She calls her paper's style "civic journalism," intended to inform, not incite. When UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari announced his plan last month, which essentially granted the Albanian majority de facto independence – a move widely opposed by the Serbs, who consider Kosovo to be the cradle of Serbian culture – many Albanian-language papers ran victorious headlines. In its next edition, the Civic Herald ran articles about the response to the plan from a wide variety of minority communities across Kosovo.
The front page of each issue of the colorful, tabloid-sized paper carries a cartoon by a famous Serbian cartoonist who goes by the name Corax. Inside, there are sports pages and the occasional celebrity story. But the meat of the paper is hard-hitting stories about Kosovo and the region. In December, for example, it featured a piece about a young hard-line Albanian leader, Albin Kurti, who earlier this month was arrested for planning a violent protest in which two people were killed.
Only about 6 percent of Kosovo's 1.9 million inhabitants are Serbs, most of whom live in isolated enclaves protected by NATO troops.
For Serbian reporters, just getting around to cover stories can be a challenge because of security concerns. But things are getting better, says Andrew Clayton, who heads up a program that works with local media run by the International Research and Exchanges Board, a Washington-based independent media advocacy group.
"Things have changed quite a lot over the five years that I've been here working with the Serb and Albanian TV and radio stations," he says. "Up until about 18 months ago, Serb journalists were reluctant to move around, they were concerned about their personal safety."
In recent years, the region's media has often played an ignoble role in the Kosovo conflict. Media on both sides of this restive region's linguistic and cultural divide fueled ethnic tensions by hyping abuses committed against their people, while often ignoring those committed by their ethnic kin. During widespread rioting in 2004, for example, Serbian press focused on attacks by ethnic Albanians against Serb communities, calling the perpetrators "terrorists." The Albanian-language press emphasized the drowning of three Albanian children, whom they said had been chased into the river by Serbs with dogs.
And in 2000, the UN temporarily closed an Albanian-language paper when one of its translators was killed after being named as a war criminal. The paper had published the names and personal details, including addresses, of Serbs they accused of war crimes.
Even now, Bjelica says, it can be hard to find staff willing to write straight news. "It's all about us or them," she says. But, like others on the paper, she remains cautiously optimistic about Kosovo's future. The key, she said, is to build a united, multiethnic identity in Kosovo. At the Civic Herald, she said, Serbs and Albanians work side by side without incident.
But in a region where divisions still run deep, unbiased news is still a hard sell. Many Serbs distrust the paper because of its Albanian connections. Only one news agency in Serb-dominated north Mitrovica carries the Civic Herald and so far, you can't buy the paper in Pristina.
Still, the Civic Herald, is slowly gaining ground among Serb speakers living in enclaves in other parts of the country. Although it still only sells about 1,000 copies of each edition, which comes out twice a month, that's more than many of the Serbian dailies and Albanian papers on sale in Kosovo. But the paper's owners are optimistic about the future of Kosovo and the role a multiethnic press will play there.
"We have hit rock bottom, but now things are starting to look up," says Petrit Selimi, the paper's young Albanian publisher.