An Island of Facts in Kosovo's Sea of PR
Editors of Koha Ditore guide foreign journalists, diplomats to stories
PRISTINA, YUGOSLAVIA — On a weekday morning in the middle of the Kosovo crisis, journalists from some of the world's most respected news agencies trickle into the downtown offices of the Albanian-language Koha Ditore (Daily Times) newspaper.
"What's today's top story?" asks a seasoned overseas correspondent of an ethnic Albanian reporter almost half his age. The young reporter, without hesitation, explains the latest development - and then ushers the veteran to a village so small it can't be found on most maps.
Another solid tip, another front-page story.
Koha Ditore, not even a year old, has become the international voice of Kosovo's 90 percent ethnic Albanian population, which is seeking independence from Yugoslavia. And the world is listening.
The small paper is helping to shape Western opinion. And that, many agree, may be the best way to bring about change in the Balkans. That strategy is also born out in demonstrations, where signs in English are often raised for Western eyes.
Not only has Koha Ditore shaped the news coming out of this province on the brink of war, but it has become a first stop for international diplomats.
"It's an honor to be here," special US envoy to the former Yugoslavia Robert Gelbard reportedly said upon entering the Koha Ditore offices for a meeting with the paper's editor, Veton Surroi.
Says an American newspaper reporter with 10 years of overseas experience: "It's ... the best tool of the independence movement and it's sound journalism." The reporter has hired Koha reporters as translators, worked out of the Koha offices, and had a Koha reporter read his stories before they were sent to America.
Into a one-paper town
Before Koha Ditore first rolled off the presses in April 1997, Pristina, the central city in Kosovo, was a one-newspaper town. That paper, Bujku, is considered by many to be the mouthpiece of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) and its president, Ibrahim Rugova.
As people grew impatient with Mr. Rugova, whom they perceived as taking a too passive approach to the problems here, Koha Ditore prospered, giving rise to opposition viewpoints. Its circulation jumped from a first run of 5,000 to today's 30,000.
Rather than limit its coverage to ethnic Albanians, it also covered Serbs who were dictating politics in Kosovo. When the paper put a photo of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic on the front page, staffers were accused of being traitors.
Koha also began close coverage of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a still-mysterious resistance movement that the international community calls "terrorists." Koha Ditore was one of the recipients of KLA communications taking responsibility for attacks on Serbian police stations.
Although guerrilla strikes had been reported in Kosovo for years, and police crackdowns had become a way of life for the ethnic Albanians, the cries of the people were now legitimized by an independent paper with 12 reporters, all ethnic Albanian, none older than 27.
Filling an information gap
Staffers appreciate their new role and rising importance. "It was unfortunate, but at the moment our politicians did not have the ability to inform the world," says Koha editor Dukagjin Gurani. "We were the only chance to penetrate the international community."
"I'm proud to be a member of Koha Ditore," says reporter Ardian Arifaj. "We've started something that has not been seen before in this part of the world - professional journalism informing people as objectively as we can. If there were no Koha, the world would not have known about the massacres in Drenica."
Drenica, in central Kosovo, was the site of a bloody police crackdown on Feb. 28 in which more than 25 ethnic Albanians were killed. Koha reporters were among the first to the scene, evading barricades and photographing women and children who had been shot by police, proving that the attack was not solely aimed at accused KLA members.
They displayed the photographs on their Internet home page (www.koha.net). Even the BBC and the independent Belgrade-based radio service B-92 took notice, urging listeners to visit the Koha Web site for in-depth coverage of Kosovo.
Not without critics
But Koha is not without critics. A Western diplomat in the Balkans called the daily "sensational" and said its graphic photos could have inflamed tension in Kosovo.
The dominant political party under Rugova has consistently stood against Koha, saying that the paper overpublicized apparent acts of terrorism and paved the way for a police crackdown.
"That's something Koha will have to come to terms with," says Muhamet Hamiti, an LDK spokesman. "Almost 100 civilians were killed in a week."
Mr. Gurani says the criticism is a natural reaction to a dramatic change in Kosovo.
"The media here, going back 50 years, have never had a concept of presenting the facts. They just presented viewpoints," says Gurani. "Now, people say we are not patriots because we are objective. But we feel that the highest form of patriotism is objectivity."