How Kosovo developed immunity against Russian propaganda

“Foreign Influence on the Media in Kosovo” conference on 9 June 2022. (Credit: courtesy)

Kosovans had to deal with Russian propaganda at the end of the 1990s. In the 20-odd years since, they have taken action to counter media narratives that undermine their sovereignty. Now they want to support Ukrainians in doing the same. Our Ukrainian correspondent Liudmyla Makei, who recently evacuated to Pristina, reports. 

Six media which broadcasted Russian propaganda were blocked in Kosovo according to the announcement at the “Foreign Influence on the Media in Kosovo” conference, held on 9 June.

Journalists and representatives of state institutions in Kosovo and Ukraine met to discuss ways to weaken Russia's information influence, which has intensified significantly since the start of the war.

The conference took place on the same days as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s cancelled visit to Serbia after neighbouring countries closed their airspace to his aircraft.

While Bulgaria, Montenegro and northern Macedonia may have closed their airspace to the Kremlin envoy, but the information space of the Balkans remains open to the Russian world.

Adem Sulejmani, a public activist and coordinator of the “Ukrainian Journalists Living in Kosovo” project, regularly monitors media reports in Albania, northern Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and other Balkan countries.

“Since 2021, information about Russia has increased on Internet sites. Nothing negative is written but three or four culture and science stories a day are posted to create a positive image of the country. The information originates from Serbia, then circulates to Albanian media, and ends up all over the rest of the region. This trend is alarming”, he said.

Professor Remzie Shahini, director of the University of Pristina's Media Institute, says Russia's influence in the Balkans is palpable. According to her, this is especially the case in Serbia, which has not joined or closely followed Western sanctions against Russia.

Russian narratives are also leaked to Kosovo's media. According to the director, after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, experts focused on the information component of Putin’s hybrid war. As a result, a new expertise was set up for the students of the Media Institute of the University of Pristina. There they learn how to regain narrative or at the very least understand the specifics of Russia's propaganda strategy, and tactics.

“Today the Russian propaganda machine has become more flexible,” said Shahini.“Outlets don’t portray Putin as a dictator, but smooth out sharp corners and refrain from mentioning the aggression. The media use a photo of him at the gym or in the wild, to prove how strong and courageous he is. There is a tendency to obscure the true features of Putin".

Journalist Spresa Mulliki teaches at Hassan Pristina University and works for the South East European Media Organization (SEEMO), a regional non-profit NGO which brings together editors, media executives and leading journalists. She compares the current influence of the Russian media to the situation in Kosovo after the break-up of Yugoslavia. According to her, back then the Serbian media acted as aggressively as RT and Sputnik today. But according to her, today, Kosovo is immune to Russian propaganda.

In order to hold back Russian influence in Ukraine, the Kosovo government, the Kosovo Journalists' Association, together with the European Association of Journalists have launched the "Residence in Kosovo for Ukrainian Journalists" program.

But for Serhiy Petkov, writer, journalist and professor at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, all of society should be involved in the fight against propaganda:

“Explanations should be given out not only through mass media. The state should also support book publishers and schoolteachers in delivering those messages and they must give them the same social guarantees as civil servants… Ukraine is part of European civilization”.