An Austrian hydropower management company has come under fire for using vexatious lawsuits and the threat of legal action to target activists speaking out about the environmental impact of hydropower plants.
Kelkos Energy, an Austria-based company, has used a combination of defamation suits and threats of lawsuits to target those who raise the issue of HPPs operating in protected areas, the lack of scrutiny by the Kosovo government in issuing operating licenses, and the impact on the surrounding environment and communities.
Amnesty International wrote that Kelkos Energy filed a defamation lawsuit against activist Shpresa Loshaj in February 2021. She is the founder of an NGO called Pishtaret (Torches). In the lawsuit, Kelkos have demanded EUR 100,000 in damages for Loshaj’s campaigning against operations in the Decan region of the country.
They have also asked her to publicly apologize for her statement, retract them, and refrain from stating “untrue facts” about the company in the future.
#factsrule#Kelkos has recorded more than 40 defamatory public statements of NGO pishtaret since 2018. any renowned european green energy investor as kelkos would defend his integrity with an unmistaken legal stance. @ViolavonCramon 1/3
— KelKos Energy (@EnergyKelkos) February 18, 2021
Via their Twitter account, they claimed Pishtaret had made “more than 40 defamatory public statements”. They said it was within their rights to defend their “integrity with an unmistaken legal stance.”
The Twitter account was set up in February 2021, around the time they decided to sue the activists.
Earlier this year, Kelkos filed another suit for EUR 10,000 against Adriatik Gacaeri, another activist from Decan. The lawsuit came after Gacaferi criticized the company’s HPP operations in Decan. They demanded he removes the post and publishes an apology.
Amnesty International has worked closely with the lawyer representing the activists and claims the lawsuits are Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).
“Such lawsuits are meritless and intended to intimidate and silence critical voices on issues of public interest. SLAPPs are increasingly becoming a barrier for human rights defenders and journalists who expose those in power, particularly corporations, as they unduly restrict the right to freedom of expression and discourage the public from exposing wrongful conduct by the authorities and corporations.”
Amnesty International has called on Kelkos to withdraw defamation suits filed against environmental activists in Kosovo because they “appear to be designed to obstruct their work, intimidate, and silence them.”
A report from Bankwatch found that the majority of HPP concessions were granted to a handful of companies, amongst them Kelkos Energy.
In May of this year, the Prosecution of Peja filed charges against Kelkos and its responsible person George Woeber, for the criminal offense of “causing general danger”. They claim that as a result of the rapid flow of the water, a pipeline collapsed and caused damage to the road over three kilometers. This caused material damage to the road contractor Lika Trade.
The case went to mediation.
What is SLAPP?
The European Union is currently working on legislation and a directive that will ensure member states protect journalists, civil society, and other individuals from SLAPP. A recent debate in European Parliament resulted in a deadline of December 2021 being set.
The threat of SLAPP is severely impacting newsrooms and civil society across europe. Increasing threats from powerful interests with the sole intention of silencing stories that are usually of public interest. Generally, SLAPPs are not founded in any legal basis and have little chance of success. But their intention is not to win, but rather to tie up the plaintiff in extremely expnsive legal proceedings with the hope of mentally and financially exhausting them.
The measures being considered by the EU are designed to provide a solution and to safeguard the freedom to information. They include sanctions against those who abuse the system, training for the judiciary to address vexatious and SLAPP cases, measures for the judiciary to enable an early motion for dismissal, and a center for advice and support to journalists.
EU Commissioner Vera Jorouva has spoken out on the topic of SLAPP on several occassions. Back in March she said that SLAPPs are a “serious threat for democratic participation” and “require a robust response.”
Exit has reached out to Kelkos for comment on the allegations of using SLAPP but is yet to receive a response.
The battle against HPPs in the Balkans is a long and difficult one. HPP companies are often run by powerful businesses headed by those connected to politics and power. In Albania, one of the companies involved in building HPPs on the Valbona River also owns one of the country’s main media portals. Those that go up against them claim they are threatened and intimidated. In Albania, there have been multiple reports and evidence submitted in court relating to companies using the signatures of dead people, or using names and ID numbers without permission, to prove supposed support for HPPs.
It’s well known that HPPs are not a green or sustainable source of electricity. They create more damage to the environment and communities than the benefits they bring. Furthermore, they are at risk of the impacts of climate change and are not considered sustainable in the near to medium term, let alone long-term.
Lastly, they are displacing humans at alarming rates, destroying the way communities have lived and survived for centuries if not longer.