Ethnic tensions and sexism in the Balkans: Monthly monitoring highlight

Reporting Diversity Network 2.0 media monitoring team continues to follow the media coverage of diversity across the Balkans. Throughout January, the RDN monitoring team has detected a range of hateful narratives and discourse.

Ethnic discrimination in three Western Balkan states

In Serbia, Marko Pantović, a member of the Priboj Police Administration, uploaded a video on his Facebook profile in which both him and his colleagues (also members of the Ministry of Interior) sang a song that glorified the genocide of Srebrenica. This video was picked up and covered by local and national media, mainly those who had a critical stance on the incident.

The song itself was extremely harmful and offensive, making reference to the Srebrenica genocide in a manner which glorified the event and even called for its repeat. One of the lines in the song read “Srebrenica you are so dear to me, I hope it happened three times again”. It is an example of a highly dangerous and harmful instance of the glorification of war crimes and traumatic historical events. Bearing in mind the amount of people who suffered and were murdered as a result of the genocide, the video is triggering and disturbing to the Bosnian population and to the families of the victims of the genocide. As this song was sung  by a member of the police administration, it highlights the need to establish institutional standards and measures  for such actions so that inappropriate behaviours have consequences.

The video was later removed from Facebook, but a copy remains uploaded on YouTube.

Following the incident, President Aleksandar Vučić visited Priboj and held a press conference in which he stated that the police from Priboj who sang songs glorifying the crimes against Bosniaks in Srebrenica will be “not only punished” but also transferred from Priboj, which is a multinational city, to southwestern Serbia.

However, at that conference he also said “I will not tell you to take off your hijab, although the whole of Serbia would celebrate me, but I will tell you that we will respect your rights and freedoms”. There are many issues and hateful connotations lying behind this comment.

Firstly, in a democratic society, no one holds the right to comment or control what other people do and do not wear. Secondly, in this comment, the first section of the sentence itself gives the impression that most of Serbia and its people do not accept the rights and freedoms of religious minorities. Such comments, especially when shared and promoted by highly ranked political figures, despite actually saying  “we will respect your rights and freedoms” sends underling messages that divide citizens on religious grounds.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina on 9 January,   Milorad Dodik , member of the BiH Presidency and leader of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD),  spoke against the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. His comment was extremely undermining and derogatory to the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, by arguing that they indeed are not a civil and harmonious nation, but rather a nation which is trying to discriminate against the Serbian people. Dodik continued by saying that “the story of civil BiH is an illusion that they want to impose on us and push the Serbian people into the position of a national minority. It is equal to the idea of the Ustasha state from the last century”.

The Ustasha/Ustaše were a known Croatian fascist and ultranationalist group of people who operated and existed in the first half of the 20th century. His reference to ‘Ustasha’ is extremely harmful as it comparesthe state of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its people to that of an ultranationalist organisation which was known for its fascism and hateful behaviour. By making such comments, Milorad Dodik challenged the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and fuelled further tension among various ethno-religious groups within the country. His behaviour and comments have further intensified following the number of imposed sanctions on him by the international community.

In Albania, singer Ronela Hajati, who won the 60th Song Festival  [Festivali i Këngës 2021] with the song ‘Secret’, has been chosen to represent the country in the Eurovision song contest 2022. Nevertheless, the public seems to have reacted negatively to both the song, which speaks of a secret love story, and the singer. . As a reaction to the song Ronela Hajati, received a large number of  hateful language including sexist comments.  

Gazeta Tema, an online newspaper, released a headline surrounding the issue which read “This non-Albanian gypsy wrote the lyrics of the song while having sex”.

The headline is based on the quote by the actor and songwriter Cun Lajc who criticised the song and singer saying that “…she will win the festival because she is Armine, Azerbaijani, gypsy, Russian and not at all Albanian. This is the degeneration of voters and singers who write their song lyrics in the WC or while having sex. I felt miserable when I read on the internet that she will represent Albania in Eurovision”.

However, he was not the only one who has commented with such hateful speech, as another online commentator has called her a “Dutch cow” to which Ronela responded  with the comment “Albanian donkey”. Here is an example of offensive language  from both sides.

Tema newspaper, on the other hand, has provided the space and means of enabling such hateful content, shifting the comment section into a battlefield of hate speech in various forms. The media has a duty and moral obligation to refrain from spreading such language rather than using it to get clicks and profit.

Sexism in Montenegro and Kosovo

In Montenegro, during a conversation on the topic of violence against women on the morning program of the Radio and Television of Montenegro (RTCG), presenter at the public service Jovana Božarić-Stanišić shared highly sexist narratives. She  argued that there are instances of violence against women due to the fact that women sometimes challenge men to “behave improperly”.

She  added that indeed “… there’s also another side. I’m guided by the fact that women when it’s time to avoid something or not say something so as not to provoke the other side, should remain silent. There are women who do not stop speaking, there really are”.

Her comments and remarks were shared amongst various social media and news websites, including the headline on Vijesti which read – the justification of violence on RTCG: “women sometimes themselves provoke men…”. This is extremely harmful and dangerous as such comments being made on public television spread sexism even further and are used as a justification for violence against women. Unfortunately, this pattern of victim blaming narratives is present at a national level despite the potential harm it may do. This contributes to many women who are themselves victims of domestic violence and other forms of abuse feeling shame or responsibility for the violence they go through.

In Kosovo, the media reported on two incidents of domestic violence in early January. A headline on Gazeta Express read “A 31- and 70-year-old man were arrested in Ferizaj/Uroševac, their wives were beaten”.  According to the report a 31-year-old man beat his wife, and a police reported that it was not the first time that he had used physical violence against his partner. Similarly, a 71-year-old man also used violence against both his wife and son. The victims of these two cases of violence ended up in hospital whilst the Basic Court in Ferizaj/Uroševac sentenced the two perpetrators to 48 hours in custody.

Cases of domestic violence often end with 24- or 48-hour detention which apart from being a short ‘sentence’ for the perpetrators does not help to ensure the continued safety of victims of domestic violence themselves. There have been several tragic cases in the last few years, for this very reason. At times the news headlines themselves, as seen in this case, can act as a green light in encouraging various hate speech comments which justify violence against women. If, for example the headline said “[a] 31-year-old and a 70-year-old arrested for domestic violence”  the reactions would have been directed towards the perpetrators and violence in general. Kosovo is an extremely patriarchal society in which many men believe to have the right to psychological and/or physical violence towards their wives and partners.

Media outlets have a duty and responsibility to report on incidents of violence and harassment in an objective and professional manner so as to condemn such behaviour and present it in the all-serious manner of the situation. A more analytical approach from the media, rather than just reporting (which often show underlying sexism and stereotypes), would help contribute to changing the public perception of this issue.

Targeting and hate speech in  North Macedonia

In North Macedonia, an unknown man verbally attacked an employee in the Centre for Reproductive Health and threatened to set the Health Education and Research Associate (HERA) as well as the employee on fire. The unknown man entered the building by claiming he sought advice on his children’s health. When the employee started to explain the available tests and procedures for sexually transmitted diseases, the man began to verbally assault her by calling her derogatory names. When the employee said she would call the police, he said he would set the building and her on fire.

 It was soon evident that the threat and attack was both premediated and planned out – putting both the employees and Center itself in danger and vulnerable to further attacks.

This does not come as a surprise following the strong rhetoric and online attacks against HERA especially in their effort to introduce comprehensive sex education in schools and curricula. Such hateful comments and rhetoric are not only aimed at HERA themselves, but also towards other groups and associations that advocate for gender equality and sex education. Many of these online attacks on various social media sites include the use of fake news and tactical distortion of information orchestrated and organised in a way so as to discriminate and label against groups of citizens and open use of hate speech.