Kosovo media use public funds, despite constantly violating the Code of Ethics
Over the years, various state institutions have used public funds to advertise themselves in media outlets that produce fake news or are recurrent violators of the Code of Ethics of Print Media. Many media organizations that once profited thousands of euros from agreements with public enterprises are now inactive and have ceased to exist as businesses, reports Kosovo portal Kallxo.com, citing research conducted for the Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub, led by the Metamorphosis Foundation.
There have even been cases where public institutions spent public funds to promote specific politicians. The Ministry for European Integration allocated over 140,000 euros in 2019 for an agreement to promote materials from this ministry and the pro-European narrative of Kosovo. While the agreements had such a purpose, according to the prosecution, some of them ended up promoting the party that led this ministry.
The analysis of the data revealed that in some cases, the media did not report on European integration but instead focused on statements made by the minister during her election campaign. These allegations are cited in the lengthy indictment by the Special Prosecution, which is currently in court proceedings, with the former minister, Dhurata Hoxha, denying the charges.
To identify which media outlets received public funds for advertising, Kallxo.com requested data from 47 institutions in the country through a request for access to public documents. They sought the list of media companies that had entered into agreements for “media services” with ministries, municipalities, the Prime Minister’s Cabinet, and the Presidency.
Only 34 institutions responded to the request for expenditure on advertising. Of those, six institutions stated that they did not have agreements with the media, while some provided tables and invoices of such nature. Others requested an extended deadline.
One of the institutions, the Kosovo Insurance Bureau, rejected the request, stating that they are not a public institution and are financed by private capital.
“Shell” Media Outlets
One of the institutions that spent the most on advertising is the public enterprise “Telecom of Kosovo,” which spent 2,219,528 euros on marketing agreements from 2015 to 2019.
The list of money distribution from Telecom goes to 109 businesses engaged primarily in publishing advertisements and campaigns for this company.
This list of businesses includes showbiz portals, design agencies, and even accounting businesses.
Research conducted in the Business Register shows that 44 businesses that once had marketing agreements with Telecom of Kosovo are no longer active.
Eight of the 109 media businesses that entered into agreements with Telecom of Kosovo from 2015 to 2019, totalling over 2 million euros, are television or radio stations. The remaining 101 are primarily newspapers or online portals, with a few exceptions being design agencies, accounting businesses, or private colleges.
Only 24 of these newspapers and online portals are members of the Press Council of Kosovo (PCK), while the others are non-members, and a significant number of them are no longer active in 2022.
Qerim Ondozi, who was tasked by PCK to conduct a study, stated that institutions should not have entered into agreements with media outlets that are not members of PCK.
Certainly, for print or online media, in this case, it should have been a criterion to be a member of PCK in order to provide services of any kind to public institutions, considering that institutions recognize PCK as the sole self-regulatory body for the media, Ondozi stated for KALLXO.com.
PCK is a self-regulatory body for online and print media that advocates for the protection of freedom of speech, ensuring that citizens are fully and timely informed, while completely adhering to the Journalistic Code of Ethics. The goal of PCK is to protect citizens from false reports and journalists from unfounded complaints. Upon receiving complaints, PCK examines the news published in online and print media to determine if they violate the Code of Print Media.
He added that awarding agreements to anonymous media outlets that were not members of PCK has led to the financing of media outlets whose journalistic quality is unknown.
With the sums in the millions offered by a public enterprise to one or more media outlets, certain problems in the sense of favouritism might arise, he said.
Institutions also awarded agreements to media outlets that produced information that was not true.
Media outlets that had marketing agreements with Telecom, the Ministry of Culture, and the Uroševac or Štimlje municipality published at least 58 news articles that were not entirely true. These news articles from “Krypometër” were assessed as false or lacking context.
KALLXO.com analyzed the database of decisions from the Press Council of Kosovo (PCK) and discovered that a total of 306 complaints against these media outlets that had advertising agreements with several public institutions from 2017 to October 2022 were validated. The validated complaints were related to violations of the Code of Ethics, reporting the truth, or the right to reply.
According to data collected by KALLXO.com, public institutions such as the Uroševac municipality, Štimlje municipality, Ministry of Finance, Mališevo municipality, Glogovac (Drenas) municipality, Ministry of Local Government Administration (MLGA), Rahovec municipality, the Prime Minister’s Cabinet, Dragash municipality, Prizren municipality, and the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport (MCYS), these public institutions entered into agreements for “media services” with 41 media companies from 2011 to 2020. Of these, 12 were radio stations or television stations, while 29 were newspapers and online portals.
Violators of the Code of Ethics
Data from the Press Council of Kosovo (PCK) show that 16 out of these 29 newspapers or portals are not members of the PCK, while the remaining 13 are members.
The decisions on violations of the Code of Ethics of Online and Print Media are published on the website of the Press Council of Kosovo. These decisions indicate cases of defamation, insults, disregard for standards, and spreading fake news.
Analyzing this list and the list of media outlets found to produce fake news by certified fact-checkers and comparing it with media outlets that receive public funds reveals interesting data.
The first media outlet that was analyzed is a print newspaper with an online edition. Data from government funding agreements show that on May 28, 2019, the Ministry of Culture entered into an agreement worth 4,800 euros with this newspaper, while Telecom allocated 12,483 euros for this newspaper. According to the data from the PCK, between 2017-2021, this media outlet violated PCK’s Code of Ethics in 44 cases. Fact-checkers, in two cases, found that this media outlet distributed false material, according to the verification conducted by “Krypometër”.
Another website which violated PCK’s Code of Ethics 43 times and published fake news in 8 cases according to the assessment of “Krypometër,” managed to receive 105,000 euros from public funds. According to financial reports, this site received 24,000 euros from the Ministry of Culture and 81,000 euros from Telecom of Kosovo.
Public funds were also allocated to another online media outlet against which, according to the analysis of cases, there are 49 validated complaints for violating the Code of Ethics by the PCK. Fact-checkers also found that this portal shared false information in 9 cases. According to the data, the Ministry of Culture allocated 20,600 euros for this website.
Another newspaper, during the period 2015-2020, had agreements with various state institutions, including the Uroševac and Štimlje municipalities, MLGA and the Prime Minister’s cabinet. The value of the signed contracts amounts to 59,730 euros, with 4 cases of violation of the Press Council’s Code of Ethics.
A news agency that has entered into agreements with state institutions for event coverage and advertising received around 60,000 euros from public institutions such as the Uroševac Municipality, the Ministry of Finance, the Mitrovica Municipality, and Telecom of Kosovo.
Other lesser-known portals that are not members of the PCK have also signed agreements with public institutions, such as the Ministry of Culture, in the amount of 2,400 euros for “media services” (currently, there is no active website with that name).
Another major portal violated the Code of Ethics of Print Media 49 times in the period from 2017 to 2022. The same media outlet was flagged by “Krypometër” 9 times for reporting false information or lacking context. This media outlet received around 95,000 euros from two institutions alone: Telecom of Kosovo and the Ministry of Culture in the period from 2015 to 2020.
Another online media outlet, which was previously a newspaper, has violated the Code of Ethics of Print Media 51 times since 2018. The same media outlet was flagged by “Krypometër” 5 times for reporting false information or lacking context. This media outlet received 165,000 euros from the Ministry of Culture and Telecom of Kosovo in the period from 2015 to 2020.
Another online media outlet received 96,000 euros through agreements with the Ministry of Culture and Telecom of Kosovo in the period from 2015 to 2020. It was found that this media outlet violated the Code of Ethics in 21 cases and shared false news five times, according to the assessments of “Krypometër.”
An online newspaper that published 4 false news stories according to “Krypometër” and violated the Code of Ethics of Print Media 18 times received 33,000 euros from advertising agreements with Telecom of Kosovo and the Ministry of Culture.
An online media outlet, previously a newspaper, violated the Code of Ethics of Print Media in 19 cases, and “Krypometër” assessed that it published false news 4 times. This newspaper had agreements with the Uroševac and Štimlje municipalities worth 5,286 euros. Another portal violated the Code of Ethics of Print Media 8 times from 2016 to October 2022 and received 12,000 euros from Telecom of Kosovo.
The Ministry of Culture and Telecom of Kosovo had marketing agreements worth 78,000 euros with a portal during the period from 2015 to 2020. This portal violated the Code of Ethics 12 times in the last 5 years. It was flagged 5 times in the ” Krypometër’s” section on false news over the years.
Media Independence and Financing Challenges
Alban Zeneli, a professor at the Department of Journalism at the University of Pristina, says that if public funds are invested in advertising for media outlets that are members of the PCK, institutions would help increase the capacities of media outlets that have voluntarily agreed to abide by professional and ethical journalism standards.
However, according to him, there are cases where institutions spend public money on non-credible media outlets.
From a professional point of view, this undoubtedly “plays into the hands” of non-professionals who have not agreed to join the self-regulatory body, which would imply the implementation of professional and ethical rules – says Zeneli.
Furthermore, Zeneli states that since media editorial offices in Kosovo are not separate from the advertising agency for media, the influence of institutions on the media outlets being advertised is easier.
In different European countries, as Zeneli points out, there are cases where states decide to support certain social sectors, including the media, but the forms are much different from those used in Kosovo.
When public institutions are interested in producing media content that promotes campaigns for marginalized social groups, different aspects of culture, sports, etc., a public call is announced for media outlets that want to produce such programs or content, which are then selected by expert committees. In these cases, the selection is made with the use of clear criteria, and the selection process is very transparent – stated Zeneli for KALLXO.com.
The organization “Çohu” (Stand Up) monitored 24 media outlets for complaints for violations of the Code of Ethics of Print Media in Kosovo against them in the period from January 2020 to December 2021.
According to this report, one of the most violated chapters of the Code of Ethics is “Advertising and Sponsorship”.
This chapter states that:
Commercial and political advertisements and sponsored material, including articles and supplements, must be distinguished from editorial content and clearly identified as such.
The source of sponsorship must be clearly indicated in the sponsored material.
According to the findings of “Çohu” during the monitoring period, 31 complaints were filed for violations of this chapter, out of which 25 were assessed as valid by the PCK.
The Law on General Elections in Kosovo clearly defines that paid political advertising in print media must be clearly identified for the reader. Article 50 of this Law states that print media shall provide equitable access to all certified political entities that request advertising space.
Each paid political advertisement shall indicate the organization or individual responsible for it, as stated in Article 50.3 of this Law.
Even the Law on the Independent Media Commission specifies that sponsorships must be identified for viewers of audiovisual media.
Article 31 of this Law states that viewers will be notified clearly about the existence of a sponsorship agreement.
The sponsored programs will be identified clearly through the name, logo and/or any other sponsor symbol, for example, a reference to its product(s) or service(s) or a differing sign that exists there in an appropriate way for the programmes at the beginning, during and/or after the end of the programmes, as stated in item four of this article.
However, various reports from non-governmental organizations reveal that political parties do not submit accurate reports on the expenses they incur during campaigns. As a result, it is unknown exactly how much political parties spend on advertising in the media.