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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.
The 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.
Click on the bubbles to view reports or double-click to zoom in on specific regions. The full site can be accessed at https://mappingmediafreedom.org/
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Journalists in Kosovo experiencing harassment or receiving threats can call a new 24/7 helpline for support and advice. Launched in October by the Association of Professional Journalists of Kosovo (AGPK) and the OSCE Kosovo Mission, the phone line is accompanied by an awareness campaign urging journalists to report all cases of intimidation and violence.
Journalist Zekirja Shabani, head of the AGPK, says he would have greatly benefitted from such a helpline when he was set upon by his boss back in December 2014. The owner of the Pristina-based daily Tribuna physically assaulted him after Shabani said he would sue the paper for failing to pay its staff in time.
“As a reward I was attacked and fired from the job,” Shabani told Index on Censorship.
Though Shabani immediately reported the attack to the police, he says there was no followup. Still, it was worth it, Shabani concludes. “It was a good signal for other journalists to raise their voice and fight for their rights.”
Attacks, intimidation and pressure on journalists are common in Kosovo. According to the AGPK, the number of threats and attacks increased from 15 in 2013 to 27 in 2014. “This is a sign that journalists are working in a dangerous environment,” says Shabani. “And a lot of them are not reporting the threats for different reasons.”
The phone line could help break the silence and make it easier for journalists to talk about violence and intimidation, Shabani believes. “There’s a real need for all journalists to have a chance to raise their voice and speak out about their problems in full confidentially.”
The phone is manned by members of the AGPK only. “We don’t have the capacity to hire anyone else,” Shabani explains. Each staff member mans the mobile phone, which they take home overnight, on one-week rotations.
During the first week that Shabani was in charge of the phone, he received two phone calls. “Clearly there is still a need to increase awareness and let journalists know that someone is taking care of them,” he says.
Journalists calling the helpline will be advised and directed towards institutions which can further help them, such as the police or a lawyer. The AGPK has a law firm on stand-by 24/7.
Meanwhile, the organisation will also collect all the data from calls to get a clearer picture of the status of media freedom in Kosovo. Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project has reported 15 violations in the country since May 2014. The AGPK has reported 27 incidents in 2014 alone. Human Rights Watch found 22 cases of physical violence and threats in the period between January and November 2014.
These statistics are just the tip of the iceberg as so few journalists report incidents to the police.
The type of media freedom violations in Kosovo vary, from pressure from employers to threats for reporting on radical religious groups or government corruption. In September last year, a journalist with the Indeksonline news portal received threats on multiple occasions for reports on radical Islamic groups operating in Kosovo. Earlier this year a journalist for Radio Kosova was threatened and censored while investigating false war veteran lists in the country.
The helpline could make it easier for journalists like these to report their cases, Shabani hopes.
The helpline also documents violations of workers’ rights. “We already know that a huge number of journalists are working without contracts, not being paid on time and in bad working conditions,” says Shabani. “The helpline could help the fight for better rights for journalists in general.”
The free helpline for reporting threats against journalists is 0800 11 333.
Mapping Media Freedom
The UK government is failing journalists who were left behind in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of forces from the country in 2021.
As Britain mulled over the idea of a withdrawal of troops after 20 years in the country, it launched the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) scheme to offer relocation of eligible Afghans to the UK.
When Kabul fell in a matter of days in August 2021 after British and US troops left, the Government launched Operation Pitting, the largest humanitarian aid operation since the Berlin airlift. This saw more than 10,000 eligible Afghan nationals as well as British residents evacuated following the rapid military offensive by the resurgent Taliban.
On 18 August 2021, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, which would resettle up to 20,000 people at risk, with 5,000 in the first year. This is in addition to those brought to the UK under ARAP.
At the time, the government said that the scheme would prioritise “those who have assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for values such as democracy, women’s rights and freedom of speech, rule of law (for example, judges, women’s rights activists, academics [and] journalists)” and “vulnerable people, including women and girls at risk”.
The evacuation of Afghan journalists to the safety of Britain has not happened.
Index on Censorship has been contacted by a large number of Afghan journalists who would appear to be prime candidates for the scheme but help has not been forthcoming. Other governments, including those of Germany, France and even Kosovo, have offered safe refuge to a number of journalists but the UK is failing in its obligations.
There remains a large number of journalists, particularly women, who remain in the country or have made it across the border to the seeming safety of Pakistan only to continue to face threats.
The Afghanistan Journalists’ Support Organization reported on 3 February that a number of Afghan journalists had been arrested in the Pakistani capital Islamabad. According to the report, phones, laptops, cameras, and other electronic and personal devices of journalists have been seized and inspected. Those arrested have passports and visas and are legally residing in Pakistan. They were later released but one Afghan journlaist said that the behavour of the Pakistani police towards those fleeing the Taliban was “insulting and wrong”.
As well as arrest, journalists fleeing Afghanistan to Pakistan face other problems. One female journalist, who was forced to leave Afghanistan for fear of retribution by the Taliban, has shared her shocking story with Index below.
“I am a young Afghan broadcast journalist with almost five years of experience in the field. I have worked as a news anchor, presenter and reporter during the course of my career, and I have been associated with a nunebr of renowned media organisations in Afghanistan.
“Due to my work as a journalist, I have confronted many things from house raids, serious threats, online bullying, digital and cyber-attacks and harassment. I had received several threats from the Taliban before their rise to power, my Facebook account was hacked twice, I had to change my mobile number multiple times due to threats and harassment.
“After the takeover of Kabul, the Taliban launched a crackdown on the media and raids on the houses of the journalists started. Understanding the severity of the situation I tried to flee the country multiple times straight after their takeover, but due to closure of borders I didn’t succeed. I had to go into hiding and luckily I narrowly escaped a day before the raid of my house by the Taliban. I travelled in burqa with my elder brother to a location in the north east of the country where I stayed here for a month and a half with some of my distant relatives before fleeing clandestinely to Pakistan after borders were opened in October 2021.
“Since then, I have been living alone in Pakistan away from my family and loved ones with no job and livelihood. I have faced and I am still facing a plethora of issues here in Pakistan.
“I have been forced to live in unhygienic slums due to financial issues. I have spent many days without food and when I do eat, it is often just once a day. I have been ill many times, but I haven’t been to hospital or received any medication, and have been suffering from mental health issues like anxiety, depression, insomnia, and stress. I haven’t been able to purchase clothes for myself since I fled Afghanistan.
“I have also been a victim of discrimination and racism due to my ethnicity, nationality and religion. I was kicked out of two dormitories due to my nationality and ethnicity and also faced harassment and discrimination. In two places I have stayed my money was taken as a deposit before allowing me to live in the apartment as a tenant, but in both of these places my money was not returned when leaving.
“I have struggled to meet even my most basic needs, but support from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Frontline Defenders (FLD) has given me some respite and these funds have enabled me to survive.
“During this period, I have gone through hell – Pakistan is little different to Afghanistan. Here too there are Taliban sympathisers. There is no safety, no job opportunities, inflation is high. There is much discrimination, racism and prejudice in the society and there is hostility towards Afghan people in general and women in particular.
“A particularly unpleasant incident happened some months ago. One evening in July last year I was assaulted by an unknown biker while returning from the supermarket. The biker grabbed me and groped my body and was trying to pull me down to sexually assault me. But luckily this happened in the street near my flat, where I shouted loudly and, after a lot of pushing and shoving, I was able to escape. After this incident, I am scared to go out even during the day. Harassment in the streets for women is very normal here. I have to endure shameful touching, gazes and catcalls in public when I go out for anything and unfortunately, being Afghan, we can’t do anything about it.
“Now my situation is getting worse due to the long wait to relocate to a safe country. Moreover, the Pakistani authorities have put more restrictions on visas for Afghani people now, as the majority of visas are either denied or there are long delays. There is a clear reluctance from the government to issue visas to Afghans. I was on a one year visa to Pakistan which expired in the month of August 2022. I applied for a visa extension in the previous June 2022 but I have not received a decision yet. If the visa request is rejected I will be liable to pay heavy fines ($500) and face other legal liabilities. In December 2022, the Pakistani authorities announced that any Afghan without any valid visa will be arrested and put into prison for three years or deported back to Afghanistan.”
“I know of one Afghani family who were put in jail by the Pakistani authorities due to illegal overstay, where the male guardian of the family died in the jail – the rest of the family is still in jail. We all are really scared and fearful about this matter because we can’t afford any legal and financial liability or penalty at this stage. We also can’t go back to our country due to the severity of the threats to our life and safety and a really uncertain and dark future for women.”
“I am asking for assistance in relocating to any safe country where I could continue my journalism safely, complete my education and work to support myself and my family. In addition to serious threats for my life there is no future back home for women right now. There is a ban on education for women, a ban on women working in the media and NGOs and a ban on free movement of women outside without the veil and a male guardian. As a human being I also deserve the right to life, safety, education, and work. I deserve the freedom of movement and the freedom of expression, which are being denied and suppressed under the tyrannical and oppressive regime of Taliban. I am desperately and anxiously looking for any help in this regard and assistance with the financial support to meet my immediate and basic needs.
“I hope my plea will be heard and heeded in the right corners and a hand of support will be extended.”