KOHA – An investment in free speech has priceless returns

This article is taken from IPAK Vienna/ECIKS Newsletter “Success Stories: Women Entrepreneurs in Kosovo” (Download the complete newsletter as PDF)

Ten years after the war in Kosovo, 2011 finds the newly independent state facing an assortment of challenges. While the business environment is a whole new world for many entrepreneurs in Kosovo, the Surroi family and KOHA’s roots date back as early as the 1990’s. It all began as a weekly magazine – Koha Javore- a survival method after the massive layoffs undertaken by the Serb regime.

Today, KOHA is considered to be one of the most prominent companies in Kosovo, shaping public opinion through its multi-media dimension: a national television station, a daily newspaper, a web portal, and a publishing house.

The owner of this media giant, Flaka Surroi, retells the behind-the-scene story of feeding this colossal undertaking with soul, sweat and energy, refusing to settle for anything less than true success for what once was her brother’s dream.

“Initially, my engagement in KOHA was that of a secondary nature. I was compelled to offer my assistance incognito, as my employer considered my involvement to be a conflict of interest. When the daily newspaper was established to existence, I was working for UNICEF. I didn’t really have time to get involved, until the war broke out. In March 1998, we launched the webpage ARTA, a news portal in English. The very second day, the editor in chief resigned and I had to step in,” she explains, reflecting back.

The war brought about many difficulties to the people of Kosovo. Many, fearing for their lives, fled the country in search of a safer future. Others, amongst those Flaka and her family, saw it as their civic duty to continue their work, even throughout the tough times. The hard work and determination built KOHA into the most reliable source of information. After the war, brighter days were in sight for KOHA. In 2000, the national television KTV was launched on air.

“I returned to KOHA, to be more exact to KTV, in 2003 as the Head of the Programming and Managing Board, with the intention to bring about order to the television, which was going through a not very healthy period. Together with Leke Zherka, we worked hard to lift it to where it stands today. I took control over KOHA in December 2004, when my brother Veton decided to run for office, and it seemed more than logical for me to take over to preserve the neutrality and impartiality of the media group,” says Flaka.

Running a successful business and taking it to an even higher level of success is never an easy job, and especially in Kosovo. Being a woman is often considered to be the cherry on top of the obstacle pie. However, Flaka’s story proves the extreme opposite of how a woman can lead a company towards the peaks of success overcoming all impediments by combining managerial skills and a dream team.

“When I took over KOHA, I owned the most read Kosovar paper, the most alternative television, and a silent printing house kept alive with old machinery. The company employed around 230 with an average salary of 350 Euros. Six years later, I still own the most read Kosovar newspaper, still own the most alternative television station, and a printing house with a more advanced machinery and an increased volume of work, but I also own a publishing house with over 70 titles published in the past five years. In addition, I own cable television ARTA, the web portal koha.net with over 50,000 visitors a day, the company employs 300 people and their salaries amount to an average of 450 Euros,” she sums up modestly.

The many hindrances that she faces are quite often not gender-bound. Apart from the daily hassle of running a business with 300 employees, Flaka has been a witness of what challenges one faces with being a direct investor in freedom of speech.

“I feel very comfortable as the head of this company – I can proudly say that it is quite a big deal to lead a media house that is free from any political pressures and influences. It is a tremendous experience to be threatened, and you don’t give in simply because you firmly believe in what you do; and that is not your close personal interest. It is a tough and a tiring job. It requires responsibility to make sure that you have salaries in place for 300 people, without a single pay-day delay and to pay all duties towards the state. At the end of the day, when you see that you manage some of the very few balanced and independent sources of information, it makes every bit of energy invested really worth it. And yes there are times when I feel that my head will burst, that my heart will fail or that my stomach will explode but it is exactly this stress, this adrenaline that is the generating force that makes me move forward,” she says.

An uncommon woman in a powerful media house, operating under uncommon circumstances leads us to believe that she is in the business for an uncommon investment. Flaka is determined to continue investing in free speech, because, as she puts it, it has priceless returns.

“The beauty of it all is possessing the most precious wealth in your hands – the power of speech, which is an extraordinary privilege for me. To me it is important to preserve our integrity and editorial independence, which is the most valuable asset that we own,” concludes Flaka.

Kosovo is quickly developing towards a stable business environment, the media being crucial to the development of both the economic and social sphere of this newborn country. Flaka and KOHA Group are a model of how success can be achieved when a visionary manager takes charge of an organic entity.