In Europe’s youngest country, media freedom is flourishing — yet a controversial story published on July 6 by a leading broadsheet has turned the spotlight on the serious risks to press freedom and gender equality that remain, as media outlets are used to victimise powerful women and settle scores.
On July 6, as daybreak fell, a story broke in one of Kosovo’s better known newspapers. Koha Ditore, which has often been credited as an important check on corruption, clientelism, cronyism and the abuse of power, led with a story about the appointment of Nita Himaduna as the Republic of Kosovo’s consul to New York. Himaduna is one of the country's most highly educated young women, and a distinguished former adviser to Prime Minister Ramush Haridinaj. Even by the standards of a patriarchal civil society, often skeptical of the role of women in its institutions, the reaction from Koha Ditore was not just fierce, but reckless. Himaduna was termed a “threat” to national security in the publication’s headline, while unfounded allegations about links to the murder of a prominent politician left many frightened and confused.
In an expose which was both unambiguous in its accusations, and wide-ranging in its scope, Besnik Krasniqi relied on a litany of protected sources and deductive leaps to suggest that Himaduna posed a threat to Kosovo. The wildest and most dangerous deduction Krasniqi made was that a chance encounter between one of Himaduna’s relatives and a Serbian diplomat in Albania’s capital, Tirana, gave grounds to suggest that a woman who most diplomatic staff consider erudite, quiet and well-respected may have some link to the murder of politician Oliver Ivanovic. Today, Kosovar journalists enjoy a form of editorial freedom unknown in the Western Balkans — yet many in media circles took to social media to express their fears that freedom to report had led a young woman’s freedom to be abused. Krasniqi has since been described as “Kosovo’s answer to Don Quixote” by one journalist — a remark which sounds sarcastic. Yet as the same journalist added “instead of jousting at windmills [on Saturday], a young woman was shamefully hauled through the mud… success breeds envy, but this is abuse”. Many have expressed their sadness that Kosovo’s status as a leading light in the Western Balkans was compromised by this act of unfair reporting — something others in the international community have started to comment upon, too.
When journalists took to social media in an outpouring of sympathy for Himaduna — unlike any which the country has known for years — distaste for Koha’s fast and loose reporting style became the weekend’s most virulent talking point. The story was described as “a witch hunt”, “a death threat against a young woman”, “a frustrated conspiracy from a jilted misogynist”, “a strong piece of fiction” and “a brazen attempt to subject a strong young woman to threat of extortion”. This last comment reads like hyperbole, but given the horror of Ivanovic’s murder, Himaduna’s naming and shaming — by pure implication — could have exposed her to worse than online abuse.
At noon, a source who was happy to be cited as an occasional contributor to Koha, and who had known the editorial team for several years, telephoned the authors of this story. Citing its owners’ rumoured political ambitions, and the historic scandal over the theft of data belonging to US Ambassador Christopher Dell, the writer expressed his concerns for Kosovo. “I do not only feel dismay for what they have done to an innocent woman” the source said, drawing audibly on a cigarette. “I feel great sadness that our media once again regress into a series of Stalinist show-trials, where sycophancy, back-biting, character-assassination and score-settling file columns, just as they did under Tito. Himaduna could be the tip of the iceberg. Any prominent figure in Kosovo is at risk of having their career destroyed by lies and falsehoods when politicised media goes unpunished for this kind of recklessness”.
As eminent Balkan commentator Haki Abazi made clear in a powerful statement on Sunday morning, Koha's articles represent more of a “witch hunt” than an investigation, “Koha is breaking all the norms and journalistic ethics [expected of a free press] [and there are serious] criminal implications arising from this form of fraud and manipulation, that endangers public, national and personal security”. While Krasniqi’s “investigation” will not be forgotten quickly by Himaduna, others will face the consequences — in the omnipresent threat of violence which haunts a country cleaved apart and still bearing the fresh wounds of war. Instead of praising Koha for its unflinching scrutiny of the country’s institutions, journalists took to social media to express their condemnation.
In an anecdote that is perhaps indicative of the struggles still faced by Kosovan media, Koha Ditore’s editor, Flaka Surroi once served as executive director of Kosovo’s Community Development Fund. At the time of this editorial’s publication, Surroi could not be reached for comment. Yet her statements on the construction of a school in the town of Gjakova, which resulted in the disastrous loss of €70,000 for the community and which was the only such loss in the CDF’s history, provides a curious insight on Ms. Surroi’s position on the concept of accountability. Commenting on the project’s failure for a 2007 report titled “The Community Development Fund: A case-study of donor engagement in post-war reconstruction [of Kosovo]”, Surroi’s tone when pressed on such a substantial loss was dismissive, causing some at the time to call her imperious: “In Kosovo people are used to work more based on instinct and informal agreements, rather than things written on paper… I knew that the Kosovar contractors, the majority of whom are not university-educated, were unlikely to read a voluminous and technical document”. In this callous and condescending approach, shirking responsibility and absolving herself of blame as a community was seemingly defrauded, Surroi perhaps foreshadowed the approach she would bring to the world of responsible journalism as editor of Koha Ditore. In 2007, it was “only” children's education at stake; in 2019, it is the peacefulness of Europe's most fragile success story.
Whether Surroi’s stance on the importance of truth and objectivity in the media is shown by the above anecdote is hard to determine, but as the many journalists who contributed to the 2019 Media Freedom Index stated, Kosovo’s media has been widely regarded as a leading light for the entirety of the Western Balkans. In a country where the median age of the population is 25, Koha’s hatchet-job on Himaduna appears to have caused great offence to media professionals proud to have made Pristina’s press landscape the most pluralist in the Western Balkans.
As another stringer for Koha commented, alluding to the newspaper’s past controversies, involving the use of proprietary information again Dell, “Thankfully Krasniqi’s feature [for Koha] has only brought us embarrassment so far” the man stated, pensively. “Given the sensitivity of Ivanovic’s case, we feel ashamed that one of our own, in his reckless reporting, could have set off a chain of events which lead to another human being killed”.
Himaduna's supporters have not been limited to members of the press. Though he has yet to comment on the latest allegations made by Koha, Foreign Minister Beghjet Pacolli has been a steadfast supporter of Himaduna. Kosovo's most respected statesman, who some commentators regard as personally responsible for obtaining recognition for the fledgling state from more than 40 countries worldwide, a process he was engaged in at his own expense long before he was appointed foreign minister according to many sources, was quick to come out in support of Himaduna last week when the first of a string of attacks on her was published. Pacolli, whose quiet and consistent work over the course of decades to gain recognition for the young country has been largely ignored by media both domestically and internationally, appointed Himaduna personally in early May in recognition of her long service to Kosovo, and with a clear eye for the value her extensive education at some of the top US universities could bring to her new role as consul to the United States.
That such a process, carried out with full respect to due process and strict adherence to the law, could be subjected to trial by media — a media which has shown no such regard for legal or ethical accountability — has alarming implications for all of the core institutions of this fledgling democracy. Media freedom takes precedence in all true pluralist democracies, and it is our moral obligation — in both civil society, and in government — to allow our media to improve democracy and strengthen our institutions as independent arbiters of truth. Koha Ditore acted as judge, jury and almost executioner of a well-regarded young diplomat in a case which has shaken trust in Kosovo’s media, and which may yet have far reaching consequences.
Hugo F. H. Stride is a former British diplomat and senior partner at NBE Global Strategies, who advises the government of Albania on legal reform.
A previous version of this article erroneously included the name of Anne Jolis.