Kosovo/a – Half truths about demography and ethnic cleansing 

By Jan Oberg

TFF PressInfo 43

Lund, August 23, 1998

“There are dangerously many half truths and biases in the reporting from Kosovo/a. The generalised media image of the conflict shapes public opinion which in turn threatens to push politicians into action that will have counterproductive effects on the ground,” says Jan Oberg, head of TFF’s Conflict-Mitigation team, upon returning from yet another mission to Belgrade, Prishtina and Skopje.

“The standard media story about Kosovo the last six months goes like this:

‘Kosovo is a province in Serbia inhabited by about 2 million people, 90 per cent of whom are Albanians and 10 per cent Serbs. The dissolution of Tito’s Yugoslavia started in 1989 when Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic repealed the autonomy which the province had enjoyed since 1974. The region is characterised by extreme poverty and systematic human rights violations by Serbian authorities against the Albanians, to the extent that one is justified in calling it a police state or an ‘apartheid’ system. The Serb ‘offensive’ is an attempt by Belgrade to ethnically ‘cleanse’ the province. It looks like a repetition of Bosnia and, thus, something must be done to stop it.’

I have come to believe,” says Oberg, “that this standard media story is based on the KISS Principle – Keep it Simple, Stupid. Admittedly there are important exceptions of high-quality, unbiased and research-based journalism. But we see now – again – how war reports from ex-Yugoslavia are devoid of critical, investigative practises and a truthful representation of complexity.

Analysing the complexities of real reality takes much longer time than it takes for the leading media to construct a media reality. Public opinion is shaped by the latter and decision-makers cannot ignore it. Thus, they constantly risk taking ‘simple’ steps that have ‘stupid’ effects on the ground if public opinion remains informed predominantly by KISS-type reporting.

In conflicts of the Kosovo type, nothing is simple and black-and-white images are simply untrue.

Add to that that the daily news coverage quotes mainly materials from Kosovo-Albanian Information Centres around the world supplemented with TV films and reporting from the violence in the province. The Serb side’s media sources, the Tanjug Bureau, government sources, independent media and government-critical media as well as the Serb Media Centre in Kosovo’s capital, Prishtina, are much less frequently used as sources to understand the conflict. (The main websites of both sides are available at TFF’s site). Some media, e.g. Radio Free Europe and Danish daily Politiken, use the Albanian name of the self-proclaimed state, Kosova, while the Serbian ‘Kosmet-Metohija’ or even the more international ‘Kosovo’ is ignored.

International media can not credibly claim to be politically neutral or to ‘cover reality’ objectively. They may not be party to the conflicts, but they are definitely important players in conflict-management processes.

This and the next PressInfo will deal with a few of the simplified and therefore false aspects of the Kosovo media reporting,” says Jan Oberg.

First, there is the standard story’s presentation of who lives in the Kosovo province.

Population statistics are not always reliable in this part of the world, so we should all be cautious. But the 1981 census which is the only reliable one gave these results for Kosovo: total population 1,584 000 of whom 77 % Albanians, 13 % Serbs and others, such as Montenegrins, Turks, Muslims, Croats, Romani, 9 %. The census of 1991 (boycotted by the Albanians) stipulated 1,965 000 of whom 82 % Albanians.

The Albanians have claimed, however, that 250 000 left between 1975 and 1988 and 200 000 between 1989 and 1991, i.e. almost half a million or about 25% of the Albanian population due to ‘ethnic cleansing.’ So, the claim that Albanians make up 90 % and that 450 000 have left evidently can not simultaneously be true.

Also, since Albanians have boycotted censuses in what they consider ‘neighbouring’ and ‘occupying’ Serbia/Yugoslavia, journalists, editors, columnists and others ought to be highly careful with figures from that side. And it is simply not true that there are no other ethnic groups but Albanians and Serbs there.

Why does the majority of the media not even check such basic facts?

If reporters want to promote the interpretation that Kosova already is, or should be, an independent republic, it is logical to point out that a great majority are Albanians and refer to exaggerated figures and proportions – the figures provided by the Albanian side. If the point of departure is international law and the recognition that the province is an integral part of Serbia, it makes sense to (also) point out that Albanians make up between 17 and 20 % of Serbia’s population. Both perspectives and figures could have been conveyed by the media and so could the fact that there are people of other origin. Any journalist could easily have obtained the full picture and stated that all figures must be taken with a grain of salt.

Second, there is the common claim that the Albanians have been victims of ethnic cleansing.

Can about 1,5 million people be cleansed? Is that Serbia’s goal and, if so, would Serbia be allowed to by the international community? I doubt it,” says Dr. Oberg.

As a matter of fact it is a quite bizarre allegation. The facts point, if anything, in the opposite direction: in 1961, 67 % were Albanians, 24 % were Serbs and 4% Montenegrins, i.e. roughly forty years ago one-third of Kosovo’s population was not Albanian. By 1971 the respective figures were 74 %, 18 % and 3%. Today Serbs seem to make up less than 10 % of the population in the province.

In short, demographic expertise should be able to calculate when practically 100 % of Kosovo’s people will be Albanian. The fertility rate of Albanians is the highest in Europe, the Serb one among the lowest. Over the years, Serbs have felt harassed and marginalised (also by Belgrade) and richer Albanians have bought their property, land and houses.

Deprived of economic opportunities, many found it better to live in Serbia proper. I want to emphasise that the Albanians have not ‘cleansed’ Serbs out of the province with directly violent means, but the province’s Serb minority has felt anything but welcome and, consequently, decided to leave. No element of Albanian politics has offered the Serb minority in Kosovo any reason for optimism about future co-existence.

But during this war, innocent Albanians have been forced out of their houses?

That’s true, but those who argue that this is ethnic cleansing must explain how they distinguish between the effects of warfare as such and a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing. The Kosova Liberation Army, KLA, has chosen to arm Albanian civilian citizens, young and old (to the extent that they were not already) and house-by-house, rather than meeting the Serb police, paramilitaries and regular army in frontal warfare. It has chosen terrorism, bombings and hostage taking.

If those who equate Serbia’s policies with ‘ethnic cleansing’ for a moment put themselves in the shoes of the Serb government, could they tell us how they would face the challenge from this type of warfare without causing any civilians to flee? – asks Jan Oberg.

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