Photo from the archives.

BIRN Wins Landmark SLAPP Case Against Devolli Corporation

The Court of Prishtina has annulled the decision of the Independent Media Commission which issued a warning to BIRN after the broadcast of an award-winning investigation that shed light on the violation of anti-monopoly rules by Devolli corporation in producing solar energy.

Three years ago, the BIRN Jeta në Kosovë [Life in Kosovo] program aired the investigation “Unclean energy: The Kosovar who would own the sun” on the public broadcaster, Radio Television of Kosovo, RTK, for which Blerim Devolli, the oligarch framed in the investigation complained and two public institutions at the time came to his aid, both the Independent Media Commission, IMC, and the public broadcaster, RTK.

The investigation carried out by Visar Prebreza and Jeta Xharra revealed the scheme on which shell companies owned by Blerim Devolli registered in Malta would have benefited from incentive tariffs for the production of energy from the sun breaking the monopoly rules by hiding the real owner of the companies.

Devolli complained that the investigative reporting used denigrating language and reported false information that tended to denigrate the figure of Blerim Devolli.  

The corporation complained that phrases like “father Devolli”, “mother Devolli” “when removing the layers of the onion, one finds out that [these companies]’mother is Blerim Devolli” used in the program was derogatory although BIRN explained that “mother companies” was the phrase used internationally, [in Albanian father suited better], to explain that Devolli was “the mother/father” of the companies registered as shell companies in Malta.

Devolli’s other complaint was that BIRN’s investigation said that Devolli had applied to benefit from Kosovo solar feed-in-tariff, subsidies from Kosovo budget, on his Montenegrin citizenship, which was a fact.

However,  despite BIRN’s appeal, IMC decided to uphold Devolli’s complaint and issued a warning to BIRN for its programs with “derogatory content”.

BIRN’s legal team decided to challenge the 2020 IMC decision in court.

Three years later, only on 7th of July this year, did the Administrative Court in Prishtina manage to organize a hearing on this case, in a session that lasted over 3 hours. Eventually, on 27 of July, Anita Nikçi-Morina, the Kosovo Albanian judge   issued an unprecedented decision in favor of BIRN’s Jeta në Kosovë programme, stating that the reporting was factual and professional, therefore rejecting all the findings made by the members of the IMC, as well as from the IMC Complaints Board. 

How did the history unfold

Three years ago, IMC, consisting of Xhevat Latifi – chairman, Granit Musliu – vice-chairman and members Azra Desic, Vlorë Berisha, Maja Slavic and Xhemajl Krasniqi, approved Blerim Devolli’s complaint that the show  Jeta në Kosovë had spread hate speech and spreaded unfair criticism, therefore violating the Code of Ethics.

The member of the commission at that time, Violeta Hyseni, stated that she was against the decision of the majority of the members of the IMC regarding this case.

BIRN, considering Devolli’s complaint and the IMC decision as a SLAPP process, filed a lawsuit 3 years ago in the Court of Prishtina arguing why the IMC decision needs to be annulled and no journalism code of ethics had been breached in this investigation..

The investigation and its aftermath highlighted the big influence that Blerim Devolli, one of the wealthiest businessmen in Kosovo, had in public institutions and regulatory bodies such as the Energy Regulatory Office, ERO. 

The day after the BIRN investigation broadcasted, the public broadcaster, RTK, informed BIRN that the program would stop airing on Facebook. 

Three weeks later BIRN’s program was ousted completely from RTK  and never allowed to return despite the fact that the investigation’s findings prompted State Aid Commission of the Kosovo Parliament to immediately respond by ordering ERO to stop the abusive scheme and save the 17 million euros in subsidies that were meant to go to Devolli. 

Even though IMC in 2020 deemed BIRN’s investigation to have had derogatory content, the decision of the judge, Anita Nikçi-Morina found that the epithets used during the program: “Poor Devolli”, “Father Blerim Devolli”, “Mother Blerim Devolli”, do not constitute offensive language because they were used sarcastically to explain what was factually going on. 

BIRN had referred to these companies as shell companies whose “father” and “mother” were Blerim Devolli.

Likewise, BIRN had emphasized in the show that Blerim Devolli from Peja wanted to benefit from Kosovo subsidies with the citizenship of Montenegro, because Devolli had registered the companies in Malta with his Montenegrin citizenship. But nevertheless, Devolli from Peja, was applying for Kosovo public funds [feed-in-tariffs] with Montenegrin citizenship.

Devolli claimed in IMC that this sentence sows hatred against him, while BIRN argued that the truth should not cause offense.

The key argument that pushed the court’s decision in favor of BIRN the cross examination of  Labinot Leposhtica, BIRN’s legal representative, to Herolindë Zagregja-Gjoci, the IMC legal representative, on the hearing of July 7. 

Leposhtica asked Gjoci if she was familiar with the fact that IMC had issued 2 different decisions over the same matter, one on the 3rd and one on the 9th of June 2020. 

The initial 3rd of  June decision from an officer of the IMC Monitoring of Media Department found that BIRN had not breached of the Journalists’ Ethical Code and thus, this report was protocoled, archived but hidden away only to have a second 9th of June “Monitoring decision” to be issued by the head of the IMC monitoring department that found “ethical code breaches”. 

BIRN presented both these contradictory documents in court and asked for IMC’s response. The IMC representatives had “no comment”, when the judge asked her to respond to this new evidence.

Jeta Xharra, the co-author of the investigation and BIRN’s Kosovo Director  told the court about the influence that Blerim Devolli had not only on ERO, on the IMC, but also on RTK.

“One day after the broadcast of our research in 2020, RTK informed us that they will no longer allow our show to be broadcast on RTK online. Three weeks  after that, both BIRN’s programs, Jeta në Kosovë [Life in Kosovo] and Drejtësia në Kosovë [Justice in Kosovo], flagship programs that were broadcast in RTK for 15 years since 2005, were completely taken off air! This shows that Devolli has found his way to influence not not only the members of ERO [which we showed in the investigation] , not only in IMC [which we showed in this court session], but also in the RTK  the public TV”, said Xharra on 7th of July court session.

But, Xharra also explained that despite the fact that BIRN’s show was ousted from RTK, the investigation has influenced the saving of 17 million euros in subsidies that would have been spent through feed-in-tariff subsidies that Devolli would have benefited from and that the courts started investigating Devolli after BIRN’s findings became public.

“However, it is not a great sign for Kosovo that despite the fact that RTK has changed its board and management since then, the same fearful and censuring spirit remains today in public TV, prohibiting independent informative programing and investigations to air despite the fact that the public TV is legally obliged to allow space for civil society,  specifically is it obliged to commission 20 per cent of its programing to be produced by independent producers outside of RTK” said Xharra on 2nd of August, after receiving the court decision. The new board of directors of RTK was appointed in December, 2021. 

Since 2020, although ousted from RTK, BIRN was given broadcasting space in a local television, RTV Dukagjini. BIRN now airs its other award winning investigations, 4 times a week on prime time in RTV Dukagjini.

“For every bad person there is another good one in this world.  In our case, the people who decided to take a risk and air BIRN programs, despite its consequences, happen to also be from Peja, the same place Blerim Devolli comes from. Karma!” said Xharra referring to Ermal Panduri, Director of the national RTV Dukagjini and Ekrem Lluka, its owner.

The show “Unclean energy: The Kosovar who would own the sun” was awarded the first prize from the EU for the best investigative story in 2020.

It has also been awarded with the “Ibrahim Rexhepi” prize for the best  2020 economy investigation by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Kosovo, OSCE, and the Association of Journalists of Kosovo, AJK.

In addition to the prizes won, this program had a direct impact, launching investigations from various institutions such as: the Assembly of Kosovo with its State Aid Commission, the Court of Appeal, the Special Prosecutor’s Office of Kosovo, the Competition Authority of Kosovo, Anti-Corruption Agency In Kosovo, Energy Community Secretariat based in Vienna,the Office of the Energy Regulator.

and 04/08/2023 - 13:02

04 August 2023 - 13:02

Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.