An ethnic Albanian refugee reads a paper looking for news from his hometown of Meratovice in the Stenkovic refugee camp in Skopje. Photo by Zohra Bensemra, courtesy of Reuters.
“A lot has changed. The way we work, the way we feel about our work, the way others feel toward our work…” says Garentina Kraja, journalist of KOHA Ditore, the Albanian newspaper in Kosova [the Albanian-language spelling], when talking about her job as a journalist in Kosova in months after the war. “During the war, working in a paper and reporting about the war, was the only thing that seemed to have any meaning. We were reporting about what was happening, and those reports did make a change, I think. After all, I think that the reports of the journalists about the atrocities helped to convince the international community to intervene in this conflict,” says Tina, the name everyone calls her.
“Then, we believed in what we did, and we thought, we can do a lot,” she adds. “But today we see that, actually, we are not that powerful. All our work and effort is not making things move for the better.”
Such are the dilemmas that almost every journalist at KOHA Ditore faces today. KOHA Ditore is the leading Albanian daily, published in Prishtina [the Albanian spelling], capital city of Kosova. It is also printed and distributed in the majority of the countries of Western Europe where there is an Albanian community. “The circulation of the paper, in Kosova, is at around 18,000 copies each day, seven days a week,” says Luan Dobroshi, the Director of the newspaper. This is almost half of the circulation of the paper just before NATO air strikes began on March 24, 1999.
The Serb campaign against the Albanian population of Kosova also intensified. KOHA Ditore was among the first targets of Serb paramilitaries. During the air strikes, when around one million Albanians from Kosova were deported into Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro, a number of journalists and editors of KOHA Ditore were among the refugees, too. They found one another in Tetova in western Macedonia, and four weeks after KOHA Ditore had been prevented from being printed because of the Serb actions, the newspaper began to be published again. But its staff now lived in exile, as refugees.
During three months of war, the paper was published in Macedonia and Albania and distributed in the refugee camps. It was a humanitarian project, funded by the British Foreign Office and French Foreign Ministry, and 10,000 copies were given for free in the refugee camps there. When the war ended, the refugees returned to Kosova, and so did KOHA Ditore.
We learned that our offices had been used as a police station during the last months of the war. All of our equipment—computers, printers, Internet server, and archive—had been either taken away or destroyed. The printing house was burned to ashes. But we also found, with great joy, that all of our colleagues who had remained in Kosova, hiding for most of the time from the Serb forces, were alive and in good shape.
Now we were together again, but we had to beg for equipment, for computers, chairs and desks, for a printing press and CD’s for the new archive and for cars for distribution. “We had to start from even below zero,” says the Director Dobroshi. “We had nothing…simply nothing…not even a budget to start buying things.”
Then, with material help from the West, the offices started regaining their old look with the people sitting inside and working again. Now, almost everything is just as it used to be. The desks, the computers, phones, access to Internet. Still, this is a picture that you get only in Prishtina. In other towns in Kosova, the picture is a lot different. Phone lines in a majority of the towns of Kosova are still not operational. Local correspondents in towns around Kosova are in no position to make a phone call to the office, to send a fax or to e-mail.
“It is very frustrating,” says Rexhep Krasniqi, a correspondent of KOHA Ditore from Malisheva, a small town in the central part of Kosova, some 60 kilometers west of the capital Prishtina. “At the beginning, I tried to send my stories by giving a written copy to the distributor of the paper. But the story would arrive to the editors one day later…and it didn’t mean that everything I sent would end up at the hands of the editor,” says Krasniqi. “So, what I do nowadays, is to take a bus to Prishtina, and take my story myself. It is not very far, but because the roads are still pretty much damaged, it takes quite some time to get to Prishtina,” he says, adding that he’d rather spend that time writing his story than transporting it. “At least, the news arrives in time,” says Krasniqi. His house burned during the war and his family of 11 took shelter in a single room while rebuilding took place. In the midst of that, buying a computer or a typing machine was the last thing he thought about.
Though the situation is just as bad in a majority of other town in Kosova, things have started to change for the better. In Peja [Pec, in Serbian] and Prizren, the second and third largest cities in the western part of Kosova, there are even Internet centers. Local journalists have priority when it comes to the use of any computer in the local Internet center, and they are able now to e-mail their stories right after they prepare them on the computer.
“But that doesn’t mean that these kind of very banal problems are over,” says Baton Haxhiu, Editor in Chief of KOHA Ditore. “For months now we are dealing with power cuts on a daily basis. So, we had to buy a generator for the office and the printing house, in order to be able to work in days when we have electricity for only two hours. Every day we are faced with losing our stories on the computer because the power goes off,” he says. “It is very frustrating. You have to start the computers again, wait for the network to be restored, see what was lost….When it is deadline, this is not fun at all…” explains Haxhiu, describing some of the everyday frustrations faced by every journalist at KOHA Ditore, frustrations that they should not have to face.
“But the most worrying thing is the way our journalists feel,” says Haxhiu, as he talks about the new pressures journalists are confronting. “When UNMIK, (United Nations Mission in Kosovo), OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), and almost 200 NGO’s rushed to Kosova, they were all looking for good personnel. And journalists of our paper are skilled enough for their standards. And they pay twice as much as we do, although we did raise the salaries of our journalists 100 percent,” he says. “The new circumstances have changed a lot the way our journalists feel about their job. Now, their very physical existence is not endangered from war. Today, they have different existential problems. They are in their mid- or late-20’s and would like to see that they do something for their future, have a good job, are well paid, and the job of the journalist is not good enough for this, according to them,” says Haxhiu.
“Even we the journalists here sometimes get the feeling that there are other things, more important or more promising, we could be doing, instead of writing for a newspaper,” says Lundrim Aliu, a 25-year-old journalist at KOHA Ditore. “People nowadays are more interested in their personal lives, in making money, in rebuilding their property, and much less interested in reading newspapers, that is in reading what we write. The news we bring, no matter how interesting it might be, does not directly apply to their safety as it did before. On the other hand, very often one gets the impression that things we write or could be writing do not make any impact or any difference for the society,” says Lundrim.
Today many of the stories that are published in KOHA Ditore focus on the rebuilding of the postwar economy and institutions. As Editor in Chief Haxhiu explains, “establishing the basis of true civic and democratic and free institutions are the main focus of the paper today. This means that everything that is an obstacle to achieving these goals is a concern of the paper, including ethnic violence and organized crime.
“Still, political developments in and around Kosova remain our reporting priority. Everything else here depends on political developments,” Haxhiu continues. “Therefore, the way that internationals are behaving in Kosova, the ideas about Kosova and lack of vision of what and how to build in Kosova, and the way local politicians are behaving in present circumstances and the consequences of this unclear and undefined situation, these are our main concerns.”
Some other journalists add that there are still some fundamental problems with freedom of expression in Kosova, and this makes their work frustrating and, at some point, even unbearable. “Well, we cannot be proud with our standards of freedom of expression,” says Haxhiu. “We have had our real newspapers only after World War II, and the Communist era was not actually the perfect environment for building a culture of freedom of speech. This is something that we will have to build now, in the civic society that will be built in Kosova.”
Haxhiu admits that one of the correspondents from one of the municipalities in central Kosova never filed a story about a physical attack on a local politician. This politician was a member of a political party that is an opponent of the PPDK political party that emerged from the political wing of KLA (Kosova Liberation Army, the armed force of Albanians of Kosova that fought the Serb forces in the province). “I think our journalist was afraid to report about this,” says Haxhiu, adding that, still, there were no reports of attacks on any journalist, from any media in Kosova, since the war ended.
“It is not perfect, yet, but I think that the worst period is behind us,” Haxhiu concludes.
Perfect this job is for Lindita Camaj, 22, who just started working for KOHA Ditore. “It is interesting, challenging and we can help a lot on making things change for better,” she says.
Ardian Arifaj is Editor of KOHA Ditore, a daily Albanian-language newspaper in Kosova.