Kosovo press names names, vigilantes act

Petar Topoljski was a young Serb who worked in Kosovo's United Nations administration. In April, a local newspaper charged that he was something more: a paramilitary thug who took part in the beating, robbing, and expulsion of ethnic Albanians last year. The paper published his photograph and address.

Eleven days after the article appeared on newsstands in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, Mr. Topoljski disappeared. His body was discovered a week later on a secluded riverbank. He had been stabbed several times.

Kosovo's international police say they cannot be sure that the newspaper article led to Topoljski's death. But the killing is prompting them to take steps to end what they call "vigilante journalism," the practice of publishing the names of Serbs and others accused of committing war crimes last year.

Dita - the newspaper that printed the Topoljski story - was fined $12,000 for another recent article that accused more than a dozen Serbs of

war crimes. The paper refused to pay, and last week officials shut it down. It started publishing again on Tuesday, and has challenged the regulations in a Kosovo court.

The restrictions on the press have won them few friends in Kosovo, especially among journalists, who accuse international officials of curtailing press freedom and covering up their own failure to bring war criminals to justice.

"This is against the freedom of speech and writing," protested Dita's editor-in-chief, Belul Beqaj. "It's anti-democratic."

Meanwhile, international officials argue that printing the names of alleged war criminals, even if the accusations are true, endangers their lives and therefore goes beyond what is permissible. "The freedom of the press is not limitless," says Roland Bless, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which oversees the Kosovo media. "It ends where another basic right is trespassed, namely the right to life."

A growing practice

Exposing alleged war criminals and Albanian collaborators has been a regular feature of Kosovo journalism since the war. Even a Kosovo woman's magazine has taken up the practice. The magazine, Kosovarja, recently published an article, entitled "Nightmare butchers," which names 11 Kosovar gypsies it says belonged to a paramilitary group. The article also makes damning statements about Kosovar gypsies in general. Now officials are mulling over plans to introduce a "code of practice" that bans publishing anything that "denigrates ethnic groups."

Stories like these are part of a larger effort among ethnic Albanians to account for the violence committed against them during their armed struggle against Serb authorities in 1998 and 1999. They also reflect ethnic Albanian frustration with international efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice.

While the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague has been busy gathering evidence against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and a handful of his associates, it has left the prosecution of lower-level criminals to Kosovo's justice system, in which courts are barely functioning.

Beqaj says Dita is not encouraging vigilante justice but simply exposing the truth. "I would feel responsible for doing something bad if I had hid the facts," he says. When the criminals are exposed "the innocent will have a good life."

Not all journalists agree with Beqaj. "It was bad journalism," says Shkelzen Maliqi, a respected commentator. And yet Mr. Maliqi and other journalists are protesting the sanctions against the newspaper. In particular, they blame officials for imposing rules without consulting them.

"There can't be anarchy," Maliqi says. "But there must be consultation."

The press restrictions come at a time when foreign governments, charitable foundations, and private media organizations are working to improve Kosovo journalism. Barely a year after the war, Kosovo journalism is thriving, with a half-dozen daily newspapers, dozens of radio stations, and a small but growing number of television stations. At the same time, the quality of journalism varies enormously. Many journalists are young and untrained. Newspapers are linked closely to political parties and lack true independence. The media face a critical test in the next two months as Kosovo heads toward elections.

Monroe Price, a professor of media law at Cardozo School of Law in New York, said during a visit to Kosovo that recent years have seen the emergence of new thinking about media rules in "post-conflict and peacekeeping contexts." The potential for violence in Kosovo, he suggested, may justify restrictions that would be unacceptable in a mature democracy. "The context is a lot here," he said.

Press under pressure

Some journalists suspect that international officials would prefer they not write about war crimes at all. "They probably feel it keeps the tension high," says Agron Bajrami, deputy editor of Koha Ditore, one of Kosovo's most respected newspapers. In any case, for many of them, the closing of Dita brings back bitter memories of practicing their craft under a repressive Serb regime.

"They're very sensitive," says Daut Dauti, general secretary of the Association of Journalists of Kosovo. "They say, 'You see, they're doing the same thing. The Serbs closed papers down. They are doing the same thing.' "

Three papers have been reprimanded for violating the new press regulation since it went into effect on June 17. Two of them, including Kosovarja, promised not do it again. "We don't want to be closed," says Berat Luzha, editor of Rilindja.

Pristina's chief police investigator, Charly Gortano, says the probe into Topoljski's murder continues. But adds, "If they want to have justice, this is not the way."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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