Comment: Intimidation Silences Pristina Media

Political and mafia intimidation forces Kosovo journalists to exercise self-censorship

Comment: Intimidation Silences Pristina Media

Political and mafia intimidation forces Kosovo journalists to exercise self-censorship

Tuesday, 6 February, 2001

In the fall of 1999, everyone in Pristina was talking about the explosion of crime and corruption in Kosovo.

There were endless accounts of political and mafia related violence, but the stories of extortion, intimidation and murder never made it into the newspapers or the broadcast media.

I asked a number of local journalists why this was the case. This prompted them to share even more detailed accounts of crime and corruption, complete with names and biographies of leading hoodlums.

I asked why, if they have all this information, were they not putting it in their papers. Each time I got the same reply.

They glanced around nervously, sipped at their cafe machiatos, and told me they and their editors would not report such things because they were "too dangerous".

After 45 years of communism and ten years of repressive Belgrade rule, Kosovar journalists returned to work in June 1999 with the hope that they would be able to practice their profession freely for the first time.

Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that much of Kosovo society, particularly business, criminal and political groups, had no interest in a free press. They view the reporting of the realities of post-war Kosovo as a potential threat to their new-found power and profits. And they have employed implicit and explicit intimidation to try to silence the press.

As a result, the media, to a great extent, has exercised a high degree of self-censorship over the past 18 months, with reporters and editors actively ignoring some of the most pressing issues and problems facing Kosovo.

During the election campaign, an editor informed me that his reporter in Podujevo had literally dozens of witnesses who'd seen supporters of Hashim Thaqi's Party for Democratic Prosperity, PDK, going door to door at night, warning citizens not to vote for its rival Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, "or else". The paper never ran the story, and therefore the truth of these allegations was never debated and revealed.

This self-imposed silence has damaged the media's credibility as a reliable source of information. Most citizens are only too aware of organized crime and corruption and are mystified and frustrated to find them ignored in the media.

Many publishers and editors privately admit that it is fear which prevents them from reporting such stories and that in many ways they felt freer to report controversy when the Serb regime was in control than they are today.

"Under the Serbs, you knew what to expect when you wrote something they really didn't like," said a journalist, who asked not to be identified. "They might come and beat you, trash the office, or throw you in jail, but that was part of the job, and you felt it was worth the risk.

"It was part of the struggle to end the repression. Now, with these hoods, you can't predict

what they will do. They might not even warn you, just come up and put a bullet in your head."

From May to November 2000, the OSCE's journalist protection programme registered 32 cases of violations of journalists' rights in Kosovo. These included anonymous and personal threats, assaults, one bombing, a disappearance and suspected murder, and one confirmed murder.

Thirty-two cases may not seem a high number, but given there are around 450 working journalists in Kosovo and that most attacks on journalists go unreported, the figure is disturbing.

By comparison, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, with double the population and more than twice the number of working journalists, the OSCE's journalist protection hotline dealt with 65 cases in its first six months of operation.

Kosovo journalists have been threatened for reporting on illegal business activities, corruption allegations, and often, simply for writing stories about the activities of the LDK.

At one PDK election rally, an activist threatened a journalist, insisting that she report double the number of people present.

Last fall, Baton Haxhiu, the editor of Koha Ditore, began using an armed bodyguard,

following the murder of the head of Pristina's urban planning department, Rexhep Luci - apparently provoked by his crusade to level illegally constructed buildings.

One of the favorite targets for threats has been the pro-LDK paper Bota Sot. Last summer, a bomb was hurled at the home of one of its columnists, Rexhep Kastrati.

And in the middle of a post-election press conference, as Thaqi conceded defeat to the LDK, his security guards expelled a Bota Sot journalist, kicking him as he was thrown out.

Bota Sot is alone in regularly reporting attacks and threats against its journalists.

The media scene in Kosovo is remarkably sterile when compared with journalism in the rest of former Yugoslavia. In Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Macedonia, papers and magazines report new scandals involving politicians, businessmen, and criminals on a daily basis.

In Kosovo, the media are reluctant to even investigate the murder of their own reporters

Following the killing last September of Shefki Popova, a veteran Rilindja correspondent in the Vucitrn region, the editors of all the major Albanian media protested by staging a news blackout.

The blackout was followed by complaints about the security situation and UNMIK's failure to establish law and order, but there was a deafening silence on both the murder and the

question of intimidation of journalists and editors.

At the time, journalists admitted that since everyone suspected the PDK, they were afraid to launch an inquiry.

Because of self-censorship, the Kosovo media are limited to carrying UNMIK press conference reports and international press stories on crime, violence and corruption.

"If we can't write about these things, it's much safer to run reports by foreign organisations and media," said one young journalist. "We usually know more on the subject than they do, but at least we don't have to put our names on the byline."

While they admit to being cowed by intimidation, Albanian journalists feel the United Nations has failed to combat the general climate of insecurity in Kosovo.

"When people are shooting war heroes down in the street, and the police can't catch them, what are they going to do for me?" said a journalist.

They have a point. The police and military can't do much more than provide increased surveillance for threatened journalists. UNMIK's response to the murder of Shefki Popova has not inspired much confidence among Kosovo journalists. Two months after his murder, the OSCE had done more than UNMIK to investigate the murder.

But journalists don't exactly help themselves. Not a single Albanian reporter to date has been willing to file official complaints against other Albanians threatening them. Their argument is, "If I file a complaint, they'll just get more angry and really come after me. If they kill me, they know the police won't catch them anyway."

After ten years of resisting and challenging Serb oppression, many Albanian journalists seem ill-equipped to deal with the new realities in Kosovo.

But there have been some notable exceptions, raising hope that Kosovar journalists will in future be prepared to share the truth with their readers.

Last fall, Koha Ditore ran an excellent investigation into a feud between former KLA commander Ramush Haradinaj and a family of LDK supporters near Peja.

In the story, the family alleged that Haradinaj and his units had kidnapped, tortured, and killed members of the pro-LDK guerrilla force, the FARK, at the end of the war.

No one from Koha was threatened, and the paper has promised more such exposés, although as

yet it has not followed through. A journalist who wrote a similar report from the Drenica region said it was put on hold during the elections, so as not to "stir things up".

"Most of us are still too scared to really write the truth about what is going on here," said a young journalist. "But sooner or later we're going to start, and some of us will need protection, and help from OSCE and UNMIK. It will take time, but what's the point of being a journalist if you

can't write the truth?"

Colin Soloway is a journalist based in the Balkans. He founded the OSCE's Journalist Protection Program in Kosovo last year and previously worked in IWPR's Bosnia Project.

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