Kosovo: Defamation lawsuits seeking to silence environmental activists must be withdrawn
Two environmental activists in Kosovo are facing baseless defamation lawsuits which are designed to intimidate and silence them, Amnesty International said today. The organization is calling on Kelkos Energy, which operates hydropower plants in a protected natural area in western Kosovo, to withdraw two lawsuits against Shpresa Loshaj and Adriatik Gacaferi, activists who have publicly spoken out against the environmental impact of the projects.
Kelkos Energy is a subsidiary of the Austria-based public energy provider Kelag International. Amnesty International analysed legal documents and other materials relating to the cases, and concluded that the lawsuits bear all the hallmarks of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). SLAPPs are increasingly being used by governments and corporations around the world to censor criticism and discourage others from speaking out.
“Shpresa Loshaj and Adriatik Gacaferi have campaigned tirelessly to raise concerns about the environmental impact of hydropower plants in the protected Deçan region. These activists are bravely standing up for their communities and their environment, and Kelkos Energy’s lawsuits appear to be a cynical attempt to silence them,” said Jelena Sesar, Western Balkans Researcher at Amnesty International.
“We are calling on Kelkos Energy to withdraw these lawsuits, and on Kosovar authorities to ensure that environmental defenders can express their concerns without fear of reprisal.”
Shpresa Loshaj and Adriatik Gacaferi used social media and television appearances to raise concerns about the environmental impact of Kelkos Energy’s hydropower plants. Having observed massive excavation in the area, frequent landslides and parched riverbeds in places where water was once abundant, the activists questioned the legality of the operating licenses that were issued by the Kosovar authorities to Kelkos Energy and other companies.
Loshaj and Gacaferi argued that the government had failed to assess the environmental risk of the plants, and had failed to consult the communities living in the villages where they operate – as required by law. The activists also called for greater transparency in the licensing process and better oversight of energy companies’ operations in Kosovo.
In response, Kelkos Energy filed two defamation lawsuits against the activists. In June 2020 the company accused Loshaj of deliberately trying to damage the company’s reputation with “untrue statements”. The company demanded EUR 100,000 in damages, as well as a public apology and refrain from stating “untrue facts” about the company in the future. In January 2020, Kelkos Energy sued Gacaferi over a Facebook post in which he criticized the company’s operations, demanding a retraction of the post and EUR 10,000 in damages.
Both cases are still pending in courts in Kosovo.
“This is not just about rivers. It is about our institutions too – they failed to protect the environment, they failed to consult with the communities and they failed to enforce the law,” said Shpresa Loshaj.
“The fact that no one was willing to speak up made me even more determined to speak out about hydropower plants.”
Censorious lawsuits a barrier to public participation
Amnesty International has analysed Kelkos Energy’s complaints, activists’ defences and additional public information and concluded that these lawsuits are Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).
SLAPPs are lawsuits aimed at censoring those who expose the wrongdoing of those in power, particularly governments and corporations. They unduly restrict the right to freedom of expression and discourage the public from exposing wrongful conduct by state authorities and corporations. SLAPPs usually seek unfounded or disproportionate damages, intended to intimidate and silence critical voices on issues of public interest, such as the environment. SLAPPs are increasingly becoming a barrier to the work of human rights defenders and journalists across Europe.
Kelkos Energy told Amnesty International that the lawsuits were a measure of last resort to defend themselves against “slanderous statements” in court. The company denied that their lawsuits were SLAPPs, and said they agreed that SLAPPs represent an undue restriction on the right to freedom of expression.
Numerous public institutions – including the Ombudsman Institution, Kosovo’s Environmental and Protection Agency and the Ministry of Environment – have found or investigated irregularities in licensing procedures around hydropower plants operated by Kelkos Energy and others, as well as a lack of transparency and possible irreversible negative impact on the environment. Although the findings of these reports have been made public, Kelkos Energy has only pursed defamation lawsuits against the two individuals.
“These lawsuits illustrate the growing trend of powerful corporations and public officials misusing the justice system to intimidate human rights defenders, and shield themselves from public scrutiny,” said Jelena Sesar.
“Kelkos Energy should immediately withdraw these defamation lawsuits. Kosovar authorities must ensure that anybody concerned about the environmental impact of these projects can access information about them, and that people can express concerns without fear of legal reprisals.”
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In June 2020 Kelkos Energy filed a defamation lawsuit against Shpresa Loshaj, an environmental activist, and asked for EUR 100,000 in damages for “reputational damages” caused by her public campaigning against the company’s operations in the Deçan region.
Kelkos Energy has also demanded that Ms Loshaj publicly retract and apologize for her statement and refrain from stating “untrue facts” about the company in the future. In a similar lawsuit filed in 2020, Kelkos Energy demanded EUR 10,000 in reputational damages from environmental activist Adriatik Gacaferi, over a Facebook post that also criticized the company’s hydropower plant operations in the Deçan region. Kelkos Energy demanded that Gacaferi remove the contested post and publish a retraction.
In April 2021 the Ministry of Environment announced its decision to review the procedures around granting operating licenses to all energy companies managing hydropower plants, including Kelkos Energy.
On 21 June 2021, Kelkos Energy told Amnesty International that the lawsuits are means for Kelkos Energy to protect itself against “factual statements that are demonstrably wrong and have a profound impact on [their] business.” Kelkos Energy said that the company never operated outside of the law or without explicit permission from Kosovo’s energy regulator. It also disputed claims that its hydropower plants have caused environmental degradation, noting that Kelkos Energy has invested significant funds into the rehabilitation of environments in the Deçan region.
In a public statement issued today, Amnesty International urged the Kosovar authorities, including the Ministry of Environment, the Environmental Regulatory Office and relevant municipalities, to take the necessary steps to ensure that all communities affected by large-scale infrastructure projects related to the exploitation of natural resources have access to information. Amnesty International called for documents relating to public consultations to be made available, and for the public to be provided with the opportunity to effectively participate in the decision-making process. The organization also urged the authorities to adopt laws and policies to comply with their obligation to respect and protect human rights in the context of corporate activities, through adequate regulation, oversight, investigation, adjudication and penalties.