Monthly monitoring highlight: Hate speech during April across Western Balkans

Throughout the month of April, the RDN monitoring team has detected a range of hateful narratives and discourse. This month there has been a rise in ethnic discrimination, sexism, and homophobia in the Western Balkan region.

Ethnic discrimination in North Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina

The now-former Secretary-general of the Government of North Macedonia, Muhamed Zeqiri, was arrested on  suspicion of abuse of his official position of authority. Muhamed Zeqiri has been accused, alongside two Croatian citizens, for concluding a contract for public procurement of consulting services with a legal entity without conducting a public call for the procurement, thereby damaging the state budged by a total of 795,000 euros. He has now been imprisoned and is currently serving a 30-day detention.

Following his sentence, a Twitter user posted a picture of Zeqiri during his imprisonment, while taking a walk outside, with the caption “is there something more beautiful than an Albanian in prison?”

The public in North Macedonia is inclined towards believing that Albanian politicians are often spared from arrest and imprisonment despite law breaking, due to the political allegiances between the political figures and Albanian political parties.  Thus, hateful and discriminatory narratives are often presented along ethnic lines as seen in this Twitter post. This comment on Twitter was motivated and rooted by a similar belief, further fuelling tension between the two ethnic communities.

In Serbia, the Instagram page Bunt Kosovo and Metohija is one which shares numerous pro-Russian posts including denying the crimes and acts of violence in Ukraine, labelling it as ‘Western propaganda’. Furthermore, they publicly deny the Srebrenica genocide, equating these – what they call – ‘fake crimes’ in Ukraine to the ‘made up genocide in Srebrenica’.

The post itself read “The Ministry of Defence in Ukraine published a disturbing video in which it informs that during the previous few weeks, civilians in Bucha were randomly killed, some with their hands tied behind their backs, and bodies were scattered on the city streets. They called Bucha ‘the new Srebrenica”. At the bottom of the post was written “Russia must win this war. Work, brothers, everything is fine at home!”.

This post is harmful and problematic for a number of reasons. The war in Ukraine is an extremely sensitive issue with many people falling victim to the conflict. Apart from spreading unverified claims, harm is done by labelling Srebrenica as a ‘fake crime’, undermining the Srebrenica victims and casualties in the 1990s. Posts such as these promote ethnic discrimination and divisions amongst the public, further opening the wounds of the conflict in the 90’s, which remains highly sensitive and polarising topic in the Balkan region.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Twitter page ‘Samopoštovanje’ (samo_postovanje) tweeted a post which read “by forcing lies and half-truths, we will not reach reconciliation, but we will only sink deeper into mistrust, disbelief and even hatred”. The group Samopoštavanje is a group which comes from Prijedor, who present themselves as a group which wants to restore national and cultural self-esteem.

Despite the fact that the Hague Tribunal’s ruling has confirmed that the Prijedor Crisis Staff in 1992 had ordered both Bosniaks and Croats from the area to wear white stripes on their upper arms as a sign of their ethnicity, the Samopoštovanje group denies this. Attached to the twitter post is a YouTube video titled ‘A lie called a white stripe’.

By denying the events which took place during the war in the Balkans in the 90s, including the experiences of the victims of Prijedor war crimes, these statements actively spread misinformation and disinformation regarding historical events. These events have both been confirmed and ruled by the Hague Tribunal. By further denying and labelling these events as ‘half-truths and lies’, it is both insensitive to those who fell victims and those who lost loved ones in Prijedor, but also harmful for the reconciliation process and building peace in the region.

Homophobia in Kosovo

Following the election assembly, the Union of Kosovo Tarikats issued a joint statement in which amongst other things, it expressed a wish to cooperate with institutions; “the Union of Tarikats especially wants to work together with institutions in Kosovo in building a society without prejudice, which we know as racism, ethnic hatred, misogyny and Islamophobia, Sufi-phobia, and other exclusive forms that undermine trust and understanding in society”. As a result of this statement, several influential online media such as “Gazeta Express” and “Insajderi” claimed in their headlines regarding this news, that this religious community advocates same-sex marriage. The headline reads: “The first religious community to support same-sex marriage”. This inaccurate headline, also published on their Facebook page, provoked mostly negative comments in which various individuals used hate speech aimed at the Union of Kosovo Tarikats and the LGBTQ+ community. The Secretary of the Union, Sheh Lulzim Shehu told several media outlets that same-sex marriages are decided by the state, and that this issue should be resolved by law, but that they are against homophobia.

The Union of Kosovo Tarikats has around 250,000 believers, and the general public considers the dervishes members of the Islamic religion. However, the Union has refused to be part of the Islamic community of Kosovo. Unlike the three largest religious communities in Kosovo (Islamic, Catholic and Orthodox) which openly oppose same-sex marriage and the LGBTQ+ community in general, believing them to be dangerous to the future of mankind, the Union of Kosovo Tarikats have very different, more liberal ideas and attitudes on these topics.

This case is an example of the news fully taken out of its original context, resultingd in hate speech and narratives targeting various communities and individuals. The media has a duty to report factually and accurately, especially when the news has an effect on marginalised groups in society.

Sexism in Albania and Montenegro

In the feature by Top Channel on the rising number of divorces in Albania, divorce lawyer Vjollca Pustina argued that women are becoming initiators of divorces in most cases as “they can no longer stand being violated by their spouses”. The economic independence of women was also listed as another factor and contributor to the rising divorce rates. The headline read “Why is the number of divorces increasing? The lawyer: women can no longer stand violence”.

The framing of the statement, as well as the headline provided by Top Channel, are prime examples of victim blaming. Divorce is seen as a social problem, and in Albania is often still seen by many as ‘scandalous’. However, the real social problem lies in the gendered abuse and violence, which should be considered as a much more serious issue than simply a factor in divorce rates. Such headlines and statements divert attention from the true, root cause of the issue. Many women are victims of domestic violence and abuse, and so offering a platform to narratives suggesting it is simply a factor in divorce rates rather than an issue of concern in itself is a problematic approach to the topic.

In Montenegro, the MP of the opposition Democratic Party of Socialists, Dragica Sekulić, was a victim of brutal insults as a result of a Twitter post where she criticised the measures of the Minister of Economic Development Jakov Milatović, who suggested that every new-born in a municipality with negative natural growth should receive one thousand euros and with positive natural growth, 500 euros. At that time, Milatović held a meeting with the Metropolitan of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, Joanikije.

Sekulić stated on Twitter that “if you choose to give birth in a certain municipality, you will receive 500 or 1,000 euros, with the blessing of the priest. Is it worth it?” in reference to that meeting. Following her post, Sekulić was attacked with vulgar insults on the basis of her gender on the Facebook page of the portal I Love Podgorica, which published her tweet. Nearly 400 comments, dominated by hate speech, are still on the site.

The attacks on Sekulić were condemned by almost all of the opposition parties, as well as non-governmental organisations and members of the Montenegrin parliament, with appeals to the authorities to react urgently.

This case has an interesting follow up, as MP Sekulić has announced lawsuits against authors of 381 online comments as well as the portal I Love Podgorica because they did not remove the comments fast enoughThis could set a precedentin the sense of extending the editorial responsibility on social media.

This case sparked debates about free speech, which is a continuous struggle for the legal system as well as other institutions charged withits supervision. In addition, there is discussion about the privileged position of public figures compared to private individuals, who would rarely be able to initiate such legal response.