In Kosovo, journalists and civil society beat organised crime by getting more organised

Recent elections in Kosovo saw the opposition defeat long-standing incumbents, electing a new generation with fresh talent and integrity. Jeta Xharra (Balkan Investigative Reporting Network) explains the role that civil society played in making it happen.

Vetëvendosje (LV), winners of the biggest share of votes at Kosovo’s October 2019 election (balkaneu.com).

It is a rare moment in the recent history of Kosovo that I can report that the narrative of civil society, investigative journalists and anti-corruption activists has won, against the narrative of those who we exposed.

Usually we tell our story, we probe, reveal, prove, document, publish, broadcast, file complaints, and we get read, seen, talked about, commented on. But there it ends. It is rare that our anti-corruption narrative becomes mainstream and brings about change.

This is because the opposing narrative, that of the state, has a bigger budget, more power, more police, more prosecutors, more judges, more spin-doctors on their side and more paid ‘journalists’ who toe their line. And the state usually plays the nationalist card to further capture the public imagination.

Ramush Haradinaj, the outgoing Kosovo prime minister, was precisely counting on that recipe in the Balkans. No matter how corrupt his government may have been, he expected to reap voters’ praise because he dared to put a 100% tax on Serbian products, built an army for Kosovo and resisted attempts by the President to change Kosovo’s borders.

All of this, he imagined, had collected him enough patriotic street cred to win him, as any other Balkan patriarch, an election.

The out of the ordinary happened. Haradinaj’s party, though largely supported for all of these things, did not come first in the 6th October general election held this year. It did not come second either. Nor third. It now ranks as the fourth largest party.

The people, referred to often as the bumpkins, sheep, ignorant masses, actually chose not to reward Mr. Haradinaj for his patriotism, instead remembering the other narrative (that we occasionally reminded them of). This one tells how, when Haradinaj came to power, he doubled his own salary making him the best paid PM in the region and tripled the size of the government – awarding posts to about 80 deputy ministers whose names he could not remember when I interviewed him. He paid a suspicious 53 million euro fine to Behtel-Enka, a road construction company. His government signed a damaging contract to build the third coal power plant under a deal which will impoverish Kosovo citizens. And he failed to keep his promise to make transparent his representation costs and bills paid on foreign travel. (BIRN won a strategic litigation case in 2015, after a three-year court battle, for the PM to reveal public speanding on foreign travels. Haradinaj chose to make the bills of his predecesor, Hashim Thaci, public but not his own).

After two years of such abuse of public funds by his government, and another 10 years prior to that by governments with a similar mentality, the 2019 election was about choosing politicians who are the least corrupt, with the hope that they won’t be tempted once in power.

Every single party in Kosovo had caught wind of this. Their political instincts told them that the anti-corruption narrative was the only thing people cared about.

Besides, 200,000 people have left Kosovo largely due to this, equivalent to an entire town the size of Prizren, the second biggest city in Kosovo. I have said it before and will repeat it, that what Milosevic didn’t manage to do with (violent) ethnic cleansing, this inept and corrupt governance has managed to do in the last 5 years.

Some voted with their feet but those who stayed were fed up.

The public pressure was so heavy on the coalition members in government that, this summer, two ministers (from PDK) were dismissed due to corruption charges. When summer ended, autumn brought in something even more unusual with the leaves: the PDK, the party which had the most ministers and mayors accused of corruption in the last decade, decided to launch the election campaign in September with an invitation for everyone to sign their “Anti-Corruption Pact”.

Those fed-up people who stayed largely agreed with the PDK. “Finally” they exclaimed ironically, “this is the party who we trust most to fight corruption, because they know best how to fix something they are so good at doing!”

Satire and comedy in social media is not uncommon in the Balkans, but was this facebook rage really going to be reflected in the voting booths?

Give rage a chance!

Reaching a tipping point, people decided to escape the epidemic of living in Blindness, like in the Jose Saramago novel.

People came out to vote. The PDK, the party that ranked first a decade ago and was in government for the last 10 years, came third. Even more remarkable, they accepted the defeat within 2-3 hours of polling stations closing.

I could not believe my ears. A patriarch, a Balkan man whose party was in power for a decade admitting defeat without huff and puff, and without making the public go through the torture of disputing the results for weeks and months to come?

Vetevendosja, the party that has been in opposition for almost for 15 years, won the most votes. They were waiting for this moment for so long, but no fireworks were thrown and no heads were chopped. Modesty prevailed!

So what did it take for a majority of voters to bet their vote on a party that influential internationals largely criticized? And are there any lessons for our neighbors?

Lessons learned

The party with the least corruption scandals to date can win. The catch is, this sort of scenario is possible only because society, and by this I mean largely an organized civil society and media made major efforts to ensure that the elections were free of fraud after fighting a fierce battle for a decade.

So lesson one, it pays to be an uncorrupt politician in the Balkans, as long as you are ready to fight uncompromisingly and consistently for at least a decade in opposition without losing the will to live.

I am proud to say that our organization, in collaboration with other community NGOs and think tanks, can take some of the credit. We have strategically and consistently engaged our audiences and readers to raise public demand for an uncorrupt leadership. Every year, the price for those who want to pursue corruption has risen.

We call this form of journalism, that is rooted in civil society and in helping communities to mobilise, and which offers them support through our legal office, engaged journalism. We believe that a good journalist does not simply report what happens; a good journalist fights for a better tomorrow. It is not enough to report on corruption or vote rigging if other institutions do not take action after our reporting.

Frustrated by the indifference and impotence of local institutions to do something about the matters we report, we formed a team of legal professionals who file cases to the prosecution, cases armed with evidence that our investigative reporters have collected, through working with communities and whistleblowers and court monitors in the field.

BIRN Kosovo started off as a team of three people in 2005. Today we are 70: journalists, law professionals, and producers, who produce two weekly current affairs programs on public TV, the award-winning anti-corruption platform Kallxo.com, (Speakup.com) and Prishtina Insight, the English online publication, sister of the regional Balkan Insight.

Off the beaten journalistic track

One of the methods that has been the most rewarding is systematic election monitoring, on a voluntary basis. Expecting a fraudulent election in Kosovo, in 2010 we decided to mobilize and train all our staff, including camera operators, stage managers, office assistants and interns, training them in how to monitor elections and catch election fraud.

This idea was born of frustration, of seeing our other work and reporting go to waste. What is the point of professional reporting and cultivating an informed society, if in the end, the vote of that informed citizen is twisted and defrauded on Election Day?

That first year, we filed 22 complaints for fraud that we either caught on camera or could evidence in other ways. Experimenting, we wondered what would happen if we, as an NGO, filed a complaint to the Election Complaint Commission? Would they care? (Until then, to our knowledge, only political parties had filed complaints).

Other CSO election monitors criticised us. “Our role as civil society and media is to monitor, not to file complains to commissions and courts”. Maybe, in an ideal world! But this was not an ideal world. We had a public fight with these other monitors about our methodology: they called us gung-ho, we called them cowards and pressed on. (Today they also file complaints).

Out of 22 complaints filed, half were accepted as valid by the Election Complains Commission because of the quality of proof we provided accompanied by lawyerly language from our legal office. As a result of our complaints, votes in some polling stations had to be recounted, and in others cases election results were annulled completely. The thought that an NGO can annul results in a polling station was previously unheard of, but no one had ever tested the system.

In cases where the complaints commission said there were criminal elements, it directed us to send our evidence to the courts. We did. A few months later (sometimes years later), our election monitors were invited to testify in court. They were largely motivated to do so, and to my pleasure, not scared. People we caught stealing votes actually went to jail. Some paid a fine but did not recover from the embarrassment, seen as the lowest of criminals by society as a whole.

If we had taken the classical journalism route, reporting the fraud but not filing a formal complaint through our brains in the legal office, none of the institutions would have been obliged to respond to our reporting. They told us so later.

We have repeated this 2010 experiment in every single election held in Kosovo since. In 2012 we filed 63 complaints, three times more than in the previous election because we had become more knowledgeable about how the system works.

In order to beat organized crime, we simply became more organized ourselves.

We knew we were onto something when the Minister of Education in 2014 invited us to volunteer the ‘ninja monitors who caught election fraud’ in monitoring the Matura Exam, the nationwide high school test that involved overseeing more than 10,000 students for potential fraud.

In 2017 BIRN Kosovo monitored the elections again, causing political parties in Kosovo to pay 98,950 euros in fines for various election violations. In October 2019, we filed over 100 complaints relating to every single party in Kosovo (including Srpska Lista), leading to fines of the total of 155,800 euros (to the public budget). To what end?

We have contributed to making the organized crime of election fraud a very expensive endeavor, in monetary or jail terms. This has deterred many from trying it again.

And now we see the longer-term fruits of our efforts. We have helped to create an atmosphere and space in which an opposition party is able to win in a young country with not so long of a democratic history.

Our main job now is to keep the bar high and hold the next government just as accountable as its predecessors. This job is often a ruthless cat-and-mouse game, and most of the time, we are the mouse. When we occasionally win, it is cathartic to share.

This is the eighth blog in a series hosted in the run-up to the event New Actors and Strategies for Fighting and Investigating Corruption in the Western Balkans at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University (7-8 November 2019).

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