Advocacy groups are rallying around embattled Kosovo journalist Jeta Xharra following a vitriolic campaign against her in pro-government newspapers and a series of anonymous death threats.

Xharra hosts a popular and controversial television show in Pristina and is affiliated with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). BIRN reporters collaborated on our investigation into war crimes linked to former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and Xharra hosted a lively discussion of the project on her show (I joined in via Skype).

Former KLA leaders dominate Kosovo’s current government so it wasn’t especially surprising that pro-government newspapers attacked Xharra and BIRN soon after our reports were published. What was surprising was the viciousness and implicit calls to violence in some of the commentaries. Infopress, a newspaper that gets much of its advertising revenue from the government, likened the BIRN journalists to Serbian spies and compared their work to fascist propaganda. A subsequent Infopress commentary said the author “would be honored to shake the hand of any such dutiful Albanian” who took it upon himself to “punish” the BIRN reporting team. Telephoned death threats to Xharra followed the newspaper smears.

“In a post-war society such as Kosovo where the wounds are still open, to compare someone to Milosevic’s Serbia is not only an insult and incitement to hatred, but could also be life-threatening,” Xharra said in a statement published by BIRN-Kosovo.

Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, who served as the KLA’s political director during the war, has been silent on the Xharra case, as has Kosovo’s president, Fatmir Sejdiu. Both men enjoy warm relations with Washington and have met with senior members of the Obama administration. Last February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Kosovo as the world’s “newest democracy,” following a meeting with Sejdiu.

But a number of human rights and press freedom groups are questioning Kosovo’s commitment to democracy, at least based on the government’s pointed refusal to support Xharra. Here’s what the Committee to Protect Journalist’s Joel Simon said in a June 17 letter to Thaci:

The death threats against Xharra and her team of journalists are deplorable and put Kosovo’s fledgling democracy at risk. Press freedom in Kosovo must be protected as a fundamental human right for an independent and stable society. We ask you and your government to immediately and unequivocally condemn this attempt to intimidate an independent journalist and her colleagues, hold accountable all those responsible for making the threats, and ensure the safety of Jeta Xharra and her BIRN-Kosovo colleagues.

So far, Kosovo’s leadership hasn’t responded to appeals from a handful of NGOs. And so far, they’ve refused to order an investigation into the heart of the current allegations: that KLA operatives abducted and then murdered hundreds of Serbs as well as Roma and other Albanians in the months after the official end of the Kosovo war ten years ago.

Sources tell me the new European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) has opened a formal inquiry into some of the allegations. But the jury is still out on whether EULEX is ready to challenge Kosovo’s current political bosses if evidence points in their direction.

Michael Montgomery has been reporting in the Balkans for twenty years. His recent radio documentary for the BBC investigated the kidnappings of Serbs during and after the war in Kosovo. Montgomery’s video journals from that reporting trip appeared in CIR’s web video series, “The Investigators.”

Michael Montgomery

Michael Montgomery is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. He reports on the criminal justice system, vulnerable populations, and the underground economy. Montgomery has led collaborations with the Associated Press, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Frontline, KQED and others. After completing a Fulbright fellowship in Eastern Europe, Montgomery covered the fall of communism and wars in former Yugoslavia for The Daily Telegraph and Los Angeles Times. He also worked as an associate producer for "60 Minutes" correspondent Ed Bradley and was a senior reporter for American RadioWorks. His investigations into human rights abuses in the Balkans led to the arrest and conviction of Serbian and Albanian paramilitaries and the creation of a new war crimes court in The Hague. As a reporter and producer, Montgomery has garnered national and international prizes, including an Overseas Press Club Award, Investigative Reporters and Editors Certificate, Edward R. Murrow Award, Peabody Award and Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University gold and silver batons. Montgomery is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.