Kosovo’s press council has voted to fine newspaper Infopress 1,000 euro following a series of hostile articles against BIRN Kosovo.
The Pristina daily was found to have breached the Press Council of Kosovo’s code of conduct in five articles which attacked BIRN’s Life in Kosovo television show and its presenter Jeta Xharra.
Following the vote on June 22, Infopress has been ordered to pay a 1,000 euro fine and print the council’s findings within three days.
The press council, a self-regulatory body which is represented by almost all print media in Kosovo, said that allegations that Xharra was a “servant of the Serb secret police” could pose a “direct physical threat to her and members of her team” and recommended the issue be referred to the police and judiciary for investigation.
The front-page article and interview, in which Sami Lushtaku, PDK mayor of Skenderaj, made the allegations against Xharra, was ruled to be “unsubstantiated” and the council recommended it be referred to the prosecutor’s office, the police and the courts for “possible violations of the criminal code, such as threat, incitement to violence (or even to murder)”.
In its adjudication of Xharra’s complaint, the council said that some of these issues were beyond its remit, but added: “However, based on the Press Code, some parts of the respective interview such as “Jeta Xharra is a servant of the Serb Secret Police” without being substantiated by concrete facts in support of this allegation, could pose a direct physical threat to her and members of her team, when considering the negative actions of this notorious police unit over decades against people of Kosovo and the bitter memories which it could bring back to the Kosovo public, when a journalist is vested with the epithet of a “servant” of that police unit without sustainable arguments as in the concrete case.”
The articles followed a Life in Kosovo television debate on press freedom. It featured a video report in which BIRN Kosovo’s news team was shown being expelled from the Skenderaj municipality’s Office for Public Information, and forced to leave the town by an armed man who confiscated their footage.
Infopress reacted to the report from the Drenica region, the heartland of the former Kosovo Liberation Army, with a series of articles including: A frontpage story which alleged that RTK, the publicly funded channel which broadcasts the show, was “terrorising Drenica”; an interview with Lushstaku which included a front-page heading “Lushtaku: Jeta Xharra is a servant of the Serb Secret Police”; and an article entitled “Four treasons of Jeta”, which included the comment that “Jeta chose herself not to live a long life”.
Regarding the first article, the council decided that although the views expressed were part of an opinion piece, the newspaper had failed to distinguish between comment and information by printing the allegations on the front-page.
The council wrote: “Although this article represents personal views of an author, press council nonetheless considers that the attacks using improper epithets are unacceptable.”
The press council agreed that the second article, which depicted Xharra as a “servant of the Serb secret police”, represented the views of both the interviewee, Lushtaku, and the “somewhat” the position of the newspaper. The council wrote: “Such publishing in the front page which depicts the accusations of Lushtaku against Jeta Xharra and her crew somewhat represents the standpoint of the newspaper.”
The press council ruled that comments in the third article suggesting Xharra had “chose herself not to live a long life”, represented “an incitement and hate speech as defined in Article 3 of the press code”.
Infopress later sought to clarify the sentence, claiming it should not be construed as a death threat.
The press council wrote: “This is yet another case that indicates that [the] newspaper should have intervened in time in order to avoid the suggestion of intimidation to the life of journalists in order to enable them to freely exercise their profession and in order to ensure free press without dictation by anyone.”
Another two editorials were also found to have breached Article 3 of the code: An editorial published on June 5, in which Xharra is portrayed as a war profiteer, and another article in which she is “presumed guilty of treason”.
The council wrote: “These articles taken together could not only endanger the life and work of Jeta Xharra and her team, but also contain professional deficiencies.”
All members of the council have been requested to publish the adjudication “due to the seriousness of the case”.
The Infopress articles, which were printed between May 29 and June 7, caused a political storm, with senior diplomats, NGOs and journalist groups condemning the attacks.
Calls were also made for the government to distance itself from the campaign in Infopress, which receives a significant proportion of advertising money from the PDK-LDK coalition government, and is widely seen as pro-PDK.
Following pressure, the government released a statement saying that “all isolated occasions when the freedom of expression is threatened are punishable by the government”, but a government spokesman explained this was a “general statement” and was not specifically aimed at the Infopress coverage.
On Wednesday June 10, Infopress called an end to its “debate” on the Life in Kosovo show, saying the issue had been discussed fully and that it had listened to the comments from “local and international organisations”.