Award-winning journalist Kemal Kurspahic, who kept a Bosian newspaper publishing during wartime and later spent decades editing the Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia, died in Reston Sept. 17 at age 74.
Kurspahic suffered a stroke after undergoing minor surgery, his family said.
Fellow journalists praised his humility and commitment to free speech. Kurspahic was “the consummate local news editor who understood community journalism and how to cover local news,” said former Connection editor Steve Hibbard. “He helped train young reporters on good writing and how to cover their territories.”
Former Connection editor Priscilla Gomez said Kurspahic “had far more experience than most of us in the newsroom, but he never made any of us seem small.”
“Kemal’s life had meaning and value to his family, most of all, but also to the larger world of journalism and freedom of the press he fought for so mightily,” said Bonnie Hobbs, a longtime Connection reporter. “I’m sure he’s already preparing to put out that newspaper in heaven.”
Born on Dec. 1, 1946, in Mrkonjic Grad, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kurspahic at 15 became a small-town reporter for Oslobodjenje, a newspaper he would end up leading decades later.
After editing the weekly magazine Student at Belgrade University Law School, Kurspahic in 1969 began working as a correspondent for Oslobodjenje in Belgrade. He was the newspaper’s reporter in Jajce (1971-73); editor of its Sports, Politics and Newsroom departments in Oslobodjenje (1974-81); United Nations correspondent in New York (1981-85) and deputy editor-in-chief (1985-88).
Kurspahic in December 1988 became the first editor-in-chief elected by Oslobodjenje’s editorial staff. According to his family, the newspaper under Kurspahic’s leadership sought to break free from control by the League of Communists, defended its independence from nationalist political parties in power and published daily from a nuclear-bomb shelter during the siege of Sarajevo in the mid-1990s.
He walked with a limp from injuries suffered when the car he was riding in crashed as its driver dodged sniper fire.
In 1997, he became managing editor for the Connection Newspapers. Maria Said, who reported on McLean and Great Falls, said Kurspahic was “dedicated to the principles of truth-telling.”
“I saw this integrity throughout the time I worked with him in Virginia – from stories ranging from the development project at Evans Farm to the impact on local students of the Columbine shootings – the same steadiness without drama,” she said.
Kurspahic once showed Said his photo album, which included an image of him with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, and another showing him with author Salman Rushdie, for whom Khomeini in 1989 had issued a death warrant.
“I remember him laughing and saying that he was probably the only person in the world with a picture with these two people,” she said. “He was dedicated to getting the story from everyone.”
Former Connection reporter Dan Seligson said Kurspahic was an honor to work with and an inspiration.
“It was humbling to be working alongside this legend, who had seen so much and done so much to advance freedom of the press under the most challenging circumstances,” he said. “He was too humble to talk about it. Instead, he was quiet, fair, but no pushover.”
George Mason University adjunct professor Christina Tyler Wenks was fascinated by Kurspahic’s derring-do when she was a journalist in Florida in the 1990s and first met him at the Great Falls Writers Group in 2011. During a presentation to one of her classes in March, Wenks asked Kurspahic what the First Amendment meant to him.
“I think it’s really the best of all journalism environments, but journalists can still get in trouble in a free society by practicing journalism – for your own criticism and giving a voice to opposing voices and individuals, which may bring you into conflict with those in power,” he said. “That happens even here.”
Kurspahic received the Courage in Journalism Award, International Editor of the Year, Bruno Kreisky Award for Human Rights, World Press Freedom Hero and Dr. Erhard Busek Award for Better Understanding in the [South-eastern Europe] Region. The International Press Institute in 2000 named Kurspahic one of the 50 Press Freedom Heroes in the last 50 years.
He also was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, a Clark Fellow at Cornell University and a Senior Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and was chairman and founder of the Media in Democracy Institute. He gave lectures and seminars at many U.S. universities and advised top leaders on foreign policy, including President Bill Clinton and then-Sen. Joe Biden.
Kurspahic worked as a diplomat from 2001 to 2006 for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and since 2007 has served as the Connection Newspapers’ managing editor. He won numerous awards from the Virginia Press Association.
He also authored four books –“Prime Time Crime: Balkan Media in War and Peace,” “As Long as Sarajevo Exists,” “Letters from War” and “The White House” and had op-ed pieces published in major U.S. and international newspapers. In his free time, Kurspahic enjoyed swimming, watching soccer and socializing with friends around the world.
He is survived by his high-school sweetheart and wife of 52 years, Vesna Kurspahic; sons Tarik Kurspahic (spouse Mary Beth) of Lexington, Mass., and Mirza Kurspahic (spouse Kristine) of Centreville; and grandchildren Andrew, Brynna, Rory and Nev.
Kristin Clark Taylor, founder and facilitator of the Great Falls Writers Group, called Kurspahic a “journalist of unparalleled integrity and fierce courage.”
“He set an extremely high bar for excellence and accuracy, but Kemal was also a compassionate human being with a kind and loving heart,” she said. “Yes, journalists can be compassionate; Kemal was living proof.”
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