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At Santa Fe conference, journalists describe working while under threat

December 6, 2018

Arbana Xharra, an investigative reporter and editor from Kosovo, has much experience covering both government corruption and religious extremism. Both topics have provoked anger and controversy.

But, she told an audience in Santa Fe on Wednesday, there is a big difference in the reactions.

“When you cover corruption, you know exactly who’s going to attack you,” she said. “Certain politicians or political parties or businessmen.”

Xharra once was sued by a businessman over one of her investigations. She was exonerated in court.

When a journalist reports on extremist groups, she said, the possible source of attacks becomes larger.

While covering Islamic extremists, Xharra began receiving about 200 death threats a day, she said, and was the target of a misinformation campaign accusing her of spying for Serbia. This helped escalate the threats.

Xharra was one of several international news media professionals who spoke on a panel Wednesday at a conference called “Journalism Under Fire.” The four-day event at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center, a gathering of more than 50 foreign journalists and many other reporters from across the state and nation, was organized by the Santa Fe Council on International Relations to explore connections between journalism and democracy, and to discuss solutions to increasing threats against press freedom worldwide.

Many of those speaking at the event have been imprisoned, threatened or harmed for their work.

Xharra showed the crowd a text message threatening her children: “… we’re going to find you and we know how much you love your own children,” said the ominous missive, displayed on a large screen.

Other speakers on the panel were Jason Rezaian, who was the Tehran bureau chief for the Washington Post when he was arrested and later convicted on charges of espionage, “propaganda against the establishment” and other crimes, and Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Xharra, who in 2015 received the International Women of Courage award from the U.S. State Department, has been writing about Islamic extremism in her region for about six years.

The threats against her intensified last year, she said, when she began writing about efforts of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to spread his brand of Islamic nationalism through religious institutions, schools and mosques in the Balkans.

When she reported a threat to police, she said, one officer asked her, “Why are you writing about Islamic groups? Why are you not writing about Catholic groups?”

“The police were supposed to take my statement, not evaluate my work,” Xharra said.

Last year, a few weeks after the threat to her children, Xharra found an ominous red cross painted by the front door of her apartment. The vandalism was first seen by one of her sons when he came home from school.

When she reported the vandalism, she said, police told her, “If they were going to kill you, they would have. They just want to scare you.”

Three weeks later, her tormentors did worse than scare her.

In May 2017, Xharra suffered a severe beating in her parking garage and was hospitalized. Again, police did nothing to try to find the offenders, she said. “This sends a message to journalists in my country and all around the world: ‘This is what will happen to you when you start investigating.’ ”

The attack received attention from the news media, but police never found Xharra’s attackers.

She is now living in New York, where she and New York University professor Alon Ben-Meir continue to research and write about Turkey and radical Islam in the Balkans.

Rezaian, who served about a year and a half in an Iranian prison, still works for the Post but hasn’t been back to Iran since his release in 2016. The newspaper did the right thing by not sending a replacement to its Tehran bureau, he said.

But, he added, something big is lost when journalists have to flee a country.

“After I got released, the number of stories from Tehran went way down,” Rezaian said.

Rezaian decried President Donald Trump’s reaction to the October slaying of his former colleague, exiled Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi embassy in Turkey — allegedly ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“When the supposed leader of the free world stands up and says, ‘We’re not going to do anything,’ it only makes that problem worse,” Rezaian said.

Radsch agreed. Not only did Trump fail to stand up for American values, she said, he also made it clear that this country is going to put its economic interests above human rights.

This, the panelists said, will put more journalists in danger around the world.

Speaking of the threats and attack she faced, Xharra said, “They are scared of me. That’s why they want to silence me.”

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