Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

UN to Stamp Out Vigilante Journalism

Albanian newspapers in Kosovo pledge to defy the UN and continue their witch-hunt for war crimes suspects
By Llazar Semini

The United Nations in Kosovo is to draft an emergency law cracking down on local newspapers which wage their own personal vendettas against suspected war criminals.


The announcement comes just days after officials temporarily closed down the Dita daily paper which they hold responsible for inciting vigilantes to kidnap and murder a Serb translator.


In late April, Dita accused UN translator Petar Topoljski, 25, of taking part in last year's pogroms as a member of a Serb paramilitary group. The article published Topoljski's address and work schedule as well as a photograph.


The translator was abducted two weeks after the accusations were printed and his body was later found with multiple stab wounds near the Kosovo capital.


On June 3, the UN's chief administrator in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, ordered police to shut down the Dita offices for eight days. The newspaper's editor was questioned by investigating officers but their findings have yet to be made public.


UN spokeswoman Nadia Younes said the proposed emergency law would be "quite limited and temporary in nature". It was aimed at "ensuring that the printed media refrain from acts of endangerment which could pose a serious threat to the life, safety or security of any person through vigilante violence"


Younes added, "Such accusations should first be brought before the police. In the case of Petar Topoljski, an individual was brought under the public spotlight in language that everyone understood to be threatening. The UN had no choice but to intervene."


Alarmed by the trend for "vigilante journalism" in Albanian papers, Western officials say press freedom must be weighed against the need for peace in Kosovo.


However, the emergency measures come at a difficult time. Local media has been focusing hard on attempts by Slobodan Milosevic's regime to gag the opposition media in Belgrade. And, to add insult to injury, the Dita offices are located in a Pristina media complex run by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, which is committed to fostering independent journalism in the province.


Inside the Kosovo journalistic community, opinion is divided. Dita publisher Behlul Beqaj remains unrepentant. He argues that, if the UN had made a better job of organising a criminal justice system in the enclave, Albanian newspapers wouldn't feel compelled to publish inflammatory allegations.


On May 19, after the discovery of Topoljski's body, Dita printed an open letter to Kouchner saying it would continue to publish the names of Serbs believed to be "involved in anti-Albanian activities". Said Beqaj, "I can say that, if we reveal facts about an individual, we are not doing so out of hatred. But if we cover up those facts, we will simply provoke more hatred."


The Dita publisher claims the UN employs other former Serb paramilitaries and has made no attempt to check their backgrounds. "Instead of sentencing those who have committed crimes against the Albanian people, the international community gives them jobs in various organisations and institutions," he said.


"By sheltering criminals and therefore being associated with them, the UN is inciting hatred against the international community and innocent Serbs." Beqaj is planning to sue the United Nations over its decision.


The Kosovo Journalists' Association said the closure of Dita was "an arbitrary act which endangers press freedom." It appealed to Kouchner to reconsider a decision that "could set a dangerous precedent for the local media".


The independent daily Koha Ditore devoted four pages to supporting Dita, pointing out that it was not the only newspaper to publish lists of war crimes suspects.


The scandal has also sparked friction between the OSCE and the UN Mission in Kosovo. While the OSCE has openly supported the move and joined the UN in condemning "vigilante journalism", Daan Everts, head of the Kosovo office, wrote to Kouchner saying that the "preferred approach" would be to order a retraction or apology from the newspaper.


A source in the OSCE told IWPR that there was significant disagreement over the action within the organisation on the grounds that it could have serious consequences for the local media.


Meanwhile, the Council for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedom, though publicly denouncing Topoljski's murder, said, "We also have reports that Petar Topoljski joined other Serbian paramilitaries in evicting Albanian families from their flats as well as looting their houses and shops. UN officials should either have investigated the allegations themselves or handed him over to other investigative bodies."


Llazar Semini is IWPR's project director in Pristina