HATE SPEECH IN THE WESTERN BALKANS: October Monthly Highlights

Throughout the month of October, the RDN monitoring team has detected a range of hateful narratives and discourse. During this month there has been a rise in hate speech including ethnic discrimination, homophobia and sexism across the Western Balkans.

Homophobia in Albania and Serbia

Pristina artist Astrit Ismaili appeared at the Athens Biennale dressed as Miss Kosovo. This As the Athens Bienale was broadcast on Greek national television leading to the Albanian national television, Top Channel. Top Channel picked up Ismaili’s appearance and reported on it with the headline ‘With a pink dress and make-up, the Albanian artist makes Greeks go crazy’. Top Channel’s coverage led to homophobic comments and anti-LGBTQ+ comments under the article on Top Channel’s Facebook page.

These comments included homophobic hate speech with highly offensive and derogatory names used to label individuals from the LGBTQ+ community. For example one Facebook account wrote:  ‘I’m so sorry you call these people artists; this is simply a mentally ill person’. Not only are such comments extremely hateful and promote homophobia and queerphobia within society, but there is an additional element of undermining the human dignity of LGBTQ+ community members by labelling them as ‘mentally ill’.

This is not the only instance of homophobia spread by the Albanian media in the country. For example, recently Pastor Akil Pano shared on Facebook, a form handed out in a kindergarten in Tirana where the terms ‘mother’ and ‘father’ were replaced with ‘parent 1’ and ‘parent 2’. Pastor Pano argued that these were in violation of the Albanian Family Code. He called this an example of the ‘Gay Agenda’ and imposition of the ‘gay community’ on family values. The LGBT Alliance released a public statement affirming that they had no information regarding the form or who created it, and criticised the media for fabricating information for public consumption.

In another incident,  former Prime Minister (PM) Sali Berisha wrote a post of Facebook criticising the current PM Edi Rama for undermining family values. Furthermore, he highlighted that the homophobic and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric is being both spread and upheld by high political figures. Such statements only support hate speech and discriminatory attitudes in society.

In Serbia gender-neutral toys have been introduced recently to the market. This  has opened a debate surrounding the topic of gender-neutrality.

Media narratives about gender-neutral toys have been followed by some problematic statements such as calling it a ‘campaign to completely eliminate gender differences’ in an attempt to, what these narratives describe, ‘become asexual beings’.

Across the media the terms ‘sexless’ or ‘same-sex’ dolls were used which indicates the complete lack of understanding of the subject and unprofessional attitudes towards the topic. 

The overall debate about gender neutral toys not only that does not contribute to the understanding of gender equality but also fosters stereotypes and prejudices about the LGBT community.

Furthermore, sensationalistic headlines that mention the risk of ‘confusing children’, leads to a fear amongst the public on the basis of false accusations and homophobia.

The way that such topics are being covered is yet another reminder of the importance of education of journalists and media workers on the reporting of diversity, minorities and marginalised groups. This further highlights the importance of the role of journalists on educating the public and creating preconditions for an inclusive society that accepts and embraces diversity.

Ethnic discrimination in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina

In Montenegro, TV presenter Mirka Devic, presenter of  the news programme Dnevnik, broadcasted on the new television channel RTV Podgorica, spread strong xenophobic and religious hate speech towards believers of the Serbian Orthodox Church . The presenter started off by associating Serbian Orthodox believers to murderers and armed robbers by saying that “members of extremist Orthodox organisations prone to robbery, violence, usury and murder can be recognised by the fact that they have tattooed crosses on their bodies, and mouth full of the Ostrog monistiry. Don’t steal, don’t kill, love your neighbour as yourself, they translated as kidnap, kill, hate everyone who is not like you”.

The above are just some of the sentences and insulting comments reported and expressed by the presenter of the news program. This is extremely harmful as such religious hate speech was spread during the news programme with a wide audience in a politically very sensitive moment for Montenegro.

Religious, ethnic or any similar affiliation must not be associated with violations of the law and committed crimes. Even if a member of a particular religious or ethnic group commits a crime, this crime cannot be associated or attributed to a whole group. The media must report impartially and objectively, in accordance to the standards of the profession and codes of ethics and they have a responsibility to prevent the spread of false accusations leading to discrimination and hate speech towards various ethnic and religious communities.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the portal antimigrant.ba reported on the killing of Jasmin Berovic in November 2020 by creating a hateful headline linking the murder to ‘migrant bandits’. The article further spread racist and xenophobic hate speech towards the migrant community including strong Islamophobic rhetoric.

The article questioned the integrity and belief of the Islamic Community by accusing them of being a security threat and dangerous. The article read ‘are they the ones that the Islamic Community presented to us a ‘brothers in faith’, false ‘muhajirs’ fleeing the war from countries where there is no war (Pakistan, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt etc.)? Are they the ones that the paid w****-journalists presented to us a ‘humanitarian obligation’, instead of focusing on the security threat and thus directly helping the mafia network of traffickers?’.

Such comments are not only extremely hateful and factually untrue, but they are also extremely insulting to migrants, and harmful for the entire society as it creates an atmosphere of fear and insecurity.

Antimigrant.ba, as the name suggests, is an extremely hateful news portal which spreads strong anti-migrant narratives and reports negatively on migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Recently, the State Prosecution has initiated a process against the portal, but the Editor in Chief pledged not guilty, and the portal continues working in the same manner despite the ongoing Court process.

Sexism and sexual harassment in North Macedonia and Kosovo

In North Macedonia, it emerged that a private Facebook group – shared a number of indecent nude photos of underage, young Roma girls. This group has allegedly been created by a Roma citizen, however, the nationality and ethnic identities of the creator and members are not known or confirmed.  These photos were shared without the knowledge or consent of the individuals appearing in the photos. However, such activity is clearly illegal as the girls were underage.

The Facebook group itself had more than 2000 members.  The group’s members were encouraged to send and share photos from private messages and public social media profiles of young Roma girls within the group. After the photos were shared among the private group members who commented under the pictures with a vast number of hate speech and inflammatory comments including labelling the girls as ‘indecent’.

Despite the immediate reaction of a number of human rights NGOs who are seeking to pursue legal action against the users who were involved in creating the private group, it must be noted that this is not the first instance of explicit, non-consensual distribution of photos of girls on social media. Earlier this year, the ‘Public Room’ scandal involved the sharing of indecent content on the messaging system Telegram.

This is not only extremely harmful and illegal but further exposes the importance of rigid social media regulation and mechanisms in place to prevent such scandals and inappropriate content from being shared on social media platforms. Furthermore, it highlights the importance of collective action in demanding a reaction from authorities and social media companies in removing such content. It  additionally emphasises the responsibility and moral duty of social media companies in preventing such scandals from occurring and ensuring there are consequences in place to punish such behaviour.

In Kosovo, an article  about a husband who kicked his wife out of her house and was later arrested by the police was recently published on the online newspaper ‘Gazeta Express’ and was also shared on its Facebook page. According to the wife, she had an argument with her husband over her property, whereby, her husband did not let her stay in due to the fact that she did not take adequate care of his mother.

This incident spurred a number of hateful and sexist comments towards the victim including a large support for the husband’s actions based on the argument that, as one commented: ‘why does a husband need such a woman when in difficult days – she does not come to help when needed, the husband did the right thing’. Another comment called for the husband to have ‘beaten her well in the end’.

As Kosovo is still a traditional society in which strong traditional gender norms prevail within smaller and rural areas, such cases of women being kicked out of their houses following misunderstandings with their husbands are evident. In such cases, the victim rarely informs the police, especially in the case where husbands either live in the house or apartment of their wife or of their parents. In such situations, the victim is left helpless and often does not receive the necessary support of the public, and indeed as the aforementioned incident shows , is often faced with extremely hateful, sexist narratives.