Determined to Bring Out the Truth in Kosovo
By MATTHEW BRUNWASSER
PRISTINA, KOSOVO — She cut her journalistic teeth with the BBC as a 22-year-old fixer, helping television crews film in and around Kosovo during the 1999 NATO bombing war against Serbia.
Now 33, Jeta Xharra has continued the punchy public interest journalism she says she learned from the likes of Jeremy Paxman, the British broadcaster known as host of the television news program “Newsnight.”
In 1999, exposing wrongdoing seemed like an ideal common to most if not all Kosovo Albanians, united as they were by their fight against the authoritarian rule of Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia.
Now, Ms. Xharra finds there is scant protection for her kind of journalism, as she rakes over the mix of corruption, organized crime and weak governance that is her nascent country today.
In the spring of 2009, Ms. Xharra received death threats, openly published in the pro-government daily Infopress. No prosecutors would take up her case, Ms. Xharra said, because they, too, feared reprisals.
Only this past August, more than two years later, did prosecutors from the European Union’s Rule of Law mission in Kosovo, or Eulex, file criminal charges over the threats. Ms. Xharra said they could not make any other charges stick against the person who had threatened her.
The case illustrates the enormous challenge of trying to establish equality before the law in Kosovo. Ms. Xharra blames the international community, which plays a large role. While international officials insist that they are doing everything they can to bring fair government to Kosovo, she asserts that “the internationals” don’t care what the Kosovo government does, as long as they do not disturb the semblance of stability by antagonizing the Serb minority.
“The message is: the government can do whatever they want with the local population, including stealing public funds and intimidating media critics and political opponents,” Ms. Xharra said in an interview.
Ms. Xharra is from the first generation of young, educated and worldly Kosovars to reach adulthood after the withdrawal of Serbian forces, engaged in the postwar struggle to make Kosovo a functioning, modern democratic state.
She clearly has no fear of conflict, a quality she ascribes to her wartime metamorphosis from undergraduate student of dramatic writing to BBC fixer.
“I learned from early on that if massacres were going to happen, we had to make sure the cameras were there to have a reaction from international diplomacy,” she said.
She spent three months after the war reporting on how Kosovar Albanian liberators retaliated with violence against ethnic Serbs and Roma. Meanwhile, the wartime cohesion of the Kosovars soon fell apart as well.
“We spent years uniting against Milosevic, we even collected taxes voluntarily,” Ms. Xharra said of the organized resistance to Serbia’s cruel rule in the 1990s. “After the war, we couldn’t even collect our garbage.”
She left Kosovo in 2000 for London, majoring in war studies at King’s College and working for three years at the BBC World Service in news planning.
But it was Mr. Paxman’s aggressive interviewing and reporting that, she thought, was what she needed to take back to Kosovo.
In 2004, she started planning her own program, to investigate corruption and organized crime but also take on many taboos of Kosovo society: violence against women, the rise of Islam in Kosovo, homosexuality, holding elected officials to their campaign promises.
Social relations in Kosovo value formal politeness. Criticizing someone openly is simply not proper — much less taking on a powerful man, and on national television. And for a woman to challenge the Kosovar politicians who had previously seen state television as an open platform for their views only added to the sting.
Kosovo’s women gained broad access to higher education and careers during the 1970s in Communist Yugoslavia. But, Ms. Xharra and other women note, women still frequently do not share in decision-making at home, much less in public life.
“People tell me that I’ve gotten this far because no one took me seriously,” Ms. Xharra said. “They don’t know how to react to me. If I was a man, I would have been physically beaten up. There is this mentality that a woman cannot be a threat, and I’ve used it to my advantage.”
Her weekly current affairs program, “Jeta ne Kosove” (“Life in Kosovo” in Albanian, a wordplay on her name) has been on the air since 2005.
At the beginning, colleagues told Ms. Xharra that no guest would agree to the format. Many Kosovars found her direct and confrontational style arrogant. Many still do. But after the first year, she said, the program was the second-highest rated on Kosovo television — after the prime-time news — even though it aired at 11:15 p.m.
“All of a sudden there was this woman on TV, pushing around the politicians, the tough guys,” said Kastriot Jahaj, host of a sister program “Justice in Kosovo.”
“She started a new kind of journalism here,” he added. “She represented the voice of the citizenry in journalism for the first time. It was an angry voice and one that people had never heard on TV before.”
Ms. Xharra also heads the Kosovo office of the Balkan Investigative Reporters Network, or BIRN, a nonprofit network supporting public interest journalism in the Balkans.
At one planning meeting it dawned on Ms. Xharra that the heads of all the BIRN nongovernmental organizations in the Balkans were, coincidentally, women. Or maybe not.
“We’re used to doing a lot of hard work, and men are not,” she said. “They have it easy. We’re also less ego-minded. I’m not embarrassed to ask someone back on the show after they have rejected me.”
Women are still largely excluded from political life in Kosovo — unless there are mandatory quotas — Ms. Xharra says, with the notable exception of the president, Atifete Jahjaga.
“She listens and doesn’t speak as much” as her male counterparts, Ms. Xharra noted. “And she makes a good impression.” But, she stressed, Ms. Jahjaga was elected by the Parliament — and thus owes her position more to the machinations of male politicians than to popular support.
By contrast, a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Pristina dated March 12, 2007, and revealed by WikiLeaks bestowed unusual legitimacy on Ms. Xharra — it dubbed her second among “the five most influential women in Kosovo.”
“My role is not to be liked,” Ms. Xharra said. “90 percent of the people on television are likeable. My job is to expose hypocrisy and bring out the truth.”