Reporting the Truth Gets You Sucker Punched in Kosovo
In 1999, the United States led a war to defend freedom in Kosovo. But today, the free press is attacked violently, even as it’s undermined by financial and political interests.
PRIŠTINA, Kosovo—Parim Olluri’s assailants arrived first. The CCTV footage shows only their backs as they stroll past the camera and on up the street. There are three of them and they’re all wearing hoods.
Olluri’s fiancée, Genta, appears next. She stops, turns, and smiles as she waits for him to enter the frame. When he does so and they reach his apartment, Olluri turns to unlock it, which is when one of the hooded figures appears and attempts to sucker punch him in the back of the head.
Olluri falls to the ground, Genta faints out of shock, and the other two men leap forward to join in before all three of them high-tail it into the street. There are plenty of other people around—it was only 10 o’clock at night—but they stand there dumbfounded for a moment or two before realizing what happened.
“A dog started barking as I went to open the door,” Olluri told me a week after the attack as we sat at a café in the center of Priština, the capital of Kosovo.
He took another look at the footage, which he’d been carrying around on his iPhone since giving his statement, as though trying to work out whether there was anything he might have done differently. He shrugged and put the phone away. “I didn’t hear them coming,” he said.
But he’s pretty sure he knows why they came.
An award-winning investigative journalist and the executive director of the independent online newspaper Insajderi, Olluri, 30, has a terrible tendency to overturn rocks that people in power would rather he leave unturned. “This happened because of my work,” he said.
The work in question doesn’t pull any punches. In August last year, Insajderi published a series of leaked phone conversations suggesting that senior figures within the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), long the dominant force in Kosovar politics, had unduly politicized public-sector appointments, stacking the judiciary, police force, public broadcaster, and state-owned utility companies with loyal party men. Olluri received death threats and a subpoena for his troubles. The plaintiff, PDK MP Adem Grabovci, allegedly received tips from the appeals court on how to strengthen his case.
On Aug. 15 this year, Olluri published an op-ed piece about former Kosovo Liberation Army commanders—many of whom are now senior members of the PDK—and the manner in which they’ve turned political corruption into an art form since the 1998-99 war that was won, finally, with NATO air power lead by the United States. At the time, U.S. President Bill Clinton declared his government was “standing up for the freedom of the people in the Balkans.” And the KLA fighters were largely welcomed as heroes.
“If Adem Jashari were alive,” read the Insajderi headline, boldly referencing a war hero who was assassinated by Serbian forces in 1998, “he would be a millionaire and corrupt.”
That’s the sort of hard-nosed line that might once have led patriotic types to brand Olluri a traitor to the cause and his work a smear against those who struggled to free Kosovo from Belgrade’s yoke nearly 20 years ago. But Olluri told me those days are over.
“People don’t get annoyed with you for saying that the good guys have become the bad guys,” he said, “especially when the people you’re writing about are involved in corruption.
“Readers who don’t like what I have to say usually attack me on social media or by email,” he added. “I’ve received death threats. I’m used to death threats. But this is the first time I’ve been physically attacked.
“That’s why I believe the order came from high up.”
Olluri joins a long and troubling list of hacks and scribblers who’ve been assaulted.
In August last year, someone threw a hand grenade at the home of Mentor Shala, the head of Kosovo’s state broadcaster, Radio Television Kosovo. It exploded in his backyard while he and his family were inside. (A week earlier, another explosive device had been thrown into the television station’s courtyard.)
In 2014, Milot Hasimja, an editor with the Klan Kosovo television station, was stabbed in the neck and head several times after he tried to explain to a man he had interviewed that he wasn’t able to delete the interview from YouTube on the grounds that he hadn’t uploaded it in the first place.
Death threats against journalists—particularly online—have also soared over the past 18 months. In October last year, Leonard Kërquki received hundreds of public and private threats on Facebook after his three-part documentary, Hunting the KLA, aired on television. His case is only one of many. That of investigative journalist and editor Arbana Xharra, who found a cross painted in what appeared to be blood on a wall near her apartment earlier this year, is only one of more.
“A few weeks later I was physically attacked at the same place at my parking garage,” Xharra told me on Twitter. “But the police didn’t find out who did that [either].”
According to the head of the Association of Journalists of Kosovo (AJK), Shkëlqim Hysenaj, those responsible for such attacks and harassment are rarely if ever brought to justice. At an event in February, Hysenaj observed that there are at least 11 cases in which journalists were murdered, dating back to 1999, and not only have they not been solved yet, they haven’t even been investigated. He said the chances that Olluri’s case will be any different are unfortunately slim.
“We’re not really seeing the will from the police or the prosecutor to conduct a proper investigation,” he told me. “This really concerns us. If these institutions fail to investigate this case and we don’t discover who was behind the attack, people will feel free to continue attacking journalists and to attack them more often going forward.”
But he added that this lack of will isn’t entirely surprising. That Olluri’s hopes for justice should rest on the shoulders of a system whose makeup his reporting has revealed is the result of nepotistic patronage is an irony lost on no one.
This latest assault will do little to improve Kosovo’s standing on any press freedom indexes. Freedom House currently describes the country’s media as only “partly free.” Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index ranks Kosovo 82nd out of 180 countries. (This nevertheless represents an improvement on last year, when it was 90th.)
But it’s political interference and concentrated media ownership—rather than random thrashings on the street—that such yardsticks highlight as the real causes for concern in Europe’s newest country. According to doctoral researcher Abit Hoxha, who has studied Kosovar media extensively, such issues are fueling a growing distrust of journalists and journalism throughout the country.
“The media is rarely taken seriously in Kosovo,” Hoxha told me by email. “On the one hand, the role that some journalists assign themselves—mostly the role of ‘activist’—doesn’t help this. It leads to the opinion that journalists are biased.
“Journalism that’s been produced by NGO media organizations is often distrusted as well because of the funding behind those organizations and because of their advocacy agendas,” he said.
“On the other hand, you have a ruthless political and economic elite that’s ready to do anything to suppress freedom of the press in both implicit and explicit fashion.”
He noted that a number of Kosovar newspapers and television stations are owned or part-owned by politicians and that various commercial players have purchased media properties, not to make money or perform some high-minded social function, but rather so as “to have a ‘weapon’ on the media scene” with which they might protect themselves from criticism and bludgeon their competition.
“All this results in weak reporting, low trust in media, low circulation, and good conditions for both censorship and self-censorship,” he said.
If “weaponizing” the media is the primary goal of Kosovo’s major players, then the lead-up to the country’s June parliamentary election—which resulted in the PDK-led coalition failing to win the absolute majority it needs to govern—was a veritable arms race.
“You had politicians with a lot of power, ex-KLA fighters with a lot of power, new parties that wanted to win power… All of these groups wanting their own dedicated media outlet,” said the AJK’s Hysenaj. The result was a clash between anonymous online outlets (many of them purveyors of “fake news”), private media outlets, and—the biggest “weapon” of all—the state’s own Radio Television Kosovo.
“The public broadcaster remains the most important media outlet in this country,” Hysenaj said. “It’s also the biggest problem.
“After the war, RTK was given a lot of money to establish the infrastructure necessary to cover the whole country and people got used to getting their news that way. But the PDK has been in power for ten years now—which is a very long time—and have basically turned it into a propaganda arm. All they produce is propaganda.”
Hysenaj pointed to the PDK’s Aug. 22 announcement of its candidates for October’s local elections, which was immediately met with gushing profiles and praise on RTK. “If you have this kind of problem with the public broadcaster, let alone with the private media and the online media,” he said, “of course you’ll wind up in a situation where no one is sure about what he’s reading or whether to believe the information that’s coming to him.”
(While Hysenaj isn’t exactly a fan of RTK, he admitted that RTK isn’t exactly a fan of him or the AJK, either—except when the AJK is defending people like Mentor Shala and his right not to get blown up in grenade attacks. “They love us then,” he said.)
Whether they’re working for government or business interests or both, the pressure on journalists to toe the line is formidable, Hoxha told me. “Most journalists rarely cover issues involving the corruption of their informal or formal owners,” he said. “Eighty-six per cent of Kosovar journalists work on temporary contracts. That’s the highest number in the world. If the owners aren’t satisfied with the journalist, they simply kick the journalist out.”
Of course, that sort of thing can occasionally backfire. Indeed, Parim Olluri wouldn’t be so doggedly committed to uncovering official corruption—Insajderi probably wouldn’t exist—were it not for one important fact: Once upon a time, he happened to get fired.
“In 2007, I joined a newspaper called Infopress [now defunct] to be a sports reporter,” he said. “The sports section wasn’t very good and I moved to the financial one. I started looking at companies and the people involved with them and writing stories about corruption. One day my boss called me into his office and said: ‘OK. You’re free to go home. You’re fired.’ After that, I learned that Infopress was owned by a member of the PDK.”
(The man in question, Rexhep Hoti, is currently Kosovo’s deputy minister of Culture, Youth and Sport.)
“I was really mad about that,” said Olluri. “That anger helped me to focus and gave me the passion to do what I do.”
He’s been a thorn in the PDK’s side ever since—and he isn’t going to let a little rough-housing stop him, even if his assailants are still out there and are unlikely to be brought to justice.
“Genta’s a little nervous about that, but she’ll be OK,” Olluri said. “I’m obviously not going to quit over this… This is what I do best.”