August 23, 2021

Although miles apart, Serbia and the UK share a regrettable similarity: hate speech in sports.  The slogans that are shouted at football matches are always directed against minority groups. In Serbia, the most common targets are members of the LGBTQ + community, Bosniaks, Albanians and the Roma community. The UK, on the other hand, has long been criticised for its level of institutional racism present within its society itself and various institutions. Indeed, a recent report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities was deemed highly problematic and a missed opportunity for systematic change after it ‘failed to acknowledge the shocking disparities in healthcare, education and numerous institutions which affect minority communities in the UK’. The report itself was an investigation carried out by the UK Government in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and awareness raising of the levels of racism within the UK.

At the beginning of the month, at a football match in Novi Pazar, Partizan’s football club fans were shouting the name of convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic and “Nož, žica, Srebrenica” (“Knife, wire, Srebrenica”), which glorified the genocide in Srebrenica. Although the Super League announced that it would submit reports to the Football Association of Serbia due to the incident at the Novi Pazar – Partizan match, the promotion of nationalist ideas is nothing new in stadiums in Serbia. In 2013, Serbia adopted the National Strategy for Combating Violence and Indecent Behaviour at Sporting Events, but there was no noticeable progress. In addition, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) announced in its report in 2017 , that there are indeed “strong links between violent fan groups and extreme right-wing organizations that have links to nationalist politicians and organized crime.”

During the course of England’s matches in Euro2020, the English National Team had shown both its solidarity and support for anti-racism by taking a knee in advance to their matches in association to campaigns such as Black Lives Matter. Although the players’ stance was welcomed by those who followed the games, there were times that the players were met with strong disapproval and hatred amongst the fans. During their match against Romania, the England team players who took the knee were met with loud booing from the crowd which led to anger and frustration amongst the nation. Boris Johnson himself was criticised on the premise that although he wanted ‘the whole country’ to get behind the England team, he has refused to condemn those responsible for the booing.

Following the Euro2020 Finals match between Italy and England Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka were subjected to racist abuse online after they missed their penalties. This was then followed by acts of vandalism in Manchester in which the artwork in tribute to Marcus Rashford was defaced in the early morning following England’s defeat.

According to an article on ITV, most of the racist abuse and hate speech aimed towards the three players on Twitter originated from the UK after which the social media company revealed that it deleted almost 2,000 tweets in the wake of England’s final. As a result, Twitter acknowledged its need for a more robust monitoring of hate speech and racism online by creating a safe platform where racism has no place. Twitter furthermore noted that ‘racism was a deep societal issue still also taking place offline’ but equally on an online platform too. It is noticeable that Twitter policy is different for the Western Balkan countries. Although Twitter announced that they were intended to remove the content that denial Srebrenica genocide, the hate speech (and genocide denial) can still be spread on this platform.

As a reaction to and result of the numerous racist hate speech found both online and offline, many media outlets shamed and exposed such behaviour.

Most notably, news media including BBC, Al Jazeera and the Guardian reported on the various racist online hate which targeted all three England players. The BBC reported the number of supportive messages which covered up the racially aggravated damage at the mural at 02:50 BST on 12 July. People described Rashford, Sancho and Saka as ‘national heroes’.

According to a Guardian article from February this year, “last season 287 of the 2,663 football fixtures played in England and Wales featured at least one incident of hate crime whilst arrests for racist or indecent chanting rose by 150%.” Interviewed by the Guardian, sociologist Dr Jamie Cleland who has been uncovering and focusing on discourse amongst football fans has been quoted to argue that there has been what he calls a ‘casualisation’ of language:

“Society had become a lot busier, and so social norms aren’t being challenged as they would have been historically. People are getting way with things that they wouldn’t have a generation previously.”

Despite the positive reaction from both the public and media outlets who successfully reported on the incidents of racist hate speech online and exposed the numbers and figures, the overall conclusions are the same – that social media companies are the ones to blame for their lack of reaction and measures put in place to prevent such hate speech online. According to vox, ‘Facebook does not proactively moderate a common type of racist attack which were all aggressively being used against the three football players which included ‘comments full of monkey and banana peel emojis’.

It is worrying that hate speech in the stands moves to the media. Although according to the Serbian Journalists’ Code, journalists are obliged to oppose anyone who violates human rights or advocates any kind of discrimination, hate speech and incitement to violence, Serbian dailies Informer, Novosti and Alo reported the shouting of fans without any criticism or condemnation. Portal Alo even had an article condemning the Danas newspaper which actually condemned the slogans that Partizan football club fans shouted. Even the media that condemned the shouting of fans in Novi Pazar, remained only at the factual level of reporting, unlike BBC and the Guardian for example. Serbian media did not report about hate speech and denial of Srebrenica genocide after this incident. Only youth portal Zoomer had the article “Riots in the match Novi Pazar – Partizan: Where are we 20 years after the war?”, in which they critically approached the incident. The normalisation of hate speech in society could be a result of not critisising those who are responsible for it, including sports fans. Such normalization could lead to discrimination, violence, hostility and stereotypes that are the basis of hate crimes.

One of the recommendations of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance

for Serbia is further education that should include the consequences of hate speech in recent history, including the genocide in Srebrenica. The media could use their educational role to implement such action, however, it is equally important that political figures take a stance against hate speech and condemn slogans and banners against marginalized groups as well.

Media outlets have a moral obligation and duty to both censor and expose hate speech and racist discourse both online and offline. As a result of the racist abuse brought by the Euro2020 finals, it is evident that most of Britain’s large media outlets did indeed speak out against such behaviour and successfully exposed the level of hate speech and racism amongst English football fans. Furthermore, a common theme amongst many of the reports was the common view that social media companies have the responsibility and duty to have stricter restrictions in place in order to monitor and prevent hate speech and racism online. Social media companies should learn a lesson from this incident and evaluate their level of proficiency in monitoring and reporting hate speech online as such platforms should be a place of diversity and equality rather than a feeding ground for hatred and racism.

Looking at hate speech in similar sectors but in different regions, in this case in British and Serbian sports, can become a lesson for examining and implementing policies which are necessary for preventing the spread of hate speech online.
Reporting Diversity Network emphasises the importance of fair media through diversity and impartiality to break free from the narratives of division.

Authors: Hana Kojaković and Ivana Jovanović

Photo: Fotosr52 /Shutterstock