Kosovo: Violence, threats and impunity continue to plague the media

A series of attacks and death threats towards journalists and broadcasters has stirred unrest amongst journalists in Europe’s youngest country.

by Mitra Nazar ~ 21/11/2016

The morning after the airing of the last episode of the presenter and journalist Leonard Kërquki’s three-part documentary, Hunting The KLA, a photo-montage of his face riddled with bullet holes was posted to a 70,000 member Facebook group named Kosovo Liberation Army. Within minutes hundreds of death threats appeared in the comments section, many calling for him to be killed. Meanwhile, Kërquki’s private inbox filled up with similar threats on his life.

leonard-ke%cc%88rqukiThe commentators were not happy with the contents of the documentary produced by the tabloid newspaper Gazeta Express, of which Kërquki is editor-in-chief, and broadcast by TV-channel RTV Dukagjini. The documentary showed an investigation into crimes committed against the Kosovo Serb population by members of the KLA during the Kosovo war in the late 1990s.

The KLA was an ethnic-Albanian paramilitary organisation that fought for independence from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (which consisted of Serbia and Montenegro at the time) during the Kosovo War in 1998-99. The KLA fought against the Yugoslav army, which was led by strongman Slobodan Milosevic. The organisation received air cover from NATO jets and ground support from the Albanian military against Serbian forces for crimes Milosevic had committed against Kosovo Albanians in Kosovo. After the war the KLA was disbanded.

“The topic of our documentary is very sensitive in Kosovo,” Kërquki told Mapping Media Freedom, Index on Censorship’s project monitoring press freedom in 42 European nations. Many former KLA-members now hold high-profile positions in government, he explained.

Crimes committed by the KLA against Kosovo Serbs have often met with controversy since the war ended. But a newly established special court for Kosovo war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is now set to try crimes committed by the KLA against ethnic minorities and political opponents during the Kosovo war. The launch of the special court was the motive for Kërquki and his colleagues to produce Hunting the KLA.

“Any one of the people who will be investigated by this new court could be behind the hate campaign against me”, he said. It is not the first time Kërquki has been threatened for his reporting, but this time it was worse, he added.

The Journalist Association of Kosovo (AJK) stated the “hundreds of death threats” towards Kërquki and other crew members are unacceptable.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Kosovo have also condemned the threats, calling for Kërquki’s protection and a thorough investigation into and prosecution of those behind the threats. Reporters Without Borders urged the Kosovo authorities to act against the “public lynching” of Kërquki.

The Kërquki case is the latest in a series of intimidations, threats and physical attacks on Kosovo journalists. Two months earlier the national broadcaster Radio Television Kosovo (RTK) was attacked twice with explosives.

On 22 August 2016 an explosive device was thrown into the yard of RTK’s premises in the capital Pristina. Reportedly it was aimed at the transmission antennas. No one was injured in that attack.

A week later, a hand grenade was thrown at the house of RTK’s director, Mentor Shala. The bomb exploded behind the house while he and his family were inside. No casualties were reported but Shala told local media that the explosion was so strong that it could be felt throughout the entire neighbourhood.

Responsibility for both attacks was claimed by an organisation called Rugovasit, a group of people from the Rugova mountains close to the border with Montenegro. Kosovo’s parliament was voting on a demarcation deal with Montenegro at the time of the attacks.

Rugovasit claimed that Kosovo would lose thousands of hectares of land to Montenegro if the deal went through. They blamed RTK for only reporting the government’s perspective on the case and claimed in a written statement that the attack was “only a warning”, stating “if he does not resign from RTK, his life is in danger”. In early September Kosovo’s parliament decided to indefinitely postpone the controversial border deal.

These recent events have seriously worried AJK. “This year is really bad for journalists in Kosovo,” AJK’s president Shkelqim Hysenaj told MMF.

AJK has documented 18 cases of threats and violations against media in 2016 so far. In 2015, the association reported 21 cases. “Last year we had a lot of threats, too, but this year we were shocked by the two bomb attacks,” Hysenaj said. “That worries us the most, and makes us conclude that the situation regarding press freedom is getting worse.”

AJK is concerned about the lack of action by the police and prosecution in all three of the cases. Two months after the bomb attacks on the public broadcaster no perpetrator has been arrested or prosecuted. According to the AJK, the death threats to Kërquki are not being investigated by the police.

“If the police and courts are not doing their jobs, the situation will not change,” Hysenaj said. “If nobody is held accountable for throwing a bomb at the house of a journalist or sending death threats to an editor-in-chief, people will keep intimidating journalists because they know they can get away with it.”

Kosovo is ranked 90 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders. Political interference is still one of the biggest problems Kosovo’s media landscape is dealing with, Hysenaj explained. “The government and political parties have a huge influence on the media in this country,” he said.

RTK and its general director were the subjects of a controversy back in 2015 when employees openly accused director Mentor Shala of censorship and mismanagement after he fired a newsroom editor and a union president.

RTK is directly and fully financed by the state budget, Hysenaj added. “It makes them inevitably not independent.” Privately-owned media are also subject to biased reporting. “A big concern for us is that political parties are sponsoring online media platforms and the public is not aware who is paying for it.”

Meanwhile, Kërquki has continued working on documentaries with his team of reporters. The picture of his face riddled with bullet holes has been taken down from Facebook, but he is still receiving threats in his private inbox. He said he will not back down and continue work as normal. “The rest is the job of the police and the prosecutor’s office,” he concluded.

This article was originally published by Index on Censorship. It is republished here with permission. 

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* - References to Kosovo are without prejudice to positions on status. They are in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244/99 and the opinion by the International Court of Justice on the Kosovo declaration of independence.