Comment

Why Real Journalists Scare the Balkan Elites

November 6, 2015
Jeta Xharra, head of BIRN Kosovo and guest at the Speak UP 3 conference on Freedom of Expression and Media in the Western Balkans and Turkey, organized by the European Commission on November 4, recalls the progress and the persistent challenges facing investigative journalists since the last conference in 2013.
Jeta Xharra at Speak Up conference in Brussels. Photo: BIRN

Dear friends, fellow journalists, I refuse to come to Speak UP and complain every two years from this same podium about the state of journalism in the Western Balkans and Turkey.

In fact, from where I am standing here and looking at you, I don’t feel miserable about the state of our work at all because I am pleasantly surprised that you are all still pushing and fighting to do your job against a tide of worsening political environments in most countries of the Balkans.

So, for a start, coming here, seeing your faces in the airport and in corridors of this building, I invite you to see what I am seeing: I would like you to recognize and appreciate the fact that there is actually great power behind you/us. Your voices, your cameras and your pens seem incredible valuable and unquestionably powerful to me today.

So, if this session is about recognizing progress, then I would say that as a general comment, you look scarier than you did at Speak UP 2013! Note: I didn’t say we look prettier, we just look quite a force to be reckoned with!

So, in an outright post-Halloween mood, today I want to celebrate the fact that you, most of you who are mining the information every day, exposing evil and refusing to sell out, have become a scary bunch to the kind of corrupt and often criminal political elites that have grown to rule our Western Balkans.

How do I know you are frightening these elites? It is simple!

By the rise in the campaigns that the politicians and their journo-mercenaries have conducted against real journalists and by the investment they have put into trying to muddy the impact of our stories. The more these attack dogs are let loose, the more I believe there is good work being done all over the place.

I will argue this using three stories by my BIRN colleagues, and I will do so not because I think only BIRN does good work but because I know these cases best and have analysed them long enough to draw a pattern and conclusions about how you can be effective with your journalism.

Three teams of journalists in Serbia, Albania and Kosovo who have followed privatisation deals, public tenders and public spending have received the most attacks in the last year – just when they decided to follow the money of the corrupt elites.

I would call this “A Rough Guide of How to Get Yourself Feared” – but also Attacked by Corrupt and Criminal Political Elites.

My colleagues in BIRN Serbia first came under fire when their investigation revealed that for a 51-per-cent stake in the newly founded company, Air Serbia, Serbia paid several times more than what its United Arab Emirates partner paid.

A couple of months later, BIRN published an investigation, which said that Serbia’s state-owned power company, EPS, had awarded a contract to pump out the Tamnava mine after the floods to a consortium of two companies with no relevant experience, while the job was then done by other companies, one of them connected to one of the Aleksandar Vucic’s friends.

What followed was a year-long campaign by Vucic and his mercenary media, marking BIRN as a “spy” organization, which culminated on January 10 when Vucic said: “It’s important for people to know [who published the investigation],” adding: “They got the money from [Michael] Davenport [head of the EU delegation in Belgrade] and the EU to speak against the Serbian government.”

Since then, the campaign has continued and this is the headline from Yesterday’s Informer, Vucic’s tabloid: “Kako Strane Vlade Placaju Rusenje Nase Vlade”, “How Foreign Governments are Paying for the Destruction of our Government”. One of them, the SCARIEST journalist on this page, is Slobodan from BIRN Serbia who was part of the team that wrote the Tamnava mine investigation.

Joking aside, we should seriously analyse the patterns of how the corrupt and often criminal elites react when they are scared of our investigations: they hire mercenary journalists, such as Informer and e-novine here, and this week they claimed to be coming out with “investigations” into “how BIRN, CINS & KRIK get financed”, so they are simulating a sort of mock “follow-the-money” techniques on us, and are supposedly revealing that we are financed by the mighty, scary…European Union, among other donors. Of course, this investigation is coming out on Monday but BIRN has not been called to be asked about anything; they clearly don’t need our side of the story.

This is not my biggest disappointment here. It is beyond disappointment, it is ironic that in BIRN Serbia’s case, while there was EU funding before the investigations about airline and Tamnava mine came out, today there is no EU funding for similar investigations.

Maybe I am reading too much into this but I can’t fail to notice that in the case of BIRN Serbia, bullying governments actually managed to scare off some donors from supporting investigative journalism. While this is not the case in other countries I will talk about, I just want to note one recommendation that should come out of this panel. It is that Brussels/the EU should not be scared of investigative journalist. True, Slobodan looks scary on this wanted list, but he is exactly the medicine that his country needs. His country does not need nice journalists, his country does not need mercenary journalists but scary, watchdog and true investigative journalists.

It is true that funding investigative journalism can be as unpleasant as practicing it when you have a bully government, but that does not mean that we should all hide in a safe place.

Moving on to Albania, on June 17 2015, BIRN Albania published an investigation into the criminal pasts of candidates who were running for the local election. Edi Rama, the Prime Minister of Albania, threatened to sue BIRN and the journalists involved in the story. The Socialist Party candidate, Kavaja Rroshi, sent an open letter to all the media, issuing them a three-day ultimatum to pull the story or be sued for 100,000 euro. Rama confirmed Roshi’s threat to sue BIRN.

So, in the story I told you about BIRN Serbia, before I introduced you to the three types of journalists, the scary ones and the mercenary ones, there is the third kind of journalist in our lands these days and those are the nice journalists. Who are they? Well they are the ones who, when Prime Ministers of our countries threaten my colleagues in the media, are too “nice” to bother asking for our side of the story.

So, what happened next? The legal threats against BIRN Albania never materialized. But a new threat ensued when the speaker of parliament, Ilir Meta, a coalition partner of Rama’s, said in the October 1 parliamentary session that there was a “Mafioso” conspiracy against him, and blamed BIRN for connecting him to the energy distribution company corruption allegations and to the arrested businessmen, Kastriot Ismailaj.

So again, you see politicians being scared of investigative journalists who investigate them – more than they are scared of prosecutors, more than they are scared of police, more than they are scared of anti-corruption agencies. Some of you real journalists are becoming the demons they want to talk about in parliament, and in their tabloids, and it is to your/our donors that they are coming to bark at when they feel that the dark truth about their money is exposed.

Let’s move to Kosovo. More recently, on August 25, BIRN Kosovo published a story that revealed how Isa Mustafa, the Kosovo Prime Minister, awarded a public tender to fix BMW government cars to a company owned by his OWN son.

Two days later, on August 27, the “Express” newspaper, equivalent to Vucic’s “Informer” and “e-novine” in Serbia, a portal owned by a former PDK member of parliament (a party in the coalition) decided that in that very week they were going to attack Faik Ispahiu, the executive producer of my programe “Jeta ne Kosove/ Life in Kosovo”, by publishing this article which said the following:

  • This selfie from Facebook is further proof of what was always suspected … that Ispahiu was working for the Serbian secret services –
  • That he had historically worked with Serbian journalists ..
  • That BIRN’s centre is in Belgrade although in fact our hub is based in Sarajevo
  • That our staff in Kosovo … is so mixed up with Serbia, that we get paid in dinars!

Maybe this story about my colleague in Prishtina is not so different from the ones in Tirana and Belgrade but there is good news and bad news in how this story ended:

The good news is that Reuters quoted our investigation about Mustafa’s son winning the government tender to fix cars, and when the story made it into the international press, it became so big that Mustafa annulled the tender because now it was not “the suspicious local ‘scary’ guys” but an “international embarrassment”. So the good news is we managed to scare him off from doing wrong.

The bad news is that when we complained to the Press Council in Kosovo about this appalling article, full of defamatory language, lies and with no facts, the majority of the Press Council decided that there was nothing wrong with it. Five voted against our complaint and five others who think of themselves respectable media absained from declaring this article unprofessional. Only three voted for the fact that this article was unprofessional!

Most of press council members who think that there is nothing wrong with these sorts of defamatory articles and fact-less discrediting campaigns are sitting among us, attending freedom of speech conferences.

But, there is more good news. In the last six years I have been through two legal battles and I am amazed to tell you that while EULEX lost one case against five similar mercenary journalists and a rogue mayor, last week we had a legal victory that I believe may create a new precedent in the region.

Three years ago, we asked the Kosovo Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, to give access to the travel expenses paid for by public funds – for the PM and six deputy PMs at a time. He denied us access on the basis that this would endanger the Prime Minister’s human rights; more specifically, these documents would reveal his diet and his religion.

We took him to court on this, arguing that the public should have access to bills paid for by public funds. The case took three years, a new Prime Minister, Mustafa, came, and we asked the same of him, to give us this access. He declined.

Last month, the court issued a final decision in our favor. The court considered the PM’s office claim unfounded because, it said, “public officials’ expenses, especially those of senior officials of state, are funded with money collected from taxes and fees paid by the citizens of the Republic of Kosovo”.

Therefore, the court ruled “that citizens have a reasonable interest in being directly informed about every public penny spent”.

What can I say, except that I am amazed that in another case against BIRN in 2009, the EULEX judge released those who threated my team, while a local judge has had the courage to issue a decision FOR transparency against powerful elites now in 2015. This kind of progress is completely unexpected for me. I still can’t believe it. But touch the ground, they didn’t want to implement this current court decision yet.

And, do you know why we won this case about the bills and the diet of the PM? Apart from running into a one brave judge, we also won the case on appeals because the PM’s office forgot to pay a 30-euro fee when they submitted its appeal.

So, there is no rocket science. What we need more of is more solidarity between journalists/us, when we are attacked by the mouthpieces of interest groups. And we keep saying this every year, that in most of our countries, the EU and governments should not let basic freedom of expression rights be sacrificed in the name of short and mid-term political gains or alliances, such as the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, and Russian influence in the region.