Kosovo's Vigilante Journalism

Despite having been briefly shut down by the United Nations for fomenting violence against Serbs, one Kosovo Albanian newspaper pledges to continue printing the names of suspected 'war criminals.' One of the paper's targets has already been murdered, sparking bitter debate about the limits of press freedom.

| Fri Jun. 16, 2000 3:00 AM EDT

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- The United Nations in Kosovo is trying to stop local newspapers from waging their own personal vendettas against suspected war criminals -- but the newspapers are not proving terribly cooperative.

In early June, the UN's chief administrator, Bernard Kouchner, declared he would restrain Kosovo's ethnic Albanian media in an effort to curb violence in the region. That announcement came just days after officials temporarily closed down the Dita daily newspaper which they hold responsible for inciting vigilantes to kidnap and murder a Serb translator.

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In late April, Dita accused UN translator Petar Topoljski, 25, of taking part in last year's pogroms as a member of a Serb paramilitary group. The article published Topoljski's address and work schedule as well as a photograph. The translator was abducted two weeks after the accusations were printed; his body was later found with multiple stab wounds near the Kosovo capital.

On June 3, Kouchner ordered police to shut down the Dita offices for eight days. But as soon as the closure ended earlier this week, the paper reappeared, defiantly carrying the same article that had prompted the ban.

Newspaper executives say they stand behind the story, which is based on unnamed sources. Chief editor Blerim Savileci said that Dita has started court proceedings against the UN administration, seeking $489,000 in damages for the period the paper was forced to suspend publication.

Alarmed by the trend of "vigilante journalism" in Albanian papers, Western officials say press freedom must be weighed against the need for peace in Kosovo. The media restraints were aimed at reassuring local Serbs still living in the region, after attacks in recent weeks which killed eight people. In one especially ugly incident, a gunman sprayed automatic-weapon fire into a village store, killing a 4-year-old boy and his grandfather.

UN spokeswoman Nadia Younes said the restraints would be "quite limited and temporary in nature." They are aimed at "ensuring that the printed media refrain from acts of endangerment which could pose a serious threat to the life, safety, or security of any person through vigilante violence," she said.

But the Albanian media quickly denounced the measures as a restriction of press freedoms. Local media have been focusing hard on attempts by Slobodan Milosevic's regime to gag the opposition media in Belgrade. And, to add insult to injury, the Dita offices are located in a Pristina media complex run by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a 55-nation agency charged with coordinating peacekeeping in the Balkans under a UN charter, and which has among its goals fostering independent journalism in the region.

Dita publisher Behlul Beqaj argues that if the UN had done a better job of organizing a criminal-justice system in the enclave, Albanian newspapers wouldn't feel compelled to publish inflammatory allegations.

After the discovery of Topoljski's body, Dita printed an open letter to Kouchner saying it would continue to publish the names of Serbs believed to be "involved in anti-Albanian activities." Said Beqaj, "If we reveal facts about an individual, we are not doing so out of hatred. But if we cover up those facts, we will simply provoke more hatred."

Beqaj claims the UN employs other former Serb paramilitaries and has made no attempt to check their backgrounds. "Instead of sentencing those who have committed crimes against the Albanian people, the international community gives them jobs in various organizations and institutions," he said.

The Kosovo Journalists' Association said the closure of Dita was "an arbitrary act which endangers press freedom." It had appealed to Kouchner to reconsider a decision that "could set a dangerous precedent for the local media". The independent daily Koha Ditore devoted four pages to supporting Dita, pointing out that it was not the only newspaper to publish lists of war-crimes suspects.

The scandal has also sparked friction within the OSCE. While the organization has publicly supported the Dita closing and joined the UN in condemning "vigilante journalism," a source in the OSCE said that there was significant disagreement over the action within the organization on the grounds that it could have serious consequences for the local media.

In a defiant front-page editorial on the day Dita resumed publication, publisher Beqaj proclaimed his paper would not change its editorial policies.

"We will continue to publish the names of all of those for whom we have evidence that they were involved in the committing of crimes," Beqaj said. And for good measure, he added that Dita would print the names of international officials in Kosovo "who are behind prostitution and even steal humanitarian aid."

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