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War and Human Rights: the Role of Information

Jeta Xharra
Interview by Roberto Vicaretti
Your journalistic career begins as interpreter for the BBC. First Kosovarian War was a humanitarian war?
I remember my first day at work very vividly. It was 5th of March 1998 and there was a battle happening between Serb army and the establisher of the Kosovo Liberation Army. BBC journalists came in town and they were doing a workshop of journalism with some groups. They asked to speak English in that workshop. If anybody wants to go and translate for them, he can go ahead. So I was desperate for an adventure. Life was so boring in Kosovo in general. Mjlosevic regime had been established since 1989. It was ten years that generally we were learning in different university and schools; Albanian students like myself were not allowed to go in official schools because there was a separate system since Mjlosevic regime came to power. I immediately took the opportunity to go to work. The first day at work I remember I was together with a cameraman, a free-lance cameraman, a BBC correspondent. The cameraman went ahead to film the action it was going on, came back and said me: “You have to check me because I heard a shot. Something hit me but I cannot see the bleeding”. We were very surprised. He took off his jacket and there was a big hole in his stomach but there was noblood coming out. He took the front packet of his bag. Inside the bag there were a pack of cigarettes, a pack of money and a mobile phone. There was a hole in the pack of cigarettes, a hole in the money and the bullet was stocked in the batteries of the mobile phone. That was my first day at work. I promised not to tell anyone in my home because I was eighteen. I think my parents wouldn't like very much knowing where I have been. This was just ten kilometres from the town I were living. Since that day me and this cameraman should access to Kosovo Liberation Army. We were mainly in charge while the BBC correspondents were changing: every two weeks a new face was coming to report. They were coming from Middle East, from other regions of the world and every two week the correspondents were changing. We were translators, whose role was to keep access with this particular site of the conflict to which not a lot of media have access: the Kosovo Liberation Army which was very sceptical in the beginning of the Kosovo War. It was sceptical of all the journalists, it thought all the journalists were spies maybe the tapes would go to Serb police and Serb army. So they didn’t believe anybody, but when we gave them the picture of the cameraman that was shot they accepted us: he was shot by the enemy of theKLA so the enemy of their enemy was their friend. And we were sure that all the actions in war we took place, we filmed from this site.
In this extreme situation you discovered your passion for journalism.
I didn’t enter the journalism of war because I had a great love for journalism but basically as an activist with a great hate for the human rights’ violations that have been done to Kosovo Albanians at that time. Somehow I believe that all of us that came from this background, the Balkans, have entered journalism as activists. We entered as activists rather than as journalists because we wanted to speak out to the world so that the world could see the terrible crimes that Mjlosevic was doing. I didn’t enter because I love journalism. I entered because I wanted to see my family saved from bad situations, I wanted to see my friends and everybody not to end up being one of the people we were reporting on and not ending up to be refugees. That’s why I entered journalism. Only afterwards, when we became professionals or people like me started thinking more, we started reporting on the other side when Serbs’ human rights were violated. It was basically the ethnic group I belong, the Albanians, that were causing quite some human rights violations: the tables changed. It was the Serb community that was at risk. So it was interesting that suddenly I had to think and become professional because I needed to stop to be an activist for my people. I decided later on when I grew up so to speak because I entered journalism when I was eighteen, as a translator, very passionate, entered with emotion rather than with my head. Then, ten years later, I really started thinking of journalism as a profession rather than as a mission and I ended up reporting on human rights violations of gipsies and the Serbs and the relationship with this profession became more healthier.
Now what’s your commitment for the respect of human rights in Kosovo?
Journalists, especially in the Balkans, and in Kosovo in particular, need to be careful and need to be aware of the human rights. We can cause so much damage because we are often used as means of war. During a war journalists could become the people who were spreading hate. Instead of just reporting, their role was often even to serve to the armies and to the regime. So I come froma tradition in which journalism was used not for reporting butas a political means to convey a message and to convince people to hateful crimes. This is why we have to be extremely important and do not harm with our journalism. That is the key. At time I run a team of thirty people in Kosovo, to whom every day you have to teach first of all the difference. The education system doesn’t encourage critical thinking, doesn’t encourage question making but rather having opinions, reciting things, not learning to three-four sources and coming to a conclusion, but learning one book by heart and reciting it. You almost have to start from scratch and teach the difference between opinion and reporting, comment and reporting, comment and analysis, even basic things like that or a bigger thing because we belong to a tradition, the communist tradition, where the message was always hidden in texts. It was preferred that the text or the journalist's text says as little as possible and that the reader understands between the lines what the author means. Today we have to teach completely a new way of thinking in Kosovo.
Are you afraid for the consequences of your activity?
Only a stupid person is not afraid. Of course there were times when I was afraid but now the fear is different. During the war it was interesting that I watched where the bullet is coming from, if we have got a flak jacket, or if we were saved, if somebody can see us, ecc. During the war it is a completely different atmosphere because you are looking at real violence. But during peacetime it is actually even more trickier because you don’t know where is what coming from. For example at one time I was investigating on sex traffic. Suddenly I was working with a foreign crew and we were followed by cars. So it was unpredictable. During peacetime, I find the reporting a bit more tricky because you are not prepared, you do not know were things would becoming from. For example, the kind of pressure we get now about some subjects that you think are harmless. Last summer I did a programme on summer universities. I thought this is a very harmless subject but even that it was very tricky because it is a big business; I was investigating the regulations in these universities, what are the conditions, how much people pay and if illegal buildings or improbable buildings exist. One have such pressure even for simple things like that, even when you discuss about education or economy. People tried to stop the program. When I started doing my program “Life in Kosovo” a lot of people said that we would have no program next time, that nobody would come in program because we provoked them too much, we challenged them, we came out with all disinformation. They would never come to the program. They said something like this in the second show, in the third show, in the fourth show but we persisted and completed just no taking no for an answer. I have celebrated hundred episode of my program two months ago.
What happened in your program because you are considered an aggressive anchorman?
People claim that I’ve been labelled as aggressive. I’m working in an environment where a journalist has never interrupted a politician, where the older person, the world of the older people should have never been interrupted by the rules of the conversation in Albanian. Usually we come from a tradition in which an older person is allowed to speak as long as the person likes; especially a woman never interrupts a man during his conversation.Whenever the journalist invites a politician he is doing very flattering questions as “how great you are”, “tell us about the wonderful things you have done”, etc. This was television and journalism until very recently in Kosovo. Of course when I started asking the questions, I say: “No, you come to the program to answer this question not what you want to say but what I’m asking you”. I set up the agenda; as a journalist I put the questions. And I start pressing them and not talking for fifteen minuets about the sky, the trees and how great things they are doing. Of course I would be labelled aggressive. At the beginning of my program I used to get horrible letters. Everybody said that I’m uncultured, I don’t know how to behave.The letters were very bad but after one year the audience was going so up that the TV station couldn’t stopped any more. It became the most popular current affairs-program. The ratings and the viewers were so interested every week to switch on because they said that we are asking the questions that they really want to knowand that question should be put to the politician. Suddenly the politicians in the Balkans were considered as God because journalists were always afraid. For example if they ask Minister of Healt a very provocative question they are afraid that tomorrow they would send their wife to the hospital and there would be some doctors who knows the minister. The society is so small that they believe that the day after the politicians would harm the journalist, because the journalist can need something for his family or just wants to live a normal life. The politicians would try to stop his kid go to school, try to send police round his house. So the fear is so big that no provocative question was put. But with our program, we started changing that. How? Because now the politicians respect us and nothing bad happens to me really. Of course we get telephone calls and we get threats sometimes but we have also respect from the fear that we might actually show their behaviour on TV.
What’s your position concerning the independence of Kosovo? What do you mean when you say – as you have done – that independence is not the solution for everything?
First of all, having Kosovo be independent is one of the greatest things that has happened to Kosovo. We have had a lot of bad history moments and this has been a happy, joyous moment. The important thing is that there was been one day, one independence of a formal Yugoslav place, and no person was killed. On that day, nobody was killed, it was a good celebration, we were generally very happy and grateful to all the people who helped us get to this independence. What I mean that independence is not a solution for everything? Imagine that we have been wanting this independence since Milosevic came to power, which was 1989. It’s almost like more than fifteen years. All the debate in my society has been centred around one thing: independence. So people have started to could not debate really about economy, education, health, the development of our culture. Every debate was defined by status or national ideas. So finally I am glad that we, as Kosovo Albanians together with Kosovo Serbs – because now we are Kosovans no matter if we are Albanians or Serbs – we need to talk about some other important issues like how to get job for the youngest population in Europe because Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe but it has an employment problem. Independence is not a magic wand that resolves every single problem we have. Suddenly we will not have big investors coming just because we have independence. It would take time and people would maybe be disappointed. So as a public figure, especially with my program, I have been trying to lay a message informing the audience that the hard work begins now, making of the state for all the Kosovans, Albanians and Serbs like as well as the other communities. The hard work begins now because we have to work three times more harder than we worked when we didn’t have independence. Now we are the possessors of our house, now we are responsible for what happens to us. It is not the UN, not Serbia but it is the people of Kosovo.
In your opinion, what is the real reason why US decide to support Kosovo independence?
Lots of people can come up with all sorts of theories in the world why the US supported the Kosovo independence. What I want to tell you it is why they didn’t support. Kosovo does not have any oil, does not have any riches. Kosovo is not rich with something that the US is after. So I am afraid it is not for the money. There’s nothing to look for in Kosovo. We are actually very poor and, to be honest, quite lazy too.
Why does the US support it? Actually because 90% of Kosovans want independence. It is easy to support where a friendly majority want independence and we are a US friendly place. I don’t see why anyone should not support independence. First of all there was a very bad regime which had done bad things in Bosnia too, so it was not just Kosovo and it was just an obvious thing to do. It was humanitarian increasing waiting to happen and 90% of people wanted self-determination, wanted independence. So… why not?
What’s the relationship now between Serbs and kosovarian people?
The relationship between Serbs and Albanians is of course very difficult at the moment but it was difficult since quite I know myself, especially since the war. However I think now both Albanians and Serbs know where they state, they know what is the status of Kosovo. Serbs of course are very unhappy with Kosovo becoming independent but, on the other hand, all the international media and the international diplomats fear that Serbs would leave Kosovo when Kosovo became independent didn’t come true. No Serb packed his bag or her bag to leave Kosovo just because it became independent. The Serbs state and now the crucial conversation between Serbs and Albanians begin and it is now that we can talk of some reconciliation, dialogue and dealing with the past. Because until the definition of status there was no peace deal between Kosovan and Serbian, even if they hadn't got direct conflicts. Now there’s a chance to begin the dialogue. However I am realistic, I do not expect this dialogue to be resolved quickly. I think it would take decades, I really mean decades until this relationship will come together, as you know at the Second World War it took decades for a lot of crimes to be repaired and responsibility to the world was discussed. So it will be decades in Balkans too.
Do you think that democracy and freedom of speech means respect of human rights?
The crucial thing when you talk about democracy and freedom of expression I think it can be defined as a responsibility for the journalist. As I said we, journalists in the Balkans, can cause so much harms if we don’t do the job well. We know that we have to use that freedom of expression wisely if we consider that we are not in a second time journalists but we are first journalists: priority is to be a journalist. And second is to be Albanians, Serbs, Kosovans or whatever you want to be. So basically we can talk about human rights in the Balkans, if we put ourselves as journalist, first as human and second as the ethnicity we belong to. And this is the most important thing that I have in mind every time I am faced with a difficult story, with a story where I have more difficult access when I know that the people don’t want me get access whether they are members of different ethnic groups, whether they are extremists. The crucial thing to have in mind is that we are doing this from a human rights’ perspective and not from a perspective of our little nationalist ethnic.

Interview given on April 13
th, 2008

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