Two BIRN journalists were among several journalists from both Albanian and Serbian-language media stuck for hours in a café in the Serb-majority municipality of Zvecan on May 30, after the protests became violent.
While NATO peacekeepers from KFOR and ethnic Serbs clashed in protests against the town’s newly elected ethnic Albanian mayor, the journalists remained for three hours inside the café.
“The situation inside the café was quite alarming; even when we were inside it, we were attacked,” said Shkodrane Dakaj, who together with cameraman Naser Fejza was among the journalists stuck in the café.
She recalled that every time they tried to take photos or videos, “even when we approached the windows of the café, we were attacked by protesters”.
“The windows of the café broke; they [protesters] threw rocks at it when we approached the windows to film. The situation was very difficult,” she explained.
The journalists managed to leave safely only after three hours, with the help of the owner.
“It was impossible to go inside the municipality building or another place secured by the Kosovo Police, because there was a KFOR cordon in front of the municipality building that we had to pass,” Dakaj said, explaining that KFOR “did not accept the request of the journalists to open the cordon and let them pass through.”
The Association of Journalists of Kosovo, AJK, told BIRN that it had registered 20 separate attacks against media crews since Friday. Protesters threw rocks and eggs at journalists, pushed them, forced them to delete footage, took away their cameras and verbally assaulted them. Vehicles of media crews were vandalized.
KFOR and Kosovo police rarely interfered, even when they were present during the attacks on journalists.
Adelina Ahmeti, a BIRN journalist who has been on the ground in Leposavic, said that “the main problems are safe spaces for journalists; there is no specific area for journalists to stay and report from”.
“We are exposed from all fronts and the attacks can be very frequent,” said Ahmeti, who together with cameraman Jetmir Hoxha was pushed by masked protesters in Leposavic on May 30.
No strategy to protect journalists
BIRN’s journalist, Shkodrane Dakaj, while reporting live from Zvecan. Photo: BIRN/Afrim Ejupi
Kosovo journalists say reporting on the ground in the recent protests in Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo has been difficult because of the lack of a strategy by the authorities.
Albioneta Ademi, from the AJK, told BIRN that “the authorities responsible for security in the north do not have a plan or strategy for the security of journalists reporting in tense situations, such as these”.
She said: “It is not the first time that similar situations are being repeated in the north”, adding that, nonetheless, “a record number of cases has been recorded in a few days”.
Kosovo Serbs gathered to protest for the fifth day on Thursday in front of municipality buildings in Zubin Potok, Leposavic, and Zvecan, calling on the mayors elected on April 23 in extraordinary elections boycotted by ethnic Serbs not to use the buildings and for the Kosovo Police to leave the area.
The first attack on media crews was registered on the first day of work of the mayors of the three municipalities, on May 26, which also was the first day of the protests.
Ahmeti said KFOR soldiers were very close when journalists were pushed by mainly masked protesters, who also verbally assaulted the journalists, but did not attempt to interfere.
This attack started five meters from the cordon of the KFOR soldiers and none of them came closer to the journalists, for safety; there was no reaction from them,” she said.
BIRN’s journalist, Adelina Ahmeti, while reporting from Leposavic. Photo: BIRN/Jetmir Hoxha
Ahmeti said the police “offered a space at the police station in Leposavic in case something happens, but the station is 300 meters from where the media are positioned.” Meanwhile, “KFOR has not offered any strategy for journalists, at least that’s what we gathered during short communications with them”.
Meanwhile in Zvecan, journalists do not have any direct communication with the police. Dakar said: “Police officials are in the municipal building in Zvecan but we do not have an official contact with them. Very rarely a police official can be seen outside the municipal building, behind the KFOR soldiers’ cordon”.
According to Dakaj, the attacks on journalists in Zvecan have taken place outside the KFOR cordon, and “there has been no reaction from the NATO mission or from the Kosovo Police.”
BIRN asked KFOR whether it has a strategy to protect journalists on the ground and the reasoning behind soldiers not interfering in attacks but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Ademi told BIRN that the police shared the same concerns as the AJK on the threats journalists face on the ground, “but have not had any strategy”. KFOR has not made any response to the AJK’s concerns.
Local Serb Called ‘Traitor’ for Sheltering Journalists
Mladen Perovic from Zvecan owns the café where journalists found shelter during the violent clashes between protesters and KFOR soldiers on May 29.
Perovic told the media on May 31, that “when I arrived at around 10 am journalists were already there, it was a good place to report and naturally when I opened, they all went in the café”. He opened the cafe at around 10 am, “when it was obvious the protest would last”, so people could refreshen themselves and use the bathroom.
After the protest escalated, he said he “ran away from the café” to be safe “but after some time, when the situation stabilised, concerned about my private property, I went back to my bar where the journalists were”.
They had been trapped there for around three hours, from around 2 pm to 5 pm, as it had been the only safe place for them to be.
Perovic helped the journalists leave the café safely. He told the media on Wednesday that he wanted to close his café and had asked the protesters if they would allow them safe passage; they had responded that “nobody will touch them”, meaning the Albanian-language journalists.
Nonetheless, Perovic said he was later pointed out as a “traitor” for having assisted the journalists. “I do not know what I have done to be called a traitor and be targeted,” he said.
Assaults, broken windows and nationalist symbols
BIRN’s car was damaged on May 31, in Zvecan, by unknown protesters: Photo/BIRN
Media crews have been both physically and verbally assaulted by protesters.
Jul Kasapi, from A2, the CNN branch in Albania, told BIRN that on May 29 around a dozen protesters gathered around him and his team and forced them “to delete footage”.
“Alongside the tense situations between the protesters and KFOR created in Zvecan (particularly on Monday when 30 KFOR soldiers and around 50 protesters were injured) and when our (journalists) lives were endangered, another problem … has been Serbian citizens interfering with our live broadcasts,” Dakaj explained, referring to protesters getting in front of cameras and showing nationalist symbols.
In Leposavic, when BIRN journalist Ahmeti asked about the attacks against journalists, Zoran Todic, former Leposavic mayor who has been negotiating with KFOR on behalf of the protesters, answered: “I am sorry, people here are protesting peacefully. Yesterday [on Wednesday] you came to me to express the issue and we have talked. People here are concerned, as I see the problem, about being filmed via phones and not camera. There isn’t any problem at all.”
Protesters have moved in front of cameras holding the letter “Z”, a symbol of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and tried to prevent journalists from filming either by moving fully in front of the cameras, or, in the worst situations, by pushing the journalists and trying to get their cameras, or throw them on the ground.
Most of the Albanian-language media that have reported on the ground have had their vehicles damaged with broken windows and blown tires, but also vandalized with nationalist symbols.
Some of the media houses with vandalised vehicles include Albania’s Top Channel, Euronews, A2 CNN, Panorama and Kosovo Albanian-language media RTV Dukagjini, Teve1, Koha, Syri, Periskopi, ATV, Kanal10.
On May 30, protesters threw an explosive device at the taxi the Radio Free Europe crew were traveling with in Zubin Potok. There were no injuries. One day earlier, the car of the media crew of Albanian-language Kosovo broadcaster TeVe1 was set on fire. Two BIRN vehicles were also damaged and vandalized.
The tires of the car in which Ahmeti traveled to Leposavic on May 29 were blown and vandalized with the “4S” symbol, which stands for the moto “Samo sloga Srbina spasava” (Only unity saves the Serbs). The RKS symbol, which stands for the Republic of Kosovo, was covered in the license plates.
Meanwhile, the windows of the car in which Dakaj and the crew had traveled to Zvecan on May 31 were broken.
BIRN has reported the cases to the Kosovo Police. It remains to be seen whether justice will be done.
In May, a BIRN analysis of 62 incidents involving firearms, knives, stones and physical assault since 2017 concluded that police and prosecutors in Kosovo are struggling to solve violent crimes, particularly when they occur in the mainly Serb north, where half of the cases, 31, occurred in the four northern Serb-majority municipalities.
Of these 31 cases, 13 were attacks against journalists which occurred between 2018 and 2022. The court ordered one month’s detention in one case and the police filed a complaint in another.
BIRN was not able to confirm if any other suspects have been identified or arrested in the other cases.