In TOL’s coverage region, journalist solidarity is sometimes hard to come by. Reporters and editors often stand on different sides of the political or ethnic divide, and find it hard to stand together against a common enemy, be it a dominating oligarch intent on shaping the news according to his business interests or a repressive government determined to control the press. But what happens when a media outlet not only refuses to defend colleagues that have run into trouble with the authorities, but actually verbally attacks them and incites threats of violence?

That question has often been asked in Kosovo since the Pristina-based Infopress newspaper launched an intimidation campaign in 2009 against Jeta Xharra, the feisty head of the Kosovo office of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), and her colleagues. Earlier this week, the EU’s rule of law mission in Kosovo, EULEX, finally issued criminal indictments against five people from Infopress: the newspaper’s proprietor, Rexhep Hoti, and four members of staff.

According to an article about the indictments on Balkan Insight (a BIRN publication):

For 12 days in late May and early June 2009, “Infopress” is accused of running a hate campaign against BIRN’s Kosovo director Jeta Xharra and BIRN’s “Life in Kosovo” television show.

The newspaper alleged without substantiation that Ms Xharra had committed treason and the paper appeared to encourage vigilante action against Ms Xharra. It issued an implicit death threat in a newspaper article stating: “Jeta has herself chosen not to live a long life”.

More details are available in an earlier statement issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), one of several journalists’ rights organization that has come to the defense of the BIRN team:

Xharra said her colleagues had been conducting a series of interviews with voters and government officials about promised electoral reforms. When the BIRN-Kosovo crew traveled to the Skenderaj municipality in central Kosovo to speak with the mayor, they were denied an interview and banned from entering the local government building. While in Skenderaj, the reporters were attacked by an unidentified armed man who broke a video camera and stole footage, Xharra said. She discussed the incident during the May 28 show, which focused on freedom of expression.

Four days later, on June 1, Infopress, which receives most of its advertising revenue from the government, published an editorial and an op-ed that were openly hostile to Xharra and her reporting team. A front page piece said the BIRN-Kosovo journalists were Serbian spies, and a commentary said the May 28 edition of “Life in Kosovo” was similar to a “fascist campaign against everything Albanian,” BIRN-Kosovo reported. A subsequent Infopress commentary said the author “would be honored to shake the hand of any such dutiful Albanian” who took it upon himself to “punish” the reporting team.

The newspaper quoted Skenderaj’s mayor, who said the “Life in Kosovo” program misrepresented the reality of life in the city; the mayor called on RTK to ban the program from its network.

Violent messages then flooded the station’s e-mail inbox: “Don’t be surprised if someone kills your source,” “If we catch you there again in Skenderaj, we will beat the hell out of you,” and “Jeta has brought it upon herself to have a short life.” Among the most incendiary messages was this one: “I will take it upon myself to personally assassinate you.” All of the threats were made anonymously.

There seems to be a pretty clear connection between the newspaper’s despicable behavior and those threats, but apparently local judicial authorities shied away from investigating because the paper is close to the ruling PDK party (not surprising with all those state advertising dollars it receives).

In the Balkan Insight article, Xharra is quoted as saying: “It has taken prosecutors two years to act – two years during which Infopress newspaper believed it could act disgracefully and dangerously with impunity and two years during which our judiciary officials privately confessed that they were reluctant to move against it for fear of
being targeted themselves.”

It will be interesting to see how long it now takes to go to trial, and if prosecutors manage to prove a direct linkage between the newspaper’s obvious campaign to discredit and intimidate fellow colleagues and those frightening but anonymous threats.

If you’d like to see the video of the show that evidently ticked off Infopress and its political backers so much, you can watch it here:

Photo of Jeta Xharra from the advocacynet.org site.

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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