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Yugoslavia: Kosovar Journalist Wins 1999 Press Freedom Award

Baton Haxhiu -- editor-in-chief of the Pristina newspaper Koha Ditore -- was one of five journalists who last night received one of journalism's most prestigious awards: the 1999 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

New York, 24 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In the course of this year, Baton Haxhiu at one point was crouching in a basement hideaway in Kosovo and later publishing his newspaper in exile from Macedonia. But last night, he found himself in a Manhattan ballroom, listening to the praise of the Western media.

Keeping his newspaper -- and himself -- alive during the past eight months has been difficult. He faced fines, fires, and death threats. But his tireless work helped to make Pristina's daily newspaper "Koha Ditore" a critical source of news and analysis about the Kosovo crisis. The world's journalism community last night acknowledged Haxhiu's efforts by presenting him with one of its 1999 International Press Freedom awards.

In his acceptance speech, Haxhiu described the current press environment in Yugoslavia:

"American citizens are born with freedom from fear. In the Balkans, citizens are born to fear. Why are we born with fear? Because our institutions -- that is, the media, court system, prosecutors [and] police -- have always been mere extensions of [a] corrupt regime. In such a world, loyalty to power counts for everything. That name 'traitor' is thrown around quickly and easily. And its effect makes a mockery of free speech."

Haxhiu came to international attention on the eve of the NATO air strikes on Serbia last March. Serbian forces set fire to his newspaper's offices, killing a guard. NATO officials believed Haxhiu had been killed. Haxhiu watched televised reports of his death on CNN as he was hiding in a basement in the Kosovo capital, Pristina. A British newspaper published his obituary.

Wearing a disguise, he fled to Macedonia in a refugee convoy. He says meeting his news-starved countrymen in the refugee camps inspired him to begin publishing his newspaper again.

Haxhiu traveled throughout Europe to raise funds and to recruit fellow journalists. After only two weeks, he began distributing the newspaper free to the Kosovo refugees in the Macedonian camps.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Haxhiu explains why he went to so much trouble to publish his newspaper in exile.

"Our idea was to keep alive the idea for Kosovo people to be back in Kosovo. And to keep stability in Macedonia."

His efforts did not go unnoticed. Chrystyna Lapychak is the program coordinator for Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics for the Committee to Protect Journalists. She explains why Haxhiu's efforts stood out:

"We were thrilled to see his efforts for his readers. Certainly, it was a tremendous service and a tremendous effort. He immediately went searching for funds, traveled around Europe looking for funds, so he could distribute his paper for free. Koha Ditore is the most prominent, most serious newspaper, and it was a familiar source for people. So distributing the paper in the camps was just an enormous effort and it was very important psychologically for people who were beleaguered, who had been through a harrowing experience."

Lapychak also explained to RFE/RL how the CPJ works. She says the main tool the organization uses to denounce abuses of press freedoms around the world is the media itself. It also conducts fact-finding and advocacy missions. She says the New York-based CPJ wants press freedom to be at the top of the U.S. government's agenda in its relations with other countries.

Lapychak says one of the goals of the CPJ's International Press Freedom Awards is to draw world attention to particular regions where press freedoms are being abused. She says the award to Haxhiu is intended to throw more light on what's happening now in Kosovo:

"We hope that -- with this award -- we're able to bring attention to the problems of independent journalists in Kosovo. And that's at the foremost of our hope by giving Baton Haxhiu this award. And we would like to offer them moral support, as well as bringing pressure -- directly or indirectly -- on all the parties involved now in determining the future of Kosovo."

Now, as refugees resettle in Kosovo and the international community works to rebuild the shattered province, Haxhiu's work continues. An ethnic Albanian, he uses his newspaper's editorial pages to criticize and inform all sides in the Kosovo debate. His opinions have provoked scorn from Serbian police, U.S. diplomats and Kosovar Albanians alike.

Journalist David Remnick presented the press freedom award to Haxhiu last night. Remnick is the editor of New Yorker magazine and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire." Remnick noted Haxhiu has been called a spy, a criminal, a traitor, and a "pro-Serb vampire." Remnick said:

"His critical analysis of all sides of the Kosovo quagmire have won him the respect of journalists and the wrath of those he dares to criticize."

Regarding the future, Haxhiu told the gathering that there is still hope for Kosovo. But he appealed for international help.

"We still have a chance to build something new in Kosovo. We still have a chance to build civic society and democracy in Kosovo. What we need from you is help in building independent institutions from scratch before elections. Because if institutions are built after elections, they will once again be extensions of the regime."

U.S. television journalist Tom Brokaw chaired last night's awards ceremony, during which honors were also bestowed on:

-- Jesus Joel Diaz Hernandez, who is in jail in Cuba for starting an independent news agency on the Internet.

-- Maria Cristina Cabellero, a reporter who fled death threats in Colombia.

-- And Jugnu Mohsin and Najam Sethi, a husband and wife team who publish The Friday Times in Pakistan.