Kosovo must probe death threats against BIRN staff

June 17, 2009

His Excellency Hashim Thaci
Prime Minister
Republic of Kosovo

Via facsimile: +381 38 211 202

Dear Prime Minister Thaci,

As an independent, nonpartisan organization defending press freedom worldwide, the Committee to Protect Journalists urges you to publicly condemn and thoroughly investigate a recent wave of threats against Jeta Xharra, head of the Kosovo office of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), and her colleagues.

According to news reports and CPJ interviews, numerous e-mail death threats were made against Xharra and BIRN-Kosovo staff after the local newspaper Infopress likened the journalists to Serbian spies and compared their work to fascist propaganda. The threats followed the May 28 edition of BIRN-Kosovo’s weekly television program, “Life in Kosovo,” hosted by Xharra on public broadcaster Radio Television Kosovo (RTK). The program covers sensitive issues such as war crimes, drug addiction, homosexuality, human rights, and press freedom among others.

Although the threats do not appear to have a direct connection with Infopress, Xharra said the paper encouraged intimidation. “In a post-war society such as Kosovo where the wounds are still open, to compare someone to Milosevic’s Serbia is not only an insult and incitement to hatred, but could also be life-threatening,” Xharra said in a statement published by BIRN-Kosovo.

Xharra told CPJ that BIRN-Kosovo reported the e-mail threats to local police but no arrests have been made. 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.

The death threats against Xharra and her team of journalists are deplorable and put Kosovo’s fledgling democracy at risk. Press freedom in Kosovo must be protected as a fundamental human right for an independent and stable society. We ask you and your government to immediately and unequivocally condemn this attempt to intimidate an independent journalist and her colleagues, hold accountable all those responsible for making the threats, and ensure the safety of Jeta Xharra and her BIRN-Kosovo colleagues.

When Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in February 2008, much of the international community recognized its new status. Kosovo must demonstrate that it is ready to live up to the democratic expectations of its people and the world. Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your response.


Joel Simon
Executive Director