Prime Minister Albin Kurti visiting RTK in April 2020. Photo via the Office of Prime Minister in Kosovo.

The sacking of the public broadcaster’s board – and promises of more change – have raised expectations for long-delayed reform.

Earlier this month, Kosovo’s parliament appointed a new board of directors for RTK, the country’s embattled public broadcaster. That might seem like a very small step, but the station’s long-time critics hope this is just the start of reforms at a behemoth whose problems have affected the entire media market in Kosovo and, some would say, even stunted the country’s young democracy, depriving it of an independent, trusted source of news and information.

In its 22nd year of operation, RTK has faced accusations of editorial bias, financial abuse, nepotism, poor quality, and missing out on all the important media trends. In the public sphere, RTK is one of those topics that unexpectedly pops up now and then, draws heated attention, and then just as unexpectedly fades away. But the victory of the previous opposition party – the Vetevendosje Movement – in general elections held in February brought to power one of the biggest critics of RTK, and many perceive a new momentum for change.

Parliament fired the previous RTK board on 8 July after its media committee assessed the board’s performance as poor, citing RTK management’s refusal to conduct a general audit, the lack of a long-term strategy, and the failure to comply with procurement procedures.

The dismissed board members, in a joint statement, called the decision political, illegal, and flagrant interference in the work of the public broadcaster. RTK’s general director, Ngadhnjim Kastrati, called the removal of the board a dangerous precedent for the public broadcaster and a threat to democracy. The opposition and the U.S. Embassy in Kosovo also condemned the move. 

But Vetevendosje’s parliamentary deputies have refused to back down and have insisted that sacking the board was just the beginning. 

While the allegations against the public broadcaster vary depending on who makes them, almost everyone agrees that RTK began its spiral downward when its funding started coming directly from the state budget.

Until 2010, RTK was funded by a license fee of 3.50 euros paid by households via their energy bills. But in 2009, a viewer addressed the Constitutional Court to assess whether this funding method was constitutional. The individual said that his financial situation as a retired person did not enable him to pay that amount of money. He contended that the payment method was an imposition and a violation of his human rights. 

In response, the court temporarily suspended the license fee. In the meantime, the public broadcaster was to be funded by the state budget. 

Since then, all initiatives to restore the old model have failed, and the state continues to fund RTK directly, something that endangers editorial independence, say many international media experts, such as from the European Broadcasting Union.

Fated to Fail

Abit Hoxha is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Agder, Norway, and the author of several studies related to the media landscape in Kosovo. He has a different opinion on the origins of the current troubles. He thinks that RTK’s legal framework was doomed to fail.

“Under the assumption of funding from the public, RTK was built upon a model that assumes voluntary participation in [supporting] the public broadcaster, whereas the political culture for funding voluntarily is non-existent,” Hoxha says. “RTK was modeled to benefit from public and state funding and run advertisements, which made it an experimental model in terms of competition with the private sector. All these steps were bad and helped create a television station that is neither private, public, or state-owned, nor competitive and independent.” 

Some initiatives have emerged over the past few years to review the law on RTK. One draft proposal passed on the first reading in 2019, foreseeing the return of the license fee, but failed to go any further. Back then, Vetevendosje, then in opposition, opposed paying license fees via energy bills because, they claimed, the energy companies financially benefited from the system (which the companies denied). However, this public funding model still receives a lot of support. 

“RTK should receive most of the funding directly from citizens. This would return the accountability of RTK from the Assembly [parliament] as it is now, directly to the citizens,” says Agron Demi, a policy analyst at the GAP Institute, a think tank based in Pristina.

The public broadcaster recently sued Demi for defamation in a Facebook post where he called for RTK to be shut down. A vocal critic of the station’s performance, he uses both his work and social media as tools to address his concerns. But apart from Demi and a few other experts and NGOs, there has been little public pressure for greater editorial independence at RTK. Both the funding model and the lack of knowledge about the role of a public broadcaster are to be blamed for this apathy, Demi says. 

“In a country like Kosovo where there is still not enough knowledge on how the state budget works and that citizens’ taxes fund it, there is a misconception that we do not pay for RTK and have no interest in its development. But we pay for RTK, even indirectly through the budget,” he says. 

On the other hand, Fadil Hoxha, who leads a trade union of RTK employees and is a vocal critic of financial misuse and partisan employment at the station, blames top management. 

“RTK has failed to be transparent and cooperative with the public, and I think this was done intentionally so [financial] misuse and abuse go unnoticed for years. RTK should be open and communicative with the public so it can understand their needs and demands, but also their criticism of RTK’s program content,” Hoxha says.

Connections Over Merit

The European Commission’s yearly country reports repeatedly underscore how the current model harms the Kosovo public broadcaster’s editorial independence.

“To date, the broadcaster remains directly state-funded, with its budget determined annually by the Assembly. This undermines its independence, weakens its long-term sustainability, and leaves it prone to political influence,” the Commission’s 2020 report states. The Commission has also drawn attention to other shortcomings of RTK, including non-merit-based hirings, non-transparent remuneration, insufficient sustainability of programs in non-majority languages, and its poor online presence.

The criticism of the station’s hiring practices is nothing new: RTK has been repeatedly accused of recruiting on grounds other than merit. One media outlet earlier this year reported that RTK employed close relatives of former President Hashim Thaci, as well as the son-in-law of the former chairman of the board, Sali Bashota, which constitutes a conflict of interest according to the law that governs RTK. In the past, under other boards, allegations of other dubious hirings have also surfaced. 

Fadil Hoxha says that apart from the changes in the funding model, things started to go wrong for RTK when people who were obedient to the political parties in power and were willing to push the parties’ agendas forward were appointed to top management positions. He expects that the new board will finally start to put the house in order.

“One of the [board’s] first actions should include the return of the rule of law to RTK and also halt uncontrolled expenditure without the [necessary] financial cover,” he says.

Critics also say that RTK’s poor-quality programming has had a trickle-down effect on the rest of the country’s media.

Some media in Kosovo have been repeatedly accused of disregarding journalism standards and of publishing non-verified information that increases polarization in society, and most recently, risks public health by spreading disinformation regarding the pandemic and vaccination.

Fadil Hoxha blames RTK, at least partially, for the current situation, saying, “It’s not that commercial media are at a desirable level and undoubtedly the public broadcaster has played a role. Its degradation has weakened competition in the media market.”

TV stations have been chastised for not providing enough diversity of topics and people in their shows, something for which a public broadcaster should normally serve as a model.

“A public [interest] program implies a program that should be broadcast even if there is no financial benefit,” says Demi from the GAP Institute. “In many cases, RTK has failed to broadcast even public [interest] programs.”

Abit Hoxha says strengthening a broadcaster that should represent the public interest is more than necessary.

“We do need a television station with news that reflects the non-competing nature of political, social, cultural, and other aspects of life in Kosovo,” he says. “The private sector does not need to act like an education agent but the public broadcaster has proven to be more needed than ever during the times of the pandemic.”

Bearing the Burden of Expectations

The new board has its work cut out for it, as many now expect it to fix the entire range of issues that plague RTK. First and foremost, its first duty is the election of a new general director, who, critics say, should deal quickly with issues such as overstaffing and nepotism.                 

“The general director has the authority to establish order in RTK’s employment policies and to establish an impartial editorial policy,” says Demi. “The laws in force prevent mass layoffs of staff, but the board and the new director must impose a moratorium on new hires, not replace retiring staff, and make a qualitative assessment of the current staff.”

Demi says that it is encouraging that Vetevendosje has not pushed forward people close to the party.

“So far Vetevendosje has clearly identified the problems that RTK is facing, but no clear vision has been given on how the situation with RTK will improve,” he says.

However, Abit Hoxha fears that the ruling party does not see the role of the public broadcaster differently from other parties, saying, “Quick fixes are political fixes, and political fixes are no fixes at all. The way things are going with pressure on management and the appointment of the board, I do not see [Vetevendosje] raising RTK to any better standard.”

“In my opinion, they [Vetevendosje] see [RTK] as a government mouthpiece without looking like a government mouthpiece,” he says.

Hoxha also faults the lack of will to bring the public broadcaster’s technology up to date: “Neither this government nor the previous governments committed to the digitalization process, in which Kosovo falls behind in the whole region.” 

Even though it does not sound as though the newly elected board has big shoes to fill, their performance will be a litmus test for the government’s ability to deliver what it promised – a public broadcaster independent from any political interference.  

Gentiana Pacarizi is an editor at Kosovo 2.0 magazine and a media and information literacy activist. She is also the founder of the Checkos news literacy app.