June 8, 2021

The Balkan Troll of the Month is an individual, a group of individuals or a media outlet that spreads hate on the internet based on gender, ethnicity, religion, or other diversity categories. The Balkan Troll is selected based on hate speech incidents identified across the Western Balkans region.

Our May Troll is news which displayed Islamophobic, sensationalist headlines falsely linking a violent attack in the Dine Hoxha mosque in Tirana to extremism.

The incident occurred on the online news portal of where the sensationalist headline read: “The attack on the mosque in Tirana can be launched by extremism”.

The story covered an attack by a 31-year-old with a history of mental health issues. He was arrested by the police after stabbing five people who were in the middle of their prayer inside the ‘Dine Hoxha’ mosque. Prior to the attack, he had also injured a person on a bus.

Despite the suspect being brought up in a Christian family, the fact that he had recently converted to Islam was picked up by the media outlet who then went on to label him a “terrorist”, emphasizing that he “committed the attack in the holy month for Muslims”. They furthermore, labelled him as a “Christian terrorist” then progressing to claim that the suspect said that “Muslims must be punished”, and the he should be “investigated for terrorism” by creating claims that the “event might be related to violent extremism”.

This case is an example of hate speech towards religious communities. It specifically includes Islamophobic comments and unfounded claims relating the young man’s actions to the religion of Islam and extremism. The media headlines highlighted the man’s religious background and need for “Muslims must be punished” whilst disregarding the fact that the individual had a history of mental illnesses. By making a casual relation between the man’s actions and Islam, the newspapers were quick to publish Islamophobic and stereotyped headlines which spread misinformation and disinformation regarding the version of events. Additionally, the spreading of harmful lies and negative group labelling increases hostility and hatred towards individuals on the basis of false allegations.

Albania is a country characterised by its peaceful, multi-ethnic and religious diversity. Such Islamophobic headlines and false allegations run the risk of creating hatred and tension between these communities and can almost be seen as an attempt to drive a wedge between such religious groups, increasing fear and hatred towards one another on the basis of false claims and misinformation.

Harmful taboos

Another important issue raised within the article is the taboo around mental health. Within the article there were many references made to the individual being described as a “psychopath”, “crazy” and “mentally sick” – furthermore highlighting the importance around the need of awareness-raising and education when reporting on such sensitive issues whilst minimising the risk of creating negative labels and hate speech.

According to media outlets should report sensitively around the topic of mental health by paying close attention to their use of phrasing and language in which the mental health condition “is only one aspect of a persons life, not the defining character”.

Furthermore, they should try to avoid and stay away from derogatory language which was evident in this case through the use of terms like “crazy” and “psychopath”. Media outlets should choose their words carefully when reporting on mental health.

Indeed, according to the Albanian Code of Journalistic Ethics, journalists “must avoid, by all means, the discrimination based on race, sex, language, religion, political views, physical handicap, social or national origins”. This article can be seen as an example of a violation of such codes by linking the individuals religion to their mental health.

According to Mohit Varshney et al. in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health:

“In public perception, mental illness and violence remain inextricably intertwined, and much of the stigma associated with mental illness may be due to a tendency to conflate mental illness with the concept of dangerousness. This perception is further augmented by the media which sensationalises violent crimes committed by persons with mental illness, particularly mass shootings, and focuses on mental illness in such reports, ignoring the fact that most of the violence in society is caused by people without mental illness. This societal bias contributes to the stigma faced by those with a psychiatric diagnosis, which in turn contributes to non-disclosure of the mental illness and decreased treatment seeking, and also leads to discrimination against them.”

Harmful false narratives and misinformation

Despite further investigation being carried out into the case following both attacks that the Albanian media described as “acts of terrorism”, it soon became clear that the media made several false allegations and some journalists did not fact check their information before publishing their article.  

This highlights the importance of unbiased and professional journalism as well as the significance of fact checking. News stories should be backed up by evidence, facts, and truth. This was a clear example of misinformation and disinformation in which the journalists rushed into reporting and publishing a version of events, falsely labelling it as a ‘terrorist attack’, without waiting for the incident to be investigated by the police and justice system alike.