IHT - Brave Journalists

Paris, Tuesday, November 23, 1999

Washington Post Service

Baton Haxhiu knew it was time to escape when he saw on television the premature report of his own death. An ethnic Albanian journalist, Mr. Haxhiu had gone into hiding in a friend's apartment after Serbian forces ransacked and torched his newspaper offices last spring, killing a guard. After listening to the false report of his own assassination, the editor in chief of Koha Ditore made his way to Macedonia, where he resumed publication of the newspaper in exile.

Now Mr. Haxhiu is back in Pristina, but his life is not much more comfortable. By maintaining his newspaper's tradition of independent reporting, he has now angered some of his fellow ethnic Albanians. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which will honor Mr. Haxhiu this week along with four others, he has been denounced as a spy, a traitor and a ''pro-Serb vampire,'' and has received death threats. ''Of course, we come under pressure,'' he says with remarkable equanimity. "We have so many people with guns, and people are frustrated. ... To be independent in Kosovo is so dangerous.''

To be independent is dangerous in many parts of the world; that is one lesson of the CPJ awards. The other honorees are Jesus Joel Diaz Hernandez, in jail in Cuba for starting an independent news agency, Maria Cristina Caballero, a reporter and editor who has fled death threats in Colombia, and Jugnu Mohsin andNajam Sethi, the wife and husband team who publish and edit The Friday Times in Pakistan.

Last spring, Mr. Sethi was beaten and jailed after their newspaper exposed corruption in the elected government; his wife campaigned for his release while continuing to publish. Now that army generals have taken over, Mr. Sethi says, life is easier,and the press for the moment is free. But he also knows that, for honest journalists, life may not remain easy. ''The generals tend to see things in black and white,'' he says. ''If we were to get into trouble,'' there is no law to which to appeal.

What is striking about these heroes is that they make no claims of heroism, although they take unimaginable risks to pursue their work. ''The situation is getting worse for everyone, and what's going on with journalists is a symptom,'' says Ms. Caballero. But if brave people such as Ms. Caballero are killed or hounded into silence, then the rest of the world will know little of the danger facing all Colombians. That is why journalist heroes such as these five deserve recognition.

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