Ethnic discrimination, religious hate speech and homophobia in the Western Balkan throughout February: Monthly monitoring highlight

Throughout the month of February, the RDN monitoring team has detected a range of hateful narratives and discourse. This month we uncovered ethnic discrimination, religious hate speech and homophobia across the Western Balkan region.

Antisemitism in North Macedonia

Recently, in an article published by libertas.mk, a headline read “38-year-old woman from Ohrid with the message of hate ‘burn the hotel with Jews in it’ could face 1 to 5 years in prison”.

This headline itself was a reference to an incident a few weeks ago where approximately 50 members of the Jewish religious group “Lev Tahor” arrived in North Macedonia. Lev Tahor are a religious group which follow a fundamentalist form of Judaism and adheres to its own interpretations of Jewish law.

The first report on the group of individuals was whilst they were residing in the town of Kumanovo, about 30km from Skopje. Since the moment of their arrival in the country there has been a number of reports and media headlines regarding their activities. The group also faced hard backlash from some social media users who said that they were coming into the country to “brainwash them” and “kidnap their children” – strong antisemitic and false tropes which spread hateful narratives and discrimination.

A few days ago, the group relocated from Kumanovo to Ohrid where they also faced backlash from local citizens, who even turned to the streets for a peaceful protest claiming that they “wont’ let this slide”. One social media user, a 38-year-old woman, called for the burning of the hotel where the members of Lev Tahor are currently residing. She even made threats of burning the hotel “with those Jews along with it”.

The places and areas where Lev Tahor are currently visiting are well-known for the deeply Christian religious communities who are opposed to newcomers. Having “others” inside their community and territory is likely to lead to fear and prejudice that the balance of the community will fall out of place. According to some interpretations, the introduction of new religious groups within the region may result in negative response from the local population in a need to protect their long lasting ‘traditions’.

However, such claims and fears are apparently not supported by any verifiable information or evidence that any of the members of Lev Tahor are in the country to do anything else but live peacefully.

Such comments and narratives being spread and upheld within society can result in strong divides along religious lines and can even encourage violent and antisocial behaviour towards those who do not fall under the majority in the region.

Ethnic discrimination in Serbia, Albania and Montenegro

In Serbia, the daily Danas published a column written by Marko Vidojković with highly negative and discriminatory language used against Roma people which was later removed. The author of the article presented Rome people as a homogenous group claiming that “the Roma tradition is to use narcotics and to beg for money”. Vidojković additionally stigmatised and degraded the Roma community by using derogatory comments and stereotypes.

Within Serbia, Roma people face systemic discrimination and stigmatisation while hate crimes against them are not covered by the media or if they are, they are part of official statistics about hate crime towards Roma. By publishing such columns and articles, Danas has helped to maintain and reproduce such hateful narratives and discriminatory stereotypes towards the Roma population.

Following the incident, Danas editorial office decided to remove Marko Vidojković column following the reactions of a number of stakeholders: a request by the Roma CSO Opre Roma Serbia, reactions from the Commissioner for Protection of Equality,  the Initiative for Economic and Social Rights ‘A11’ and the president of the Roma Party Srdjan šajn. The newspaper additionally offered an apology on behalf of the Danas editorial board and the reaction of Marko Vidojković which was highly inappropriate.

In Albania, the news website Joq-albania published aa article with the headline “Job announcement in Elbasan: We’re looking for a cleaner, not coloured!”

The way that the announcement, which was from a bar in the city of Elbasan, was framed alluded that  the job opportunity was not for the Roma and Egyptian communities of the city. This headline received much backlash as a result. Outlet JOQ Albania was one of the first ones to report the incident, reposting a photo of the announcement without context on Instagram thereby, prompting a wave of hateful comments and statements which were displayed as humorous in the comment section of the post which appears to have been taken down now.

Despite this, it is interesting and important to note that the article which appeared on JOQ framed and described the incident correctly, further discussing and addressing discrimination in Albania, especially against the Roma and Egyptian communities. Nevertheless, the clickbait headline is extremely problematic and both racist and discriminatory.

The Commissioner for Protection Against Discrimination reacted to the incident, stating that an investigation would be underway and the bar owner will be prosecuted if necessary. Furthermore, the Roma and Egyptian communities in Elbasan took to the streets to protest against this act of discrimination and this was widely and positively reported.  

Recently a similar, positive, example of media acting against hate speech has been noted in Albania. The media indeed can have an important role in preventing the spread of prejudice and discrimination within society.

In Montenegro, on the news website cdm.me a headline read “Bojan Kuburović was taken into police custody, he denies that he is the author of the disputed post on Facebook”. This headline was in reference to a recent incident on Facebook. The user Bojan Kuburović was taken into police custody in reaction to his Facebook post in which he praised Russia’s attack on Ukraine. His post read the following “And my grandfather was at Macedonian front (Solunac / Solunski front)! Well done, Putin, hit the Ukrainian Ustashas and women and children and throw everybody off the bridge! This is how the terrorists should be treated! We will do the same with Montenegrins. Every Serbian house in Montenegro has two arsenals”.

This post is extremely problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, by making reference to the current war between Ukraine and Russia which is a highly sensitive and upsetting issue. Secondly, the comment and comparison made between the current events in Ukraine to that in Montenegro and claim of Serbians overthrowing the Montenegrin population is extremely harmful and can easily fuel conflicts. Such statements further foster tensions amongst different ethnic communities within the country, undermining cohesion and harmony.

Homophobia in Kosovo

Members of the Kosovo Assembly will vote for a new Civil Code Draft that specifies and addresses, among other things, same-sex marriage. This part of the Law is opposed by the largest number of Kosovo citizens as well as officials. In addition to a number of deputies, Ali Sefaj, a representative of civil service union and an official of the Government of Kosovo further reacted to this topic on his Facebook page. He called on other MPs not to vote for the Draft New Civil Code, using hate speech and inflammatory comments in his post.

Several negative and homophobic posts have been spread online through Facebook calling the public to “say no to the Civil Code which legitimised same-sex marriage and endangers the family and the nation, in the name of God and the nation”.  Another comment read “you cannot be a homosexual and a patriot. Either you are with Albanians, religion and tradition morals and humanity of you are their enemy”.  Duda Balje, President of the Assembly’s Commission for Human Rights in the Assembly of Kosovo, wrote on her Facebook profile that she would not vote for this Code “because she cannot go against her religion and against the family values in which she grew up”.

Although the Constitution of Kosovo supports same sex marriages, there is no explicit law to address it. In order to harmonise the issue with the Constitution, the Government of Kosovo has initiated a new Draft Civil Code. However, the traditional society of Kosovo is mostly in opposition of same-sex marriages, believing that it will negatively affect  ‘traditional’ values.

These stands are reflected in very negative and at time quite hateful comments, which further fuel homophobic narratives and attitudes, whilst equally undermining the equal rights of individuals.

Anti-migrant rhetoric in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The website Antimigrant.ba is an extremely problematic platform which reports daily on migrants within Bosnia and Herzegovina in an unprofessional and offensive manner. In its recent text, the portal tried to draw attention to the presence of migrants within the country by making a direct comparison to the livelihood of internally displaced citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The website and article spread narratives which spread hostility and negative stereotypes in regard to migrants and refugees in the country and the wider region.

The title read “Milorad Gogić: migrants in Lipa got what the returnees still dream of in an instant” claiming that returnee Gogić has, since returning to his village of Dubovsko with his wife, has been living a life full of returnee problems, while at the same time migrants have everything they want. The title and article itself made a dangerous and unfounded comparison between the care and treatment of returnees and migrants from other parts of the world.

Although it is true that a large number of returnees in BiH do not have adequate living conditions, it is not the fault of the migrants but rather the level of corruption at government level. By posting such stories and headlines, Antimigrant.ba fuels hatred and tension within the country with negative attitudes towards migrants whilst simultaneously driving away attention from the actual issue at hand; government corruption. Rather than creating tensions, the focus of the media should be on the government and systemic mistreatment of individuals.