Kosovo Liberation Army (UÇK) soldiers. Photo: Wikipedia Commons
The Kosovo war 18 years ago has created an untouchable upper class that put press freedom at stake making it hard to report about controversial topics in the country.
“What happened after the war is that a lot of UÇK -the Kosovo Liberation Army- fighters put their soldiers’ uniforms off and started to wear politician suits. They came to power with very little political experience, a tendency for corruption and nepotism” explains the Kosovo journalist, Balkan based reporter and Reporters without Borders associate in the region, Una Hajdari.
She explains that critical reporting about Albanians commanders during the war period is one of the biggest taboos for media today because “if in time you criticize what they do, you get massive repercussions” – Una adds, while she continues explaining that – However, not everyone did the right things in the war, not everyone kept their hands clean, and not everyone did the right things”.
After a decade in which the Balkan region was devastated due to inter-ethnic conflicts, came the Kosovo war (1998-99) known as the last war of Europe. It was characterized by tensions between ethnic Albanians and Serbs whose respective forces – the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Yugoslavs – were confronted, leaving more than 13.000 dead.
Having been a UÇK soldier is something that has linked a whole generation of men and it is a story that any of them in Kosovo will tell you with satisfaction.
“Some of our comrades died, but we brought our freedom back,” tells Anvi Tifeku, a former UÇK soldier while showing us photos of himself holding weapons and wearing the war-uniform. “Have you ever shot at someone?” we ask. “Of course!” he exclaims with a proud light in his eyes. He has today a mobile company shop in the centre of Pristina.
Once the war finished, the main leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army became part of the economic and political elite of the country. This promoted the perfect conditions for corruption to occur. Liridona Osmanaj, a Project Officer of the Support to Anti-Corruption Efforts in Kosovo’s UNDP explains how Kosovo is ranked 85th out of 180 in the Transparency International Index.”
“After the conflict, there were some people who fought in the war that felt entitled to different things. They took main positions in the government. They used the vacuum between the time the Kosovo war finished and the time the UN came in, to create new institutions without any overseeing”. Liridona says.
“They took advantage of the opportunities and they put the roots in every sector of the country. And today it is very difficult to address the corruption in Kosovo because even if the leader is removed, it is not only him who is corrupt. There are now people in every sector, in every level of the government and even in everyday life, who is corrupt. The use of nepotism has become a social rule”, she adds.
The outcome of this turmoil is a ruling elite difficult to reach by journalists that want to report about them.
A Prime Minister in the spotlight
Starting from the top of the political class, the Prime Minister, Hasim Thaçi was one of the founders and leaders of the UÇK, the so-called “snake” by his comrades. Thaçi has been in power since the self-declaration of independence of Kosovo in 2008, which also marked the end of the United Nations international administration of Kosovo.
Two years later, a report of the Council of Europe accused Thaçi of having led a “mafia-like” group related to weapon smuggling and organ and drug trafficking, during the war and its aftermath. The report was followed by the creation in 2015 of a war crimes court based in The Hague to prosecute atrocities committed by some senior Kosovo officials during and after the conflict. Therefore it is expected that some of the accusations will be referred directly to him and his closest circle.
However, although Thaçi has repeated that they have “nothing to hide”, they have made efforts to suspend the Court. Last January, European and American officials warned the Kosovo government that these attempts could risk their relations.
“This is one of the benefits of the EU membership or the prospect of the EU membership. The government knows that all these steps, especially media freedom, would be looked at very closely during the accession process,” Una Hajdari explains. She also refers to the example of Croatia.
This other Balkan country joined the EU in 2013 and as part of the agreement, it had to reform their legal system. It meant that those laws pertaining to journalism were also renewed giving them a more protective legal framework.
“However, the way that the current Kosovo government acts show that they would love to just shot down outlets put journalists in jail and stop them for talking, as it is happening in Turkey”, Una Hajdari states.
For UNDP employee, Liridona Osmanaj, the dynamic works like a chain.
“Corruption does affect press freedom and we do not have enough press freedom because of corruption,” she says. Kosovo ranks in the 82nd position out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
Journalists, the intercepted watchdogs in Kosovo
The role that journalists play in a democracy is key to guaranteeing the health of the system. They are the first ones on the front line against corruption. The watchdogs are the ones that keep an eye on what the government is doing. Particularly in Kosovo, corruption has become a deep-seated problem, as it has been explained before.
However, Kosovo journalists cannot comply with their mission as guardians of the democracy. They feel unprotected and exposed to violence. Visar Duriqi is a Kosovo journalist who has received death threats during his investigations into political corruption, among other topics and claims that the government is doing nothing to protect him.
“Moreover, they support people who threaten journalists because some of the threats come from Members of the Parliament. So, they are doing nothing to judge them and consequently, the prosecutors do not take this issue seriously,” he says.
The researcher at the Association of Journalists of Kosovo, Petrit Collaku, explains that although impunity is an idiosyncratic problem in the country, it should not be there if the judicial system worked well.
“Impunity is encouraging others to attack and to threaten journalists. We have a legal mechanism to protect the freedom of expression,” explains Petrit Collaku. “The problem is that the implementation is poor, the government should do much more. They have to create a plan to prevent incidents. Moreover, political interference should be automatically removed from justice”, he adds.
The Association has more than 500 members and provides advocacy and support for any problem that journalists could face.
Petrit does not hesitate to point out that public officials sometimes use their authority and power against media when they do not like what the press publishes.
“We try to explain to the politicians that if there is defamation or a particular media has gone really bad, they can send their claims to the Press Council of Kosovo, they will deal with that. But politicians have to understand that they cannot threaten journalists,” he explains.
These feelings of lack of protection and vulnerability among media professionals have led that some of them decide to censure themselves to prevent any later consequences. This is the case of the well-known private media Gazeta Express whose CEO, Berat Buzhala, who after receiving some threats and attacks, explains that they try not to provoke threats.
“We refrain ourselves from making provocative reports,” he says.
Money: media Achilles heel
The economic instability is another big enemy of journalists. High criticism and high financial insecurity are tied into Kosovar Journalism. Low salaries, payments out of time and the risk to lose their main income are reasons that decrease their willingness to be critical. A problem shared by journalists all over the world and used by Kosovo politicians in their favour, equally against public and private outlets.
“Any time a public broadcaster becomes more critical, more open, the parliament initiates discussions about the budget for the public broadcaster. That is an example how they directly try to influence the broadcaster and how they can influence,” Una Hajdari explains.
Politicians pressure the private outlets who receive a majority of their financial sources from marketing income, telling them to pull their ads off.
“By this way, these outlets get financially crippled in a couple of months. And this is the kind of way the bigger financial insecurity for a journalist, the less willingness will have to be critical,” she adds.
In this case, again, the situation changes when the media is international. Kreshnik Gashi is the Managing Editor of Kallxo, an online platform for reporting corruption, fraud, conflict of interest and other related issues.
Despite their work in investigative journalism, they have not felt their press freedom being restricted. “The fact that this organization gets the funds by international organizations is a huge advantage for us to report without pressure by any other business or founder”, he explains.
Nevertheless, even with these investors the situation still looks complicated. “We are not pressured free from criminal groups or politicians that we may be investigating. The number of journalists being attacked by people is getting low. But it does not mean that there is no pressure suggesting what you should write or report about,” Kreshnik states.
Media facing Islamism
Since 2015, the police have identified more than 300 Kosovars who went abroad to fight with the ISIS. This is a proof of how the Islamic radical values are getting through the Kosovar population.
“Some imams are involved in radical speeches promoting the war in Syria as a jihad. It is scary because the Islamic Community controls the 90 per cent of the population in Kosovo,” Visar Duriqi explains.
“The religion is one of the most complicated issues in the freedom of expression” explains Berat Buzhala.
“When you report about the Islamism, even people that don´t support them are really careful because they somehow see it as a blasphemy” he adds.
“We as journalists are not trying to convince the people of what they should believe. We don´t care if someone chooses to be Muslim, Catholic…” states Behar Buzhala, the CEO of Gazeta Express.
“But ordinary people confuse some terms. When you say you are against Islamism, it is not the same as stating that you are against Islam, but those people don´t understand. Some radical Imams, the main figures of the community, are smart, and they quote us in the mosques misinterpreting what we say,” he adds.
Covering this issue can be a synonym of risk in Kosovo. Visar Duriqi used to be an Imam until he abandoned it and later on started to report about radical Islamic views in the country. His change of beliefs made him be threatened by the radical Islamic community.
Serbian minority: another complicated topic for Kosovo media
Coming back to the war period, another issue remaining from those times still affecting media is the division between the Albanian majority group, who rule Kosovo, and the minority Serbian community that refuses to recognize Kosovo as an independent state.
Serbians were once the majority community in Kosovo and the powerful group among the Balkan countries. However, the table has turned. Today, they are considered the biggest blamers of the war and are a minority group in Kosovo where they feel oppressed and discriminated.
With wounds still open, journalists who want to report about them are looked at as traitors and can face problems. Una Hajdari is very well respected by both sides because of her ability to speak both Albanian and Serbian. She explains that the core problem for reporting is the language barrier, due to the fact that most Albanian people do not speak Serbian.
“So, journalists based in the north Mitrovica, mainly populated by Serbians, are not able to cover news in Albanian thus they are not able to know what is going on in Pristina. That is when the disinformation arises. Journalists are not able to ask questions or go in depth with the issues that effect to the other community. Therefore, because none of them understands the outlets of the other group, they just focus on the local issues of their own society,” she explains.
The misinformation that is generated due to this phenomenon also provokes `confirmation bias´. Journalists write positive things about their own ethnic group and people read outlets that say the things that they want to hear, confirming their idea about what they feel the society is like.
Because of that, Hajdari deeply emphasizes that the language barrier should be broken to make possible the integration among the communities. She points that journalist should be the first ones to take the step forward learning the language of “the other side”.
“The media sets the standards for the rest of the population. We, as journalists, open the path for the population to be able to say `be more open to other opinions’,” she states.
The outlook for Kosovo press freedom
After publishing a humorous photomontage on Twitter about President Vucic´s visit to Kosovo, Una was accused of “hating Serbia, the Serbs and Vucic”. The unfounded accusation woke up the outcry of fellow journalists from the whole Balkans that spoke out against the tabloid.
“There was so much unity among journalists, so much awareness about how difficult the situation is for us. Then, journalists from Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia, Albania… reacted and made the Serbian tabloid look really bad”, Una says. She explains that the Journalism is often competitive, fighting against each other to get the best stories and the biggest inside details. For that reason, she highlights how important journalist solidarity is for their job.
“When any journalist is attacked, we forget all of that because each of us knows that it could be yourself the next day. And when the journalist´s reaction is so big, it scares politicians”, she says.
Finally, despite of all of these issues, Una Hajdari trusts the future of press of freedom in Kosovo, although it is pending of the political situation.
“At the moment the dialogue with Belgrade is the big thing in the air, and we need to solve problems one after another. However, solved the political situation, Kosovo will be more stable politically and the media scene will be a reflection of that. Very rarely you will have a fantastic critical media scene in a country that is politically unstable,” Hajdari states.