This person’s words were so calculated, so evil. That’s why this time it genuinely made me feel threatened and scared,” Zana Cimili told BIRN.
On July 5, regional television network N1 announced that Cimili, the channel’s prominent reporter from Kosovo, had received death threats online.
The anonymous person who made the threats said in their message that they had “a lifelong desire to kill an Albanian, even an Albanian child”.
The message also expressed the desire “for a new war in Kosovo during which the Albanians will feel Serbian rage”, N1 reported.
“The threats to Zana Cimili, as to other N1 journalists, are not only threats to the individual reporters but also to freedom of speech and of the media as fundamental democratic rights,” said the channel, which has reporters in countries across the former Yugoslavia.
A day later, Serbian police arrested a man from the northern town of Becej on suspicion of threatening Cimili. A court then placed the suspect under house arrest.
“The arrest of the man who threatened me and my daughter sends an important message – that you cannot assume to hide behind the guise of social media when threatening journalists,” Cimili said in an interview with BIRN conducted via email.
The shock for Cimili was heightened by the intensity of the hatred directed at Albanians, and the fact that the perpetrator posted the message under a picture of her three-year-old daughter – “posting it under a photograph of her playing in the sand – saying they would ‘rip up Albanian children with their teeth’”.
In its latest report, US-based democracy watchdog Freedom House characterised Serbia’s media environment as ‘partially free’, citing an “environment of intimidation and harassment that inhibits journalists’ day-to-day work”.
Statistics gathered by the SHARE Foundation, a Serbian-based non-governmental organisation dealing with digital rights, support Freedom House’s findings.
In 2018, SHARE registered four cases of online threats against female journalists, and another four in the first five months of this year.
“While I regret any situation where more attention is placed on the journalist rather than on their work, since I think our reporting should always get the most attention, I hope there will be some long-term positive outcomes to this,” Cimili said.
She added that she was also touched by the huge show of support she received from journalists in Kosovo, Serbia and the wider Balkan region.
‘Atrocious and unacceptable’
N1, considered to be one of the most critical regional TV outlets, is often criticised by senior Serbian officials. Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic even called it “CIA television”.
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic however described the threats against Cimili as “atrocious and unacceptable”.
Cimili said that any condemnation of attacks against journalists is welcome, especially coming from the head of the government of Serbia, a country that has fallen more than 10 places in the Reporters Without Borders world press freedom league table two years in a row.
But she questioned the intentions behind Brnabic’s statement amid the worsening state of media freedom in Serbia.
“What was surprising to me and the people who are familiar with the media situation in Serbia is that the government did not react and even ignored attacks on other journalists in the country, even hunger strikes on the part of some high-profile journalists whose lives were at stake, yet chooses to react to a journalist based in Kosovo, a territory Serbia continues to claim is its own,” she said.
“This then urges the question – was this just a political ploy, meant to satisfy foreign observers of Serbia’s attitudes towards press freedoms? It is unfortunate that even when facing such difficult situations, journalists are used as a means for politicians to score political points, both locally and abroad,” she added.
Cimili said she is almost 100 per cent sure that the incident was provoked entirely or largely by the fact that tensions between Kosovo and Serbia are at higher than they have been in a long time.
“It’s always been hard to cover Kosovo-Serbia relations, and now it’s even harder, almost impossible to bear,” she explained.
“While the odd ‘Kosovo is Serbia’ message comes to me on almost a daily basis, the reactions I get now are ‘When we come to [the Kosovo town of] Prizren next year, you’ll be one of the first ones’ or perpetuating Serbian government propaganda, which they might have gotten from the tabloids, when I report on something from Pristina,” she added.
Sexist and nationalist insults
This isn’t the first time that N1’s Kosovo correspondent has faced threats, although they have never been so violent before.
She recalled one incident followed a march in Pristina to honour the people who went missing during the 1998-99 war, which she attended with her daughter.
“My daughter was carrying a poster with the name of a missing Serbian woman. Some Albanians found that infuriating, and felt it was disrespectful towards the Albanian victims,” she said.
“I try to teach my daughter to be respectful and considerate of everyone’s pain, just like I was raised to be. So there can be people on both sides who don’t like your work when you don’t fit into their pre-determined labels – a Kosovo journalist working exclusively for Kosovo outlets, or a Serbian journalist working exclusively for Serbian outlets,” she added.
Cimili argued that a journalist’s ethnic background should have nothing to do with their ability to report professionally and in the public interest.
“Another thing that makes this hard is being a woman whose face people see on TV. There’s something about seeing a woman deliver the news that encourages people to send extremely sexist and gender-based nationalist comments to me,” she said.
While the case against the man suspected of threatening her awaits a court’s ruling, Cimili offered some advice for female colleagues facing threats online: “Report, block [people who make aggressive comments], ignore and keep doing your job.”