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Serbia: Kosovar Journalists Angered By UN Ban On Newspaper

Kosovar journalists are angry about the UN's temporary closure last weekend of an Albanian-language newspaper. The UN says the paper's reporting was irresponsible and may have contributed to the murder of a Serbian UN employee. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from Pristina that journalists are calling the UN response undemocratic.

Pristina, 8 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Shortly after the Albanian-language daily "Dita" ran a story naming several UN employees that the paper said had been Serbian paramilitaries during last year's war, one of the Serbs named was murdered.

The UN administration in Kosovo, UNMIK, says the newspaper crossed a line in reporting and indirectly encouraged vigilantism. On Saturday, the UN sent in police and peacekeepers to "Dita"'s office to close the newspaper down for eight days as punishment.

The president of the Journalists Association of Kosovo, Haqif Mulliqi, rejects the ban. He says it is a misguided move by UNMIK chief Bernard Kouchner.

"We all agree that Kouchner himself has now broken the law by very arbitrarily banning the newspaper 'Dita' without any court procedure."

The story in question, printed in late April (April 27), alleged that Kosovar Serb Petar Topoljski had been a paramilitary during the fighting last year. The story said Topoljski had returned to Kosovo from Serbia, changed the spelling of his first name -- to Peter -- to avoid detection, and secured a job as an interpreter with the UN. The article revealed details of Topoljski's family life, his address, and his daily routine. In early May, shortly after the story appeared, Topoljski was kidnapped, and his dead body found a week later.

"Dita" particularly angered UNMIK by publishing an open letter (on May 19) to UNMIK chief Bernard Kouchner pledging that it would continue to publish the names of people suspected of war crimes.

"Dita" editor Behlul Beqaj says the point of publishing the story was to end what he says is UNMIK's practice of employing former Serb paramilitaries who are alleged to have committed war crimes.

UNMIK spokeswoman Nadia Younes defends the ban on "Dita." In her words: "UNMIK believes that there is a major difference between the broad responsibility of the media to tell the news as they find it and the responsibility of any society to treat suspects and accused persons fairly and as innocent until they are proven guilty."

The order for the temporary ban accused "Dita" of violating UN Security Council resolution 1244, which enabled the UN administration and NATO-led occupation of Kosovo. Younes says UNMIK invoked resolution 1244 because there is no legislation yet to deal with this sort of case.

UNMIK is now finalizing emergency legislation that Younes says is intended "to ensure that the print media refrain from acts of endangerment, such as publishing personal details on any suspected or accused person, which could pose a serious threat to the life, safety or security of any such person through vigilante violence."

Journalists Association president Mulliqi predicts the ban will backfire. He says restrictions on press freedom will provoke some journalists to do the opposite of what the United Nations is demanding. But he says other reporters may engage in self-censorship. And Mulliqi says that would mean "the Bolshevization of Kosovo."

In Mulliqi's view, Kouchner should have let the courts resolve whether "Dita" had acted correctly, rather than taking the law into his own hands. He says UNMIK has condemned and punished journalists without due process.

Moreover, he accuses UNMIK of holding Serbs and Albanians to different standards. He says that last week the UN failed to respond forcefully when the Serb National Council, the main representative body of Kosovo Serbs, sent an open letter to Serbian President Milan Milutinovic asking Belgrade to send police and soldiers back to Kosovo. Mulliqi terms the letter a public appeal for war and terror against Kosovar Albanians as well as an expression of hatred and racism. The UN war crimes tribunal indicted Milutinovic last year for crimes against humanity, UNMIK has ignored the letter.

UNMIK spokeswoman Younes declined to comment specifically, saying: "The Serb National Council must have their own reasons for it... but there has to be a way in which some form of communication can be done with the Serbs at some level."

Meanwhile, "Dita" editor Beqaj says he intends to continue printing detailed stories about the current activities of alleged war criminals when his paper resumes publication next week.

"Dita will continue to publish the names and the stories if Mr. Kouchner fails to take any action against people suspected of having participated in war crimes -- that means investigating or expelling them."

Beqaj insists that the two authors of the story consulted all possible witnesses and sources, including UNMIK police, before writing it. And he says UNMIK has not contested the facts in the story. In Beqaj's words, "Instead of jailing a suspected war criminal who was working for UNMIK, Kouchner shut down the newspaper that published the proof."

Beqaj says Kouchner seems to be trying to foster ethnic coexistence by, in the editor's words, "rehabilitating suspected war criminals." Such a policy, he says, seriously damages the chances for peaceful coexistence.