In-depth | Media

Whistleblowing to the press

By - 03.05.2017

Exposing wrongdoing and making information public.

Arben Hajrullahu has never done things the easy way. As a professor at the Political Science Department at the University of Prishtina, he is known for his attempts to expose institutional wrongdoings and has faced various difficulties with his employers over the years as a result.

In 2014, he supported the student protest against the then-rector of the University, who was found to have published his ‘scientific’ work in supposedly academic peer reviewed journals in India, which turned out to be fake.

Recently, Hajrullahu has once again found himself at odds with his employer, and back in the public spotlight. In October 2016, he exposed actions by the Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy, along with two professors, who allegedly helped a rectorate employee to graduate illegally.

Earlier this year, when Hajrullahu applied for a promotion, he was not selected by the Human Resources department of the University of Prishtina, even though he was reported to have achieved all of the required credentials.

Hajrullahu believes that he has credible evidence of discrimination against him from the management of the Faculty of Philosophy, and that it is directly linked with his record of challenging wrongdoings and manipulation within the university.

His exposure of alleged corruption and institutional failings at Kosovo’s largest public education provider has helped to provide specific examples of deep-rooted problems. An online video cartoon is currently circulating on social networks that highlights the complexity of the university’s failings, the control held over students by academic staff, and the administrative burdens that hamper this public education body from functioning normally.

Commenting on his own record of speaking out, Hajrullahu says that as a citizen, he considers it is his professional duty to expose wrongdoing.

The video is part of an advocacy initiative by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society (KFOS) named Open 333, which suggests that the University’s Senate is playing a deceptive game. The senate is charged with upholding academic quality but uses the front of ‘democratic’ rules to vote for illegal decisions that protect the interests of networks that control the University.

Commenting on his own record of speaking out, Hajrullahu says that as a citizen, he considers it is his professional duty to expose wrongdoing. Asked whether he considers himself a whistleblower — someone who exposes a person or organization regarded as engaging in unlawful or immoral activities — he told K2.0: “I consider myself a professor who attempts to fulfill his duties responsibly and with academic integrity.”

Although his decision to expose systematic misconduct by certain networks within the university has placed him at the center of public debate on the issue, he considers that by not reporting them he would bear “part of the responsibility for this misconduct.”

Hajrullahu first made his complaints within the institutions and then when internal procedures turned out to be ineffective, he teamed up with media where he found support from his former students and journalists. He claims that “in cases where management and justice institutions are either unwilling or unable to take measures in dealing with these misconducts and abuses of position, then the media takes a key role in challenging these manipulators and misuse.”

Effective collaboration between whistleblowers and journalists is key to the exposure of weak institutions or those that are beset by nepotism or special interests. In such cases, internal mechanisms for exposing issues of public interest are generally dysfunctional, while external mechanisms such as taking cases through justice institutions might cost the whistleblower their job.

This is what happened to Abdullah Thaci who exposed misuse of public funds by a municipal employee in Prizren. After the information was published, prosecutors in Prizren accused Thaci of misusing his position and authority, even though the information published exposed the misuse of public money and was considered as being in the public interest by many within Kosovo’s civil society. Thaci was found guilty and fined 5,000 euros.

Kosovo whistleblowers #1

In 2007, James Wasserstrom was working for UNMIK when he uncovered evidence that two senior U.N. officials received bribes for awarding a contract to build a coal-fired power plant and mine. His position was terminated and he was investigated for misconduct.

After a lengthy legal battle, the U.N. failed to provide the necessary documentation for the process and Wasserstrom was compensated with “a symbolic amount of money.” He is currently serving as anti-corruption officer in the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The need for whistleblowing

Ever since the “Watergate” scandal that eventually toppled American President Richard Nixon, there has been a global debate surrounding leaks and whistleblowing. The topic has become ever more fervently discussed in the technological 21st century, as WikiLeaks, the Panama Papers and Edward Snowden have shed new light on the machinations of governments. Regardless of their content, all these leaks have something in common: collaboration with journalists in exposing wrongdoings.

One of the biggest challenges for journalists in Kosovo is a lack of access to information. Institutions in Kosovo are often not transparent and make access to information for journalists complicated, meaning that journalists’ interactions with whistleblowers is crucial. The public owes some of the biggest stories in recent time to these whistleblowers, who often face threats of being expelled from their work.

Regulations that are currently in force in Kosovo provide few safeguards for whistleblowers. There are six different document that can potentially offer protection: the Law on the Protection of Informers, the Law on Protection from Discrimination, the Law on Anti-Corruption, the Law on the Kosovo Intelligence Agency, the Law on Classified Information and Security Vetting, and the Kosovo Penal Code.

Kosovo whistleblowers #2

In August 2014, Maria Bamieh, a EULEX prosecutor, learned that her contract would not be extended with the organization despite an impressive record of convictions, after revealing evidence of possible bribe-taking at top levels in the mission.

Ever since, EULEX has been accused of attempts to silence her while she pursues her case through the court by suing both EULEX and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In her latest statement, she warned that she will take her matter to the European Court of Human Rights.

Currently, the Law on the Protection of Informers does not meet the standards of the Council of Europe or the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Firstly, unlike the ECHR, which separates whistleblowing and witness protection, the law in Kosovo makes no such distinction. It also limits whistleblowing to internal investigations, as it only regulates whistleblowing within institutions, not to the press or another outside body.

Kushtrim Istrefi, an International Human Rights Lawyer believes that whistleblowing must be possible to a wider audience. “Freedom of expression enables whistleblowers to reveal official secrets in cases when public interest is jeopardized or damaged,” he says. “But only under the condition that the information has to go to responsible authorities. There has to be public interest in the information, the information has to be authentic.” Additionally, the ECHR evaluates the motive of a whistleblower as a key factor when deciding if revealing official secrets is allowed.

Besides security and legal challenges, there is lack of knowledge and willingness among institutions to enable whistleblowing, even internally. Seeing Abdullah Thaci fired from his position and fined 5,000 euros for exposing misuse of funds serves as discouragement to those seeking to expose crime and corruption.

Legal experts and journalists believe that whistleblowers should be protected accordingly, and that Kosovo institutions should initiate legal procedure to change the current laws to ensure that the legal framework is in line with the standards of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights.K

Kosovo whistleblowers #3

In 2016, Murat Mehmeti, an employee of Kosovo’s Tax Administration (TAK), exposed information that revealed tax evasion and misuse of public money on television program, Jeta ne Kosove. He did so brazenly, refusing to hide either his face or name. He was later pressurized to change position by senior management at TAK.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.