Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press. While the government generally respected this right, credible reports persisted that some public officials, politicians, businesses, and religious groups sought to intimidate media representatives. Funding problems also threatened media independence. Journalists encountered difficulties in obtaining information from the government and public institutions, notwithstanding laws providing access to public documents, due to delays in adopting implementing regulations. The Independent Media Commission regulates broadcast frequencies, issues licenses to public and private broadcasters, and establishes broadcasting policies.
Freedom of Speech: In December 2019 former minister of local government administration Ivan Teodosijevic was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for denying a wartime massacre of ethnic Albanians in 1999. The court ruled Todosijevic’s remarks incited hatred and intolerance, while his defense argued there was no legal basis for such decision. As of October his appeal was pending.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, generally without restriction. Nevertheless, reports persisted that government officials, some political parties, businesses connected to the government, religious groups, and disgruntled individuals pressured media owners, individual editors, and reporters not to publish certain stories or materials. Some journalists refrained from critical investigative reporting due to fear for their physical safety or job security.
While some self-sufficient media outlets adopted editorial and broadcast policies independent of political and business interests, those with fewer resources sometimes accepted financial support in exchange for positive coverage or for refraining from publishing negative stories harmful to funders’ interests. According to some editors, funding was limited in part because the government was reluctant to purchase advertising in media outlets that published material critical of government policies.
Violence and Harassment: As of September the Association of Journalists of Kosovo and media outlets reported 18 instances of government officials, business interests, community groups, or religious groups violating press freedom by physically assaulting or verbally threatening journalists.
In March a Kosovo-Albanian journalist was injured after unknown perpetrators attacked him and his crew while they were reporting on the COVID-19 situation in northern Kosovo. Media outlets reported police arrested one person in connection with the incident.
On April 11, Serbian-language online portal KoSSev editor in chief Tatjana Lazarevic was arrested by police while traveling to a health center to investigate complaints she received about its readiness for COVID-19. Despite presenting her press credentials, Lazarevic was detained for at least an hour and a half and held without charge. Law enforcement authorities maintained she was picked up for breaking curfew, although the government had exempted journalists from movement restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. Lazarevic said the true reason for her arrest was to intimidate her from continuing her reporting.
On October 18, the car of investigative journalist Shkumbin Kajtazi was hit with bullets shortly after he parked and left the car. This was the second attack on Kajtazi, whose car was the target of an apparent arson attack in June that was prevented when the journalist’s neighbors notified police. Police have not publicly identified suspects or filed charges in either case.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were no reports of direct censorship of print or broadcast media, although journalists claimed pressure from politicians and organized criminal groups frequently resulted in self-censorship. Some journalists refrained from critical investigative reporting due to fear for their physical safety or job security. Journalists occasionally received offers of financial benefits in exchange for positive reporting or for abandoning an investigation.
According to the Association of Journalists, government officials as well as suspected criminals verbally threatened journalists for perceived negative reporting. According to some editors, government agencies and corporations withdrew advertising from newspapers that published material critical of them.
Journalists complained that media owners and managers prevented them from publishing or broadcasting stories critical of the government, political parties, or particular officials. In some cases, media owners reportedly threatened to dismiss journalists if they produced critical reports. Journalists also complained that media owners prevented them from reporting on high-level government corruption.
As of September the Ombudsperson Institution investigated 20 complaints of violations of the right of access to public documents, seven of which were filed by civil society organizations and 13 by individual citizens. The Ombudsperson Institution concluded that public institutions lacked capacity to answer requests for access to public documents and often failed to provide legal justification for denying or restricting access.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
The government did not consider Serbia-issued personal documents bearing Kosovo town names to be valid travel documents, making it difficult for many members of the Kosovo-Serb community to travel freely to and from the country, unless using the two border crossings with Serbia located in Kosovo-Serb majority municipalities in the north. Improvements at the civil registry in 2018 and 2019 greatly expanded Kosovo Serb access to identity documents, and the number of Kosovo Serbs with these documents increased significantly during the year. Kosovo-Serb representatives claimed some challenges remained, such as access to civil documents for Serbian nationals married to Kosovo-Serb citizens.
In-country Movement: The primary bridge connecting Mitrovica/e North and South remained closed for vehicular traffic, allegedly to prevent civil disturbances, but was fully open to pedestrians. KFOR and police maintained permanent security at the location. Other bridges connecting the two cities were fully open.
Exile: The return to the country by ethnic-minority refugees from the war remained a challenge. Parliamentary representatives of the Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptian, and Romani communities reported social prejudice prevented the return of nearly 400 Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptians, and Roma. These persons were formerly resident in the country and informed the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that they were ready to return from Serbia, North Macedonia, and Montenegro.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
UNHCR estimated more than 90,000 individuals had displacement-related needs due to the 1999 Kosovo conflict, including 65,000 in Serbia, 16,406 in Kosovo, 7,500 in “third countries,” 729 in Montenegro, and 394 in North Macedonia. The Ministry for Communities and Return does not collect, process, or manage data on the displaced population and voluntary returnees. UNHCR continued to maintain its internal database of returnees and assistance applications. According to the Communities and Return Ministry, obstacles to return included security incidents, insufficient protection of property rights, failure of courts to resolve property disputes, disobedience to court decisions, lack of access to public services, issues with language rights implementation, limited economic prospects, and societal discrimination. According to UNHCR the lack of a detailed census and adequate profiling data left displaced persons excluded from human rights protections and development plans.
The government promoted the safe and voluntary return of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Through the Communities and Returns Ministry, it promoted policies and protections for IDPs in line with EU policies and cooperated with domestic and international organizations to ensure IDPs had access to their property and tools for their sustainable return. These include assistance repossessing property, land allocations for housing, and improved socioeconomic prospects.
As of December the Ministry of Communities and Return reported that 273 individuals–including 133 Serbs, 42 Gorani, 36 Roma, 33 Balkan Egyptians, 23 Ashkali, and five Albanians–had returned to their place of origin in the country. As of June, 408 IDPs, mostly Kosovo Serbs, were living in collective shelters across the country. The construction of social housing apartments for 255 IDPs and refugees residing in five collective shelters was ongoing, and the project was expected to finish by the end of the year. The municipalities of Leposavic and Zvecan allocated land for construction of social housing for the remaining residents of 10 collective shelters, with funding expected from the EU and the Ministry for Communities and Return.
By September, under an EU-funded return and reintegration program and in partnership with the International Organization for Migration, the Communities and Return Ministry successfully constructed and conducted technical acceptance of 53 houses for displaced persons and returnees, with 38 additional houses under construction. In addition, 65 selected beneficiaries of newly constructed houses received furniture and household appliances. The Communities and Return Ministry expected to finalize construction of 101 houses for displaced and returnees by the end of the year. As part of the same EU program, 100 beneficiaries received financial assistance to start their own businesses to generate income. The ministry also provided care packages to 872 vulnerable families.
The return process in some areas of the country continued to be marked by security incidents and local communities’ reluctance to accept the return of, or visits by, Kosovo Serbs. In January Kosovo Albanians in Gjakove/Djakovica, including persons whose family members remain missing, protested the planned pilgrimage of displaced Serbs to the town’s Serbian Orthodox church. The pilgrims’ association said it cancelled the visit due to security reasons. As of July UNHCR noted 45 incidents primarily affecting returnees and their property, mainly in the Peje/Pec region. For example, in April a vehicle and livestock were stolen from a returnee in the Istog/Istok area. UNHCR said the targets of the incidents were believed to be Kosovo Serbs, except for one case involving a Kosovo-Ashkali returnee.
Police maintained a presence in areas with ethnic minorities and returnees to prevent crime, build the confidence of returnees, and to protect returnees’ property.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status with subsidiary protection, a system for providing protection to refugees, and temporary admission of asylum seekers while their cases are adjudicated. The country has no central-level migration management system.
Reception facilities at the asylum center could host children but the facility lacked standard operating procedures for unaccompanied children seeking asylum or for determining their eligibility for asylum. Although asylum cases continued to increase, the country was largely a point of transit. Those seeking asylum typically left the country and did not attend their hearings. The increased number of asylum seekers did not challenge the country’s capacity. Those seeking asylum were housed at the asylum center.
Despite a straightforward registration process, new arrivals were not granted immediate access to services and asylum procedures, which resulted in a considerable applications backlog. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, from March to June UNHCR advocated for reasonable access for asylum seekers and IDPs during temporary entry bans or border closures applied by the government. UNHCR suspended the refugee status determination process from March until June due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Refoulement: In August 2019 the police inspectorate filed a criminal report including criminal violations against 22 police officers who participated in an operation involving the rescission of residence permits and subsequent refoulement to Turkey of six Turkish citizens in March 2018. The Turkish government had accused the Turkish citizens of ties to the Gulen network. In September 2019 the appellate court affirmed a prior ruling that the rationale for rescinding the residence permits was baseless. As of year’s end, the Ministry of Internal Affairs had not received a final judgment from the court.
Access to Basic Services: UNHCR reported asylum seekers received accommodations, regular meals, and clothing, while UNHCR partner organizations provided psychological assessments, counseling services, and legal aid. The lack of interpretation services for several official languages at both the central and local levels remained a problem. UNHCR stated health care and psychological treatment were still inadequate.
The government partnered with UNHCR to designate a detention center for foreigners as a quarantine site for new arrivals and to secure personal protective equipment and hygienic items for asylum seekers. UNHCR provided access to internet services at asylum centers to provide asylum seekers with online legal and psychosocial assistance as well as education for children.
The government introduced regulations mandating support and integration for asylum seekers, refugees, persons granted temporary protection or subsidiary protection, and stateless persons, but is still finalizing its standard operating procedures.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection, called subsidiary protection, to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. Through June the government provided subsidiary protection to one person.
g. Stateless Persons
Official figures on stateless persons were not available. The law contains no discriminatory provisions that might cause groups or individuals to be deprived of or denied citizenship. Citizens convey citizenship to their children. Children born to noncitizen parents acquire citizenship by virtue of birth within the country; this situation most often occurs within minority communities with large numbers of undocumented residents. Government procedures provide for access to naturalization for those granted stateless or refugee status five years after the determination.
Laws relating to civil status permit stateless persons to register life events such as birth, marriage, and death; however, implementation varied among municipalities. The government’s capacity to identify stateless persons and those with undetermined nationality remained inadequate.
In August the Ombudsperson Institution published an ex officio legal opinion for the court of appeals, the basic court in Pristina, the basic court in Peje/Pec, and the basic court in Mitrovica, encouraging them to promptly process lawsuits on the legal identity of unregistered persons, particularly children.
During the year UNHCR provided assistance, including medical and educational aid, to 900 “legally invisible” persons (due to their inability to prove their birth location) from different ethnic groups, most of whom belonged to the Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian communities.
Unregistered residents did not receive social assistance benefits and pension rights and could not register property titles or retain rights to inherited or transferred property. Children born of parents displaced outside the country and who entered with their readmitted parents often lacked documentation, including birth certificates, from their place of birth. Authorities had not developed a systematic solution to this problem. UNHCR provided legal aid for civil registration of 133 unregistered Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptians.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials but the government did not implement the law effectively. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. A lack of effective judicial oversight and general weakness in the rule of law contributed to the problem. Corruption cases were routinely subject to repeated appeal, and the judicial system often allowed statutes of limitation to expire without trying cases.
Corruption: The Anticorruption Agency and the National Audits Office shared responsibility for combating government corruption. The SPRK filed five corruption related indictments. A small proportion of corruption cases that were investigated and charged led to convictions.
NGOs and international organizations alleged numerous failures by the judicial system to prosecute corruption, noting that very few cases brought against senior officials resulted in indictments. Sentencing of high-level officials convicted of corruption was often lenient. The Kosovo Law Institute reported that two high-profile officials were convicted of corruption during the year by the basic courts but then acquitted by the appeals court. In four other cases, the appeals court overturned the conviction verdicts of lower courts against senior public officials accused of corruption and remitted the cases for retrial. NGOs reported indictments often failed because prosecutors filed incorrect charges or made procedural errors.
In at least four high-profile corruption cases, the Supreme Court found lower courts had violated the criminal code to the benefit of defendants. The Prosecution Office used extraordinary legal remedies to request the Supreme Court evaluate decisions rendered by lower courts in these cases. Under the law, the Supreme Court is able only to confirm the violations; it can take no punitive actions against the defendants.
On October 9, police arrested Haki Rugova, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) mayor of Istog/k and one of the party’s deputy leaders, along with his deputy and a municipal civil servant as part of an ongoing corruption investigation. After Rugova was initially placed in detention, the court eventually ordered Rugova’s house arrest for 30 days. The three persons were accused of abuse of office, conflict of interest, and falsifying documents related to a contract the municipality awarded to the mayor’s brother. Rugova was already undergoing a trial in a separate case on charges of conflict of interest. In public comments, LDK leader Isa Mustafa alleged political motivations behind the arrest, stating it was intended to discredit Rugova and the party and tarnish the anticorruption record of Prime Minister Hoti’s LDK-led government. Several legal commentators considered Mustafa’s comments as interference in the judicial process.
On October 19, the government abruptly invalidated the 2010 decision creating an anticorruption task force within the police that supported the work of the SPRK. According to the Prime Minister, the original decision was unconstitutional, but neither the SPRK nor the Constitutional Court was apparently consulted on the issue. The decision was not coordinated within the governing coalition nor with the international community. The Minister of Justice and various international missions publicly criticized the decision. Media outlets commented that the decision came on the heels of the arrest of a prominent LDK mayor (Rugova). Media also noted that several of the task force’s ongoing high-profile investigations involved prominent and politically exposed persons, including former governing coalition officials. The Kosovo Law Institute characterized the decision as political retaliation, given the task force’s investigation of LDK officials. The institute further criticized Prime Minister Hoti’s dismissal of the police general director, the tax administration director, and the customs director, claiming these dismissals were done without sufficient analysis or transparency, and created the perception they were done to undermine law enforcement institutions.
In September a trial continued of former minister of agriculture Nenad Rikalo and seven other officials from the Ministry of Agriculture charged in December 2019 with abuse of power. The group allegedly sidestepped legal safeguards and manipulated the ministry’s grant process to award millions of dollars to companies owned by political associates. The court’s decision was pending as of November.
Financial Disclosure: The law obliges all senior public officials and their family members to declare their property and the origins of their property annually. Senior officials must also report changes in their property holdings when assuming office or leaving public service. The Anticorruption Agency administers the data, verifies disclosures, and publishes them on its website. Authorities may fine officials charged with minor breaches of the requirement or prohibit them from exercising public functions for up to one year. The Anticorruption Agency sends complaints about noncompliant officials to prosecutors, who in turn consider criminal charges.