P r e s s I n f o # 44 August 25, 1998

Kosovo/a - Half Truths About How it Began

"The standard media background to the conflict tells us that it all started in 1989 when Slobodan Milosevic, then President of Serbia, repealed the autonomous status granted the Kosovo province in the 1974 constitution. This is wrong and propagated by journalists who have not bothered to study root causes, attitudes or other complexities. It's a typical example of KISS reporting - 'Keep It Simple, Stupid.' But the deliberate choice of this particular political action as 'the cause of all of the trouble' conveys the image that the Serb side alone is to blame," says Jan Oberg who has been engaged in this conflict since 1992.

"This is an age-old conflict between two peoples who are much more different and segregated than any other two peoples or nations in ex-Yugoslavia.

The basic causes of the conflict were and remain: 1) historically based inter-ethnic mistrust, b) economic underdevelopment and inequality, and 3) how to - if at all - integrate the Kosovo province meaningfully in Serbia/Yugoslavia in terms of politics, culture, education, economics. Or, alternatively, let it go. These issues cannot be separated from each other. The economic dimension of this conflict is grossly underestimated in the media image, in the generalised story. And so is the structural legacy of old Yugoslavia. Saying that this conflict STARTED in 1989 is to kill both complexity and history - and you'll understand nothing. And the less you understand, the easier it is to take sides.

Then as now, Albanians and Serbs simply do not trust each other; contrary to other republics there are very few inter-ethnic marriages and on both sides we find, sad to say, people with either total ignorance and racist attitudes to the others, or both. Most Serbs have never been to Kosovo and it will be impossible for the regime to mobilise the political opinion and motivate the young men to fight for the monuments, the monasteries there or the memories of what happened in 1389 at Kosovo Polje.

The autonomous status, to put it crudely, implied that Kosovo had a de facto but not a de jure republican status. It became a full constitutive element of the Yugoslav Federation with direct and equitable representation in all Party and state bodies. The 1974 Constitution prevented Serbia from intervening in the internal affairs of the province against the will of Prishtina. Kosovo's parliamentarians could veto any legislation which affected them; this implied that the Serb Republic had lost full control of the affairs in its territory. If the autonomous provinces of Voivodina and Kosovo decided to stop a decision in the Serb Republican parliament, they could do so - while, as mentioned, Serbia proper could not do the same. Kosovo and Voivodina were, in other words, elements in the overall Federation with the same rights and duties as the six republics, although the constitution did not give them statehood like the republics.

In short, the autonomous status of these two provinces within Serbia had two characteristics: a) they were part of the overall politico-structural 'balance of balances' in the ex-Yugoslav federation; when it started to fragment, Serbia could not live with not having full control of its republic; b) Serbs came to feel that they were weakened in Tito's Yugoslavia because 21 % of the Serbs in Serbia were outside Belgrade's jurisdiction, namely those living in the two autonomous provinces. In Croatia, Serbs made up 15 % of the people but had no special rights or autonomy as minority. In Serbia, Albanians made up 8 % and had a generous, constitutionally guaranteed status - in fact, perhaps the most liberal in terms of education, culture and democratic participation any minority in the world enjoyed.

Were the Kosovo-Albanians happy with this? Not at all, and of course they had THEIR good reasons. One of them was that history unfairly has condemned the Albanian people to live separately in three states, Albania, Serbia and Macedonia. In addition, they had not forgotten that throughout the fifties and sixties, Belgrade - not the least due to Vice President Alexander Rankovic who controlled the security police (UDBa) and was purged in 1966 - practised a systematic policy of discrimination against the Albanian minority. One of today's leading Albanian politicians, Adem Demaci, was imprisoned in 1958 at the age of 22 and spent 27 years there due to a series of mock trials!

The Albanians felt that the autonomous status was manipulated by Belgrade and only existed on paper. They were dissatisfied with being defined as a 'nationality' (that could not have a republic but only autonomy within one) rather than being a 'nation' such as Croats and Serbs. So the 1970s witnessed a series of demonstrations, clashed with Serb police, imprisonment, increased tension and hatred. National Liberation Movements and Marxist-Leninist groups fought, more or less underground, for full independence and unification with Albania. Violence was the order of the day.

In summary," says Jan Oberg, "what we see today is another serious wave of violence in a protracted and very complex conflict, a result of accumulated frustrations, if not decade-long traumatisation, on both sides. The Kosovo Albanians will not NOW accept what they never accepted as good enough since 1974 and knew could be taken away from them any time. The aims of the Albanian leadership was and is to get out of Serbia - while it is split on whether or not to unify with Albania. The Serbian leadership can not NOW re-install the autonomy of the 1974 constitution because ex-Yugoslavia was its logical and legal basis. The autonomous status of Voivodina and Kosovo was not abolished only (if at all) to clamp down on Kosovo, but to regain the authority and jurisdiction that Serbia had lost in 1974. I am not aware of any state that voluntarily has given up exercising authority over its legally recognised territory.

So, when the media tell us that the whole thing started when that autonomous status was abolished in 1989 - as if Albanians were happy then - they are simply ignorant about historical facts. But the deliberate CHOICE of this starting point automatically cast the Serb side in the role of devils and the Albanian side as angels. But I must tell you that this type of KISS journalism is anything but helpful when it comes to helping the parties finding a solution," says Dr. Oberg.

"You may ask: why do we get such simplified media images in conflicts? I would answer that they are caused by the fact that we have 'WAR REPORTING' that focus almost exclusively on behaviour while we lack qualified CONFLICT JOURNALISM, i.e. media people who understands how to analyse also root causes, attitudes, cultural norms, and history underlying these complex conflicts. Journalists who deal with economics usually know something about the subject, so do journalist working with culture or sports. In the field of conflicts, media usually send out front reporters or correspondents who happen to sit in the vicinity. They have no training whatsoever in how to analyse conflicts as such.

I've seen them drinking coffee outside the Grand Hotel in Prishtina, the film crews and journalists who are waiting to be brought safely out on 'war safari' and shoot the great pictures of death and destruction. By that they cover only one of the consequence of unresolved conflict - never the conflict itself and 'what it is all about'.

'But it sells, it's what people want, it's our duty to give people the images of reality - and this is what my editor wants me to do, I hear them explain.' "This is nonsense. Within a radius of 500 meter from the Grand Hotel, they can meet Albanians and Serbs of all walks of life who will give them vastly more interesting information, background and a touch of the psychological depths we are facing here. They would get a complex picture, they would get perceptions of history and they would come to see that each side has some respectable viewpoints and understandable sentiments.

But - to do that you would have to know something before you can ask good questions and build confidence with power-politicians as well as ordinary citizens. You must have had time to do your homework. Few have. So, rather shoot a film and comment on the pictures - THAT requires little prior knowledge or analysis."

TFF's director continues, "It would be nice if media in general - of course there are exceptions - had learnt something from the professional mistakes in the wars since ex-Yugoslavia fell apart in 1991. What we see now is the same one-sided, tendentious reporting of half-truths and omissions in favour basically of one side. In Kosovo, as everywhere else, there are two sides, at least, to a conflict. In the modern age of information and travel there are only three factors that can explain biased reporting and lack of comprehensive analyses: a) lack of professionalism, b) lack of creativity and c) the wish to promote particular political causes. In its accumulated consequences, media thereby become responsible for (counterproductive) political decision-making.

To a large extent public opinion is created on the basis of what people see and hear through the media; we can not all travel to war zones and form our own opinion. Thus media create vitally important images and frames of interpretation. The cry for "do something" is loud again. Politicians increasingly act on the basis of virtual reality rather than real reality. The first can be created in a few hours, the latter requires analysis.

If the image, the vocabulary and the historical background we now find in the majority of written and electronic media continue as it has begun around the Kosovo conflict, we can expect political, if not military, action that will turn the situation on the ground from bad to worse. We need conflict reporting, not just war reporting - as warfare is just a way to act out conflicts. Perhaps this is too important to be left in the hand of the media? 'Free media' must not degenerate into meaning 'freedom to be as biased and simplifying as you wish," ends Jan Oberg.

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Dr. Jan Oberg
Director, head of the TFF Conflict-Mitigation team
to the Balkans and Georgia


Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
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