by Sherry Ricchiardi
August 15, 2001

In a region known as the "murder capital of the Balkans," a stand-off between rival ethnic factions threatens to under-mine fragile NATO-led peacekeeping efforts. In this battle, the "big guns" fire volleys of hate-filled media messages instead of mortar shells.

The field commanders are TV, radio and newspaper managers – Serbs and Kosovo Albanians – who use a fiery brand of journalism to stoke ethnic hostility in a province where Nazi-like terror once filled the hillsides and where violence still is common fare.

Not only are the events that surround the war in Kosovo emotionally charged, but the journalists themselves have been affected by exposure to trauma. How they react to conflict affects how they report conflicts, according to the Center for War, Peace and the News Media.

A formula for change

That notion became part of the rationale for the center's post-conflict reporting workshops — the first of their kind in Kosovo.
Until recently, neither side appeared willing to temper reporting that reinforces prejudices, stereotypes and myths aimed at provoking vengeance. In July, a bearded investigative journalist from the U.S. arrived in the war-scarred provincial capital offering a formula – and rationale – for change.

Drew Sullivan, formerly with the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting at the University of Missouri-Columbia, suggested bringing members of the two rival factions together in a neutral zone.

After a bit of arm-twisting, the groups agreed to meet and explore ways to increase levels of tolerance and inter-ethnic dialogue through their reporting. "Diversity" and "multi-ethnicity" were buzz words for training on ethnic conflict reporting. The workshop would also would help the journalists to begin dealing with trauma's effects on survivors, society in general and themselves.

Cautious words of greeting amid the chill of mistrust

On July 25, behind cement bunkers that protect the U.S. Office in Pristina, two dozen Albanian and Serbian journalists cautiously began the process of being civil to each other.

The mingling began amidst a haze of cigarette smoke, over cups of thick black expresso in a tiny coffee shop called "Uncle Sam's." At first, there was fleeting eye-to-eye contact, nods of recognition, and cautious words of greeting. There also was a chill of mistrust.

The Albanians point a finger of guilt at the majority of the Serb media for supporting a murderous regime in Belgrade or remaining silent in the face of massive human rights violations.

From the beginning, the safety of the Serbs was a concern. The group would have to cross bitterly divided ethnic boundaries to enter Pristina, where, since the war, Serbs no longer are welcome. Of the population of 40,000 who resided there before the NATO bombings, only around 250 remain. Just walking the streets of the city could be dangerous – and stressful.

"An enormous challenge...a real experiment"

Michael McClellan, a public affairs officer in Pristina, offered a solution. The group could meet at the U.S.Office, a compound that looms like a forbidding fortress, strategically located on a hill towering over the city.

The two-week project, including five days of joint sessions followed by reporting in the field, was funded by the U.S. Department of State. "We knew it was an enormous challenge. A real experiment," says Hawley Johnson, who helped plan the program for the center.

When the conference started, introductions were quick and matter-of-fact. Most of the Serbian journalists sat in back of the room. The Albanians greeted each other with hugs and hand shakes. During a lunch break at Uncle Sam's the two groups sat at separate tables.

By mid-afternoon, the common language of journalism began to bridge the ethnic gap. In a session titled "Coming Up With Story," the participants explored the use of reporting as community builder. Sullivan led a discussion on the role of the media in a post conflict society and posed the question: "Is it the journalists' role to function as healer?"

A defense against pain and loss

At the end of the day, the Serbian journalists filed out through the iron gates and boarded a van provided by the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – an official vehicle likely to ward off troublemakers. The driver headed to a NATO-protected Serbian enclave a few miles out of town.

The next day, when psychologist Jack Saul joined the team to discuss journalism and trauma issues, a dam of emotion broke as the reporters shared memories of covering horrific events in their homeland. Saul, director of the International Trauma Studies Program at NYU, reminded the journalists that, "Anger and vengeance can be a defense against the pain and loss. And maybe some of that is going on [in this room]."

There were tears as Albanian reporters described the anguish of interviewing survivors whose families had been wiped out by the Serbian paramilitary. There also was a sharing of personal tragedies.

Valentina Cukic, a TV journalist, was walking along a street in Pristina a year ago in June when gunmen fired bullets into her stomach. At the time, Cukic was editor of the Serbian-language programming for Radio Kontakt, a multi-ethnic station. Choking back tears, she told the group, "I was not shot by the Albanian nation. I was shot by some criminals."

Branislav Krstic, who reports for a Serbian TV station, noted that his life could be in danger if he promoted stories about the suffering of Albanians at the hands of Serbs. A year before, the reporter had been brutally beaten when he aired copy critical of Serbian authorities. "My own people did this to me," he said, jiggling a set of false teeth out of his mouth.

A young TV reporter, Albana Ulaj, challenged her Serbian colleagues to explain why they didn't write more about the atrocities being committed against Albanian civilians during the war. Her comments were met by silence.

A groundwork for future cooperation

Then, the reality of the ethnic mistrust resurfaced.

A reporter for Bota Sot, a Pristina newspaper, informed Sullivan that her editors would not publish stories about missing Serbs. The reason: they were the perpetrators and should not share equal time with victims and survivors.

Some feared it would be "dangerous" to publish stories that appeared to equalize the suffering of Albanians and Serbs or send conciliatory messages. One reporter noted, "The [Albanian] public is not ready for this yet. There is too much unresolved suffering."
By deadline, Sullivan had the promise of two stories — none produced by an inter-ethnic team. Yet, in a report, he deemed the program a success. "We brought these groups together and began laying groundwork for future cooperation. We started the dialogue. Now it is up to them," he said, noting that plans already are in the works for follow-up sessions.

Sherry Ricchiardi, Ph.D., is program coordinator for the Indiana University Program for Journalism and Trauma, a Dart Center affiliate. She recently traveled to Kosovo as part of a team of journalists, educators, clinicians and students.

< Back