A call to tear down the walls of bureaucracy

A how-to from BIRN’s Jeta Xharra on obtaining public documents in Kosovo: “First, you need running shoes. Second, oil yourself up like a wrestler, so you can slip out of the grasp of anyone who tries to grab you as you escape.”

For too long, citizens and journalists in Kosovo have tolerated the bureaucrat’s bogus and time-dishonoured answer whenever we have asked for access to information: “You can come and look at the documents. But you can’t take them with you.” From now on, I ask you to put your foot down: say no to this practice, even physically if necessary, because the law is on our side.

It is true that many rights in Kosovo guaranteed by law are not so easy to exercise in practice. However, we can change that by testing this system, which to date has been fashioned to protect Kosovo’s political bosses.

In fact, these institutions, which seem from afar like fortified castles designed only to protect those inside, are not as powerful as they seem. They are like paper tigers, forever inventing rules like: “You don’t get to take those documents. You only get to peek at them, because they are… very secret.” 

They try this out, fishing for your citizen’s rights, angling for you to take the bait. Don’t take it! 

The only way to secure these rights in our fragile democracy is for us to demand the implementation of what the law says, to do so loudly and with every physical resource at our disposal. If we don’t, these rights will remain forever beyond our reach.

I urge you, citizens, to exercise this right actively, and report every time it is denied to you.

Our experience last week demonstrates that sometimes you need to take a risk in order to shed some light. To encourage both citizens and journalists to hold institutions’ feet to the fire over transparency, a few days ago we broadcast our experience at the Ministry of Infrastructure after we were denied the right to take two important documents we had sought for nearly two months.

Some context: Kosovo, or rather President Hashim Thaci and two officials from independent Kosovo agencies, supported by Special Envoy Richard Grenell, signed a series of letters expressing interest and readiness for cooperation with Serbia in aviation, rail and road travel. On the Serbian side, these letters were signed by the minister for ‘Kosovo and Metohija.’ 

The photo of the ceremony has been heavily publicised and used to prime the news cycle, yet the content of the ‘international agreements’ (as the protagonists have named them) has been kept secret. For nearly two months BIRN requested access to these documents. We wanted to know what it was all about. 

Finally, I managed to meet Rame Qupeva, the Director of the Road Infrastructure Department at the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transportation who said: “You can have a look at the documents, but you can’t take them with you.” 

I explained to Mr. Qupeva, several times, that the law stipulates that if the documents are not ‘classified,’ they MUST be given to the applicant in the form he or she requests.

Our exchange took place at the Ministry of Infrastructure, the curator of arcane knowledge, of delicate papyruses that must be protected from daylight, upon which multi-million-euro highway contracts were signed with the Bechtel-Enka company under the Thaci government and other governments that followed. 

Acting like Santa, the ministry under the Haradinaj government gave Bechtel-Enka a gift of 53 million euros of taxpayers’ money in June 2018, and was on the verge of splurging further millions constructing two additional access roads to the Arber Xhaferi highway.

Qupeva was shaking all over. “I don’t dare to give you these documents,” he said. “I am not permitted by the Presidency.” 

I tried to explain to him again that, according to the law, I am entitled to them. He refused to read the law on the grounds that he was “an engineer, not a lawyer,” as if his title cast a spell of legal immunity over him and his ministry.

I grabbed the documents, dodged past Qupeva (an engineer, not a wrestler), ran down three flights of stairs and shot out of the building. 

Two years ago I won first place in the Prishtina Half Marathon, in the veterans’ category, but here an adjustment of pace was required. I sprinted as fast as my legs could carry me, only slowing down when I drew level with a photocopying shop opposite the Swiss Diamond Hotel.

Mr. Qupeva (not an athlete, but handy with a phone) called the police. By the time the police arrived, we already had the documents, and had made them public

After two hours of to-ing and fro-ing, they determined that no law had been broken. While I was out photocopying, I called the President’s office and told them it was my right not just to see these documents, but take them. 

“You should have been given them a long time ago,” they replied. But the officials in the Ministry were trembling.

So, there on a plate is the how-to on obtaining documents. It is even available to those who pretend, both to themselves and others, that they are producing journalism rather than propaganda, character assassination, and hackwork. This includes those who, with studied cynicism, claimed I was given the documents because I run a “pro-government” media outlet. 

We are neither pro-government nor anti-government, but honest, professional and non-partisan!

Knowing that every Kosovo institution has officials dealing with public relations, let me tell you now that no matter what your political bosses’ orders are, according to the law, you are never allowed to say to a Kosovo citizen: “You can come and look at the documents, but you can’t take them with you.”

Once access to public documents is granted, your discretion comes to an end. Just provide the documents to the citizen requesting them. There is no need even for physical contact – just send the documents by email.

As an organisation, BIRN are constantly submitting requests for access to public documents. In January alone we submitted 96 requests. In February, 103. 

Currently we have 11 requests lodged with the Kosovo Government (including its various relevant ministries), for which replies are still pending. We also have roughly 15 requests awaiting answers from Kosovo’s municipalities, and 10 sitting in different prosecutors’ offices.

If you are mistakenly told that what you are seeking is private data, you may remind all such officials that BIRN won its lawsuit against the Kosovo Government in 2013. Back then, BIRN requested access to records of expenses filed by the prime minister, who at that time was Hashim Thaci. The government’s initial reasoning to the court was that they could not publicise these bills because private data concerning the prime minister’s diet would be disclosed. 

The court dismissed this argument and, after this case was dragged through the courts for five years, we were able to obtain all the bills, which included lavish spending on meals in restaurants and Italian wine worth up to 120 euros per bottle. 

You should also take this advice when seeking access to records on public spending. I urge all journalists and citizens not to hesitate in approaching institutions with these requests. 

When carrying out your request, I also implore you not to do so through a third party.

The instinct many of us have whenever we need a document is to call up a well-placed acquaintance who can move things along, speeding up a job for which we would have to wait weeks or months for otherwise. I understand that this can feel like a completely unnecessary delay, but it happens because officials have not been taught to serve the people.

We must train every official whose wages come from the taxpayers not to wait for orders from the high and mighty to perform the work for which we are paying them. Journalists should remind officials that their political boss is not as powerful as the law itself.

I appeal to all citizens: When you approach government officials, do so in writing, quoting the relevant law of the Republic of Kosovo and the specific article they are obliged to implement. I also ask all citizens and journalists to note every detail of your experience and immediately write it down whenever you are deprived of a legal right. 

Then raise your voice and point your finger towards any officials who dare to say: “You can have a look, but you can’t take the document with you.”

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