Let’s try a little experiment…
Imagine a popular reporter hosts a weekly news program on social issues in American society. She talks about such topics as homosexuality, government corruption, and the exercise of free speech in the US, to name a few. Now imagine that a national newspaper with close ties to the US government branded that same reporter a SPY and declared that, by doing her job, she “brought it upon herself to have a short life.”
How would Americans react? My guess (and you should know that I have been labeled an idealist by some) would be public outrage, more than likely accompanied by a media firestorm. I imagine that civil rights activists and journalists across the country would take a public stand in support of freedom of expression. After all, it is a right considered by many to be the foundation of a free and democratic society.
Well, here in Pristina, I don’t need to rely on my imagination to know how this situation would play out in Kosovo.
Much like the reporter in my scenario, journalist Jeta Xharra is the host of Jeta ne Kosove (“Life in Kosovo”), a popular current affairs show broadcasted throughout Kosovo and produced by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) (http://www.birn.eu.com/).
On May 31, 2009, the show featured a segment on government advertising, which is when the government uses public money to disseminate information about governmental programs, and how the practice is being used to influence media coverage. Almost as if to prove the point, Infopress newspaper, which is said to receive a significant amount of its funding through government advertising, launched an aggressive and sustained campaign against BIRN and Jeta Xharra in particular. Articles published by the paper included statements accusing Jeta Xharra of being an agent of the Serbian security forces and a spy for Belgrade. Her life has even been threatened. (The quote above was actually made in reference to Jeta Xharra and published in print).
To view the “offending” segment of the show for yourself, watch the short video below (with English subtitles).
And how did Kosovar society react, you ask?
A group of nine NGOs in Kosovo, including my host, the Kosovo Women’s Network (KWN) (http://www.womensnetwork.org/), drafted a public letter in defense of free speech. They wrote, in part, “The increasingly common practice of Infopress asserting that particular individuals are ‘Serb spies’ is becoming a disturbing issue. We, as citizens, are weary of flying accusations that certain people are ‘traitors.’ This practice, used by people who hold certain positions of power, which they use to label those who disagree with them as ‘traitors’ or ‘Serb spies’, has existed since the 1990s. We know that such labeling is used because the responsible persons cannot ably defend their position through sound arguments.”
They continued, “The media has a right to report with facts on stories, and Jeta ne Kosova (“Life in Kosovo”) together with BIRN have been striving to disclose facts about important stories affecting our lives and in accordance with professional journalistic standards. They are daring to speak out about issues for which many citizens fear to speak openly, due to the same sorts of threats that persons in positions of power made.”
Dozens of individual citizens, some of whom are employed by NGOs and international agencies that refused to endorse the letter, also signed in support of freedom of expression in Kosovo. Yet, when the letter was published in its entirety, fear set in. Many did not expect their names to be made public and expressed worries that their livelihoods would be negatively affected.
In short, they are afraid of the government. And when members of civil society are afraid of their government, that can hardly bode well for democratization.
So, is this the end of the story? Will civil society in Kosovo be silenced?
I don’t think so.
Posted By Tiffany Ommundsen
Posted Jun 8th, 2009