Pristina's reporters in a no-chance saloon

Robert Fisk, who last night won top prize at the Amnesty International press awards, concludes his series on Kosovo at the offices of the 'Koha Ditore' newspaper
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The Independent Online
SERBIAN TELEVISION calls it "the terrorist newspaper" - which is rather odd, because Koha Ditore carries no editorials and no reports with even a hint of opinion in their paragraphs.

When the Kosovo Liberation Army took over a third of the Serbian province, the ethnic Albanian newspaper did not even carry a map to show the KLA's area of control. In the words of one of its brightest young reporters, the 19-year-old Garentina Kraja, "we don't want to be pushy".

Which is another odd thing about Koha Ditore - it means "Daily Time" - which sells 30,000 copies on good days after only four years of publication in a province where the Serb authorities have every reason to wish to destroy it.

"People turn to us for news and facts because they have nowhere else to look," Ms Kraja says. "People watch Albanian television on satellite and see Euronews on TV, which is pretty dreadful - so we want to give them information. So we have to suppress our feelings when we write. Personally we would prefer independence for Kosovo - but we have to separate news from opinion."

In the Koha office canteen, cigarette smoke swirls so thickly that strangers entering the room are overcome with fits of coughing. These are difficult days for Albanian journalists in Pristina as their ethnic political leadership loses power to the KLA.

Ibrahim Rugova, the philosophical - indeed the too philosophical - leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo is now calling for political control over the guerrillas who have virtually cut the city of Pec off from the provincial capital.

With all trains to Pec cancelled, Koha has temporarily lost one-third of its circulation but still sells abroad; in Germany, Switzerland, Britain, the Netherlands and, of course, Macedonia. No copies reach Albania itself.

And it takes itself seriously. On an average day, the 16-page tabloid crams seven stories and at least one photograph on to its front page but packs its inside pages with reports from its 13 young journalists (the oldest is 27) and up to 50 stringers. Thirty youngsters work on the news desks with five editors, many of them sucking news off the Internet or the local Albanian news agency.

The Serb army and police, needless to say, don't co-operate. "They always say that only the commander can speak to us - and he's never available," Nebi Qena says. Clearly, he hasn't worked on a British paper.

But there are other reasons for tension in the newsroom. It's only a few months since the police beat up Veton Surroi, Koha's editor-in-chief, in the streets, then broke into his office and attacked the paper's administrative director, Luan Dobroshi. A cameraman was chased through the building and threw himself out of a window, breaking his leg on the pavement outside. The staff suspect this was Serb revenge for the visit of a US diplomat to Koha's offices a few days earlier.

"We don't look for scoops and exclusives as such," Virtyt Gacaferri says. At 24, he is one of Koha's veteran reporters. "We can say that we gave a voice to the Albanian political opposition and we sometimes carry special features. We had an Imam who wrote a book review and we had a special issue on the death of Mother Teresa." (Who was, of course, an Albanian.)

And the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, I ask coyly? A special issue there? Not a smirk crosses the faces of the journalists. "We carried a lot of stories on her," Mr Gacaferri says. "We put them on a page headed 'English Culture'." He is still not smiling.

The Serb press, like the state television service, is derogatory about Koha. Its reporters ignore the presence of Koha's journalists at press conferences although Belgrade's opposition media - Borba and B-92 radio - report on the Albanian paper's activities.

Each morning Koha sends a reporter to the Grand Hotel, a Serb bastion of unwashed carpets and broken elevators in the heart of Pristina, for the Serb media centre's daily bulletin which includes British newspaper reports from Kosovo (which is how The Independent's dispatches sometimes turn up in Koha).

So I ask an obvious question. Are there no relations between the journalists? Are there no mixed marriages?

I have heard of an Albanian editor married to a Serb television newsreader. "Most of the mixed marriages in Kosovo have ended in disaster - divorce," Ms Kraja says with near contempt.

Mr Gacaferri is even more dismissive. "Don't look for Romeo and Juliet stories here," he says. A coldness enters our conversation.

Koha is printed in the suburbs of Pristina, registered with the local Ministry of Information and therefore legal, up to a point. "If it was closed down, there would be pressure from outside - from journalists and diplomats," Ms Kraja says, with touching faith in the West's power of persuasion in this part of the Balkans.

Another reporter ventures a more interesting reason for Koha's continued existence. "The Serbs don't want tensions here in Pristina and the police want to keep things calm. No one here is revolutionary. No one is throwing stones."

Mr Gacaferri nods.

"I have written several times that Pristina is sleeping," he says.

"Compared to the rest of Kosovo, nothing happens here. I've written headlines about Pristina being asleep. When the burnings started around Decani, I wrote that 'It's easy to protest in Pristina and then go and drink coffee'."

The reporters try, in their spare time, to keep up with the outside world. They saw Titanic but preferred Pulp Fiction. Most visited the cinema to see Michael Collins, which was popular for its theme of independence.

But few Albanians missed Braveheart. When William Wallace confronts the English occupation army and then urges his men into battle with the question "What do we have if we don't have freedom?" Albanian audiences went wild.

True to form, however, Koha carries no film reviews.

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