Serbeze HAXHIAJ  |  BIRN, Pristina

Every time Dijar Popova climbs the stairs to his house, he still gets the feeling that he is hearing two gunshots and seeing the silhouettes of two people running away in the dark, then finding his father lying on the ground outside.

On the evening of September 10, 2000, his father Shefki Popova, a 47-year-old journalist at the now-defunct Kosovo newspaper Rilindja, was killed at the entrance to his house in the town of Vushtrri/Vucitrn, 15 kilometres north of Pristina.

“It was around 10.15 in the evening when we heard two gunshots. From the balcony, we saw two people who fled the scene. Someone was waiting for them,” Popova told BIRN.

“When I and my mother approached, he [Shefki Popova] was still alive. The bullets had hit him on the left side of the chest. We took him to hospital but he couldn’t survive,” he recalled.

A few minutes after the killing, the power went off in Popova’s apartment in the centre of Vushtrri/Vucitrn, but coffee shops were still open and people were still on the streets. However, no witnesses ever came forward to shed light on the murder.

“It seems like everything was organised [to protect the killers],” said his son.

The men who shot his father dead that night have never been caught.

15 deaths, no prosecutions

Shefki Popova was one of 15 ethnic Albanian and Serb journalists who were killed or went missing in the wartime and post-war period in Kosovo between August 1998 and May 2005. None of the other cases have been solved either.

“Fifteen unresolved cases are too much. In the majority of cases, investigations are in process, but in many others there wasn’t even a decision to start an investigation,” special prosecutor Besim Kelmendi, the state prosecution’s coordinator for cases related to killings of and threats against journalists, told BIRN.

Kelmendi said that Popova case was under investigation but declined to give details that “could jeopardise investigations”.

According to the Kosovo prosecution, investigations have also been launched into several other cases: Enver Maloku, a journalist at the Kosovo Information Centre, who was killed in January 1999; Rilindja journalist Xhemajl Mustafa, killed in November 2000; Bekim Kastrati, a journalist at the daily newspaper Bota Sot, killed in November 2001; Marjan Milonasi, a journalist at Radio Kosova, who disappeared in 2002 and whose remains were found in 2003, and Bardhyl Ajeti, a journalist at Bota Sot who was killed in June 2005.

The files on the killing of Popova have been transferred from one hand to another as international missions came and left post-war Kosovo – first the UN mission UNMIK, until 2008, then the EU rule-of-law mission EULEX, until last June. Now the files have been transferred to local prosecutors.

Kelmendi said the UN and EU missions had a history of failures.

“After 20 years, it is difficult to provide essential proof for a trial process. Even potential witnesses’ memory cannot be as fresh as it was before,” he said.

Kelmendi cautioned that the files on the killed journalists that were handed over to Kosovo prosecutors by EULEX do not contain useful material that could help get rapid results.

“I do not expect too much from the files we have inherited. If there were more material, we would be quicker in our investigation,” he said.

Echoing Kelmendi’s concerns, Senad Sabovic, a spokesperson for the OSCE mission in Kosovo, also said that investigating the cases was “a challenging task given the poor current state of information on those case files”.

A climate of impunity

The bodies of five journalists who went missing have yet to be found – Djuro Slavuj and Ranko Perenic of Radio Pristina, Milo Buljevic, who worked at RTV Pristina, Ljubomir Knezevic of Politika and Jedinstvo, and Aleksandar Simovic of Media Action International.

Slavuj and Perenic disappeared on a road between Orahovac/Rahovec and Velika Hoca/Hoca e Madhe as they were travelling to work on a report in June 1998, while Buljevic, Knezevic, Simovic were seized in Pristina and were never seen again, according to their families.

“This is not just a question of justice but it is also a question of whether we agree to live with murderers, criminals and kidnappers,” Budimir Nicic, the head of the Kosovo branch of the Association of Serbian Journalists, told BIRN.

“I can say for certain that so far Kosovo’s institutions have not been willing to do their job and solve those cases,” Nicic added.

Anna Di Lellio, who was the temporary commissioner for media during the UN administration in Kosovo between 2001 and 2002, said that the climate for journalism in the period after the war was very difficult.

“At that time an Albanian journalist was killed. A Serbian journalist disappeared and his remains were found later and it is possible it might have been a revenge killing after the war,” Di Lellio told BIRN.

“In the end, the fact that all killings of journalists went unpunished has created a climate of impunity,” she added.

Imer Mushkolaj, a journalist and analyst in Pristina, said that the motives for the murders have yet to be established, but the reporters were killed during a chaotic period in Kosovo and their deaths must have been connected to their profession.

“Ethnically-based motives are not excluded in these cases, but again everything is connected with their job as journalists. They were killed because they were journalists,” Muskolaj said.

Di Lellio suggested that some of the killings could have been political retribution, at a time when media were highly partisan.

“At that time, some of the newspapers in Kosovo wrote articles attacking their political opponents,” she said.

“It was not really journalism. There was an atmosphere of political attacks and journalists were political figures who became also victims of attacks, some lethal,” she added.

Hope in The Hague?

Hajriz Kastrati, the father of journalist Bekim Kastrati, is pessimistic about finding the people responsible for the murder of his son.

“Two years ago I was contacted by a EULEX prosecutor. But it was pointless. I knew they would do nothing,” Kastrati told BIRN.

His son Bekim, then 24, a journalist at the Pristina-based daily newspaper Bota Sot, was shot dead in an ambush in 2001. Three people were arrested a week after his murder but then released.

“The only time when I had a little hope was the time when an American prosecutor took on his case. [But] after he left, everything remained the same,” Kastrati added.

Also unresolved is the attempted murder of Fatmire Terdevci, a journalist for daily newspaper Koha Ditore, who was eight months pregnant when she was shot and severely wounded while travelling in a village in central Kosovo.

Like Hajriz Kastrati, Dijar Popova says he does not expect justice from the domestic judiciary. For him, the only hope lies in the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, the new ‘special court’ established in The Hague with a mandate to investigate and try people for ethnic and political killings in Kosovo from 1998 to 2000.

“Bearing in mind the rotten judiciary in Kosovo, the prosecutors and judges who you can see keeping company with criminals, we have no hope. The last hope is with the Special Court,” Popova said.

Petrit Collaku, executive director of Association of Journalists of Kosovo, argued that the cases of killed journalists have never been dealt with properly.

“The State Prosecution Office has emphasised that if new evidence comes out for these cases, the prosecution will continue with an investigation. It’s been 13 years since the last murder of a journalist but there are no results,” Collaku told BIRN.

He added that the high number of murders of journalists have badly affected the freedom of media in Kosovo.

“Killings, assaults and threats against journalists have taken a high toll on the environment for doing journalism in Kosovo,” he said.

In 2017, the European Federation of Journalists adopted a resolution submitted by media associations from Belgrade and Pristina on investigations into the murder of journalists and media workers in Kosovo between 1998 and 2005, calling for the establishment of a commission to investigate these cases, alongside others.

“By the nature and number of cases we have under investigation, we can see that freedom of the media in Kosovo is quite vulnerable. Attacks on journalists not only cut short individual lives, but attack freedom of expression,” prosecutor Kelmendi said.

During an OSCE conference on the safety of journalists in 2017, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci supported an initiative to establish a commission which would attempt to establish the fate of every journalist who was targeted. Nothing has happened with the initiative since then.

Dijar Popova believes that even reporting on the journalists who were killed represents a risk in Kosovo today.

“Journalists were killed to convey a clear message to others to not dare to do their job properly in order to leave room for criminals to achieve their aims,” Popova said.

He said he believes that those who ordered the killing of his father “are still in Kosovo and are very powerful”.

“But one day they will walk with their heads down,” he declared.