The South and East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), a network of editors, media executives and leading journalists in South East and Central Europe and an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI), deplores the overreaction of Christopher Dell, US Ambassador in Pristina, to the publication of photos with text messages apparently showing his involvement in the election of Kosovo president Behgjet Pacolli. The photos showed text-messages exchanged between Pacolli and his advisor Esad Puskar, seated next to the US ambassador in a parliamentary session during which the vote for president occurred on 22 February 2011.
According to the photos, Ambassador Dell advised Esad Puskar on how to proceed in order to obtain the required votes for Pacolli. During the first two rounds, Pacolli did not obtain a majority. Had he not won during the third round, new parliamentary elections would have been necessary.
Three Kosovo media outlets – Express, Koha Ditore and Koha Vision TV – published the Smartphone screen with clearly readable incoming and outgoing messages.
Ambassador Dell called the media behaviour “inexcusable”. In an open letter addressed to the Independent Media Commission (IMC), published on 23 February 2011, he stated: “The behaviour may also have been illegal, as Kosovo’s Criminal Code forbids the unauthorized interception of personal conversations and statements.” Further, he wrote: “I trust that the IMC will exercise its responsibility in enforcing its Code of Conduct.”
Article 170 of the Criminal Code stipulates that anyone publishing wire-tapped conversations or messages not specifically addressed to them is liable to one year in prison. In this case, however, there was not tapping involved: journalists were seated on a balcony above the diplomats and took pictures.
In reference to the alleged violations of privacy, it should be underlined that the media published photos taken in a public place. Everyone knew, including the ambassador, that journalists were seated in the gallery overlooking the seats reserved for diplomats and other guests. Thus, phone text messages or anything written on paper could easily be photographed using modern photo equipment.
SEEMO would like to remind the ambassador that over the past several years there have been high-profile international cases in which journalists, using modern equipment, took pictures or recorded videos in public places, catching international politicians off guard. There were no official complaints: the persons involved knew that their public blunder was due to negligence. When in a public place, public figures must be aware that journalists and cameras could be around. In the recent Kosovo case, the people involved in the message exchange were not cautious enough, and journalists profited from the situation.
Ambassador Dell also underlined that some of the media involved in publishing the text messages had been recipients of US government aid. The statement did not specify if this aid could be revoked.
Due to the prominent US role in Kosovo, the declarations of US diplomats are widely discussed and debated, and have a strong influence on the local political scene. SEEMO is concerned that the US ambassador’s reference to a possible alleged criminal act could have negative effects on media freedom and increase political pressure on media outlets. SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic said: “If the ambassador is unhappy with media reporting, he could have presented his point of view directly to media representatives.”