#EndImpunity: Journalism under fire in Kosovo

On the evening of 21 September 1999, UNMIK (United Nations in Kosovo) police responded to a call reporting that something terrible was happening in the family house of photojournalist Momir Stokuća, in the Pejton neighborhood of Pristina. When law enforcement officers arrived, a side door was open. On the bedroom floor they found Momir’s lifeless body.

Photo: In the fight against oblivion, the Journalists’ Associations of Serbia placed a commemorative plaque at the scene of the abduction of Radio Pristina crew with the following inscription in Serbian and Albanian: “Our colleagues Đuro Slavuj and Ranko Perenić were abducted at this place on 21 August 1998. We are looking for them”. 

Stokuća was 50 years old when he was murdered. A longtime associate of the Serbian daily newspaper Politika, and photojournalist for the weekly magazine Vreme, one of the few independent media in the early 90's in Serbia, he was a passionate book reader, described as a person who loved photography and who loved Kosovo.

A police investigation into his killing was never launched. The case was “lost” – the report of the murder “disappeared” from the UN’s records. Stokuća's family was never summoned by any police official or prosecutor. It was as if the crime had simply never happened.

Marjan Melonashi had just finished a half-hour show on Radio Kosovo. At 2:10 p.m. he left the building located in the center of Pristina and got into an orange taxi. It was 9 September 2000 and this was the last time his family ever heard of him.

Melonashi was a 179cm-tall young man, with wavy brown hair and green eyes. He was an English language student at the University of Pristina, a dreamer, an in-love twenty-four-year-old, with plans for marriage. Melonashi was also a journalist, a reporter for Radio Kosovo’s Serbian desk.

In UNMIK’s documentation there are no investigation files that would indicate that the police questioned anyone in connection with this case. An UNMIK policeman opened the file with Melonashi’s name only in 2005, five years after the young journalist disappeared, and only to close it later the same day. 

Such tragic cases are not the only ones.

While performing their duties, between 1998 and 2005, 20 Albanian and Serbian journalists and media workers, as well as the team from German magazine Stern, were killed, kidnapped or ‘disappeared’ in Kosovo. Only one case was resolved through proceedings in the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia).

The other 19 remain unresolved. For more than two decades no one has been held accountable for these crimes. How can that be?

Lost responsibility  

The crimes were perpetrated during the conflict in Kosovo between 1998 and 1999 and after the arrival of NATO forces and the United Nations (June 10, 1999).

While examining what happened through police investigations of killed and missing journalists, the conclusion became obvious and devastating: international authorities in Kosovo did not make any substantial efforts to investigate these crimes against media workers, be they Albanian, Serbian, German, or other nationalities. 

They did not conduct efficient investigations, nor did they assume their responsibilities towards the rule of law, or even to the families of the killed, kidnapped and “disappeared”.

There were a lot of hints that the investigations were hindered or obstructed, but not enough voices to ask if there was such a thing as institutional responsibility?

This is why we still do not know the identity of the killers and the kidnappers. We only know that the perpetrators remain at large and unpunished.

This occurred in Europe in our time

Responsibility for this is held by all those who were charged with upholding the rule of law in Kosovo in the period from 1998 to 2005.

The rule of law and the investigation into the killings, kidnappings and disappearances of journalists and media workers was the direct responsibility of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), which had executive power under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 from 1999 to 2008. In this period, the police and judicial authority were in the hands of the UN mission in Kosovo.

From 2008, the executive branch of the rule of law and thus the responsibility for the investigation and prosecution of these crimes passed into the hands of the European Union Mission (EULEX). The files and the responsibility to investigate was thus transferred from UNMIK to EULEX.

International institutions in charge or associated with the rule of law in Kosovo at the time told me they did not have, or did not know the whereabouts of, possible documents concerning the killings and kidnappings of journalists and media workers during the period of their respective responsibility. Instead of looking for the documents themselves, responsible authorities have had to be told that they indeed did possess some documents.

Searching for files within the UNMIK, I took the case numbers, as they were recorded in their archives - but even then, despite having archive numbers, UNMIK staff were unable to find the documents in their archives.

Ultimately, UNMIK would explain that those who work there today do not know what was done a few years ago, that is, “for some reason, those who were responsible at the time did not do a good job”.

“Disappearance” of police reports such as the one related to the killing of Momir Stokuća was “explained away” by “a change of duty and relocation” of UNMIK staff.

UNMIK’s lack of effective investigation into the disappearance of journalist Marjan Melonashi is shown in the Opinion of the Human Rights Advisory Commission (HRAP).

HRAP was established in 2006 as a result of human rights violations noted by UN human rights treaty bodies, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Amnesty International (AI), Human Rights Watch (HRW) and major criticism from the Council of Europe (CoE) and the European Commission for Democracy through Law (“Venice Commission”), which in its Opinion adopted in October 2004 noted a wide array of human rights problems under UNMIK’s stewardship in Kosovo.

Indeed, HRAPs establishment at that time constituted an unprecedented development in the context of the UN.

The HRAP was limited to the examination of complaints brought before it by individuals or groups, essentially responding to complaints made by families who felt that the UN mission in Kosovo had conducted inadequate investigations into the killings and abductions of their loved ones.

In most cases, in its opinions published in the period from 2010 to 2016, HRAP assessed that the complaints were justified. HRAP recommended that the head of the UNMIK mission publicly apologize to the families (including some families of killed and missing journalists), and that the mission itself take all necessary steps to ensure that investigations continue under the auspices of EULEX. That never happened.

Fighting impunity 

Out of 20 killings, kidnappings and “disappearances“ of journalists and media workers between 1998 and 2005 in Kosovo, the only killing solved in the context of the ICTY, was the murder of professor Shaban Hoti, a journalist and translator working for Russian state television who was killed on 21 July 1998.   

Every bullet shot at a journalist is an attack on democracy, an attack against freedom of speech, freedom of information and against our profession. Behind every unsolved murder, after all the questions put to the authorities, there is still one left - did we, as colleagues and journalists, do everything we could to end impunity?

In May 2018. the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) adopted a motion on investigations into the killings of journalists in Kosovo, tabled by the Journalists’ Association of Serbia (UNS), the Kosovo Journalists Association (AGK), the Independent Journalists' Association of Serbia (NUNS) and Journalists' Union of Serbia (SINOS). 

Unfortunately, there has been no action from the authorities to follow up this resolution and to bring the perpetrators to justice. There were no effective investigations even after information on most of these crimes was included on the Council of Europe Platform for the Protection of Journalism and the Safety of Journalists in August 2018. 

There is, however, no shortage of declarations supporting and promoting the protection of journalists and their right to work in conflict situations.

In December 2018, the OSCE Ministerial Council adopted a Declaration calling for a public and unequivocal condemnation of attacks and violence against journalists and for effective measures to end impunity for crimes against journalists. Years earlier United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1738 (2006) and 2222 (2015) condemned violence and abuses committed against journalists and media workers in situations of armed conflict, emphasizing the international obligation to end impunity and prosecute those responsible for such serious violations of international humanitarian law.

Yet, for families and colleagues of the killed and missing journalists in Kosovo, all these important documents remain inconsequential words on paper. The criminals were not brought to justice. Impunity remains unchallenged.

Bearing in mind that the fight against impunity for crimes against journalists and media workers is crucial and essential for the administration of justice, but also necessary for the further protection of media professionals, and that bringing to justice those responsible for these crimes is a key element in preventing future attacks, the Journalists’ Association of Serbia (UNS) at the Annual Meeting of the European Federation of Journalists (Zagreb, October 2021), the IFJ’s European group, presented a new motion, calling for the prompt establishment of an International Commission of Experts to investigate the killings, kidnappings and “disappearances” of journalists and media workers in Kosovo between 1998 and 2005. 

The text of the resolution contains a total of nine requests including a demand for the EFJ Steering Committee members to actively engage, in cooperation with affiliates, in raising awareness and informing the public

By passing this resolution, IFJ and EFJ members demonstrated a commitment and determination to end impunity for crimes against journalists and media workers by encouraging investigations. This was also an act of solidarity with colleagues killed, kidnapped or “disappeared” in the past and a sign that they will not be forgotten, that they will not again be “disappeared”.

Killed and missing journalists in Kosovo, whatever their nationality, should not be allowed to be forgotten. Crimes should not be allowed to go uninvestigated, unindicted and unprosecuted.

To learn more about IFJ Campaign against impunity click here. 

Author: Jelena L. Petkovic is an investigative journalist. She has been conducting research for many years into the killing and disappearance of journalists in Kosovo. Her work included interviews with at least 200 interlocutors: relatives, colleagues, acquaintances and members of international missions. Her work has contributed to disclose new information on the disappearances and killings.