EU’s rule of law mission in Kosovo, EULEX, has today issued criminal indictments against five members of staff at the Pristina-based Infopress newspaper.
The newspaper’s proprietor, Rexhep Hoti, and four members of staff at the paper, together with the mayor of Skenderaj, Sami Lushtaku, have been accused of violating the equal status of residents in Kosovo. If proven, Kosovo’s criminal code stipulates they could face imprisonment from six months to five years.
They are also charged with making threats and defamatory comments towards BIRN Kosovo director Jeta Xharra. If proven, these charges carry fines or prison terms of up to six and three months respectively.
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”.
The campaign followed the broadcast of a two-hour episode of “Life in Kosovo” on 28 May 2009, which reported on problems of freedom of speech in Kosovo. The program also included a feature on how its own camera team had been chased away from the Lushtaku’s Skenderaj municipality at gunpoint while trying to film a report on local governance.
In late June 2009, Kosovo’s press council ruled that unsubstantiated allegations made by Lushtaku in the newspaper which claimed that Xharra was a “servant of the Serbian secret police” could pose a “direct physical threat to her and members of her team”.
It urged prosecutors and police to investigate Infopress for “possible violations of the criminal code, such as threat, incitement to violence (or even to murder)”.
“Infopress” is associated with Kosovo’s ruling PDK party (of which Lushtaku is a member) and has received government advertising revenue during the party’s tenure in government.
The only sanction imposed for its behaviour to date has failed: Infopress refused to pay the €1,000 press council fine.
In Kosovo, bodies such as the Association of Professional Journalists of Kosovo (AGPK), the Independent Media Commission and an umbrella group of NGOs reacted in defence of the assailed BIRN journalists.
Internationally, organisations such as the Committee for Protection of Journalists, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International also publicised their concerns and asked Kosovo authorities to take measures to bring the alleged perpetrators to justice.
Commenting on the indictment today, Xharra said: “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 has also been two years during which our young state’s fabric – specifically its capacity to uphold freedom of speech – was allowed to corrode. EULEX’s action is belated though welcome. Let us hope that it can set a new standard”.
Kosovo declared independence in February 2008 and articles 40 – 42 of its constitution guarantee freedom of speech and freedom of the media.