Monthly monitoring highlight: Hate speech in the Western Balkans during May

June 10, 2022

Throughout the month of May, the RDN monitoring team has detected a range of hateful narratives and discourse. This month we are highlighting religious hate speech, ethnic discrimination, homophobia and sexism in the Western Balkan region.

Islamophobia in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former member of the presidency of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Stjepan Kljuić, shocked the public after a series of insults and Islamophobic comments against the Minister of Education of the Sarajevo Canton, Naida Hota-Muminović, who wears a hijab.

During the show, Kljuić openly spread hateful and anti-religious narratives aimed at the faith of the Minister of Education of the Sarajevo Canton. Kljuić commented “when I see the Minister of Education of the Sarajevo Canton with a hijab…what is she thinking, what are the little children of non-believers thinking”.

Not only is this incident highly problematic for the spread of Islamophobic sentiment, but furthermore, broadcasting such comments on a TV Channel with a wide reach and audience leads to spreading Islamophobic tropes and discriminatory narratives within society. The media’s role and duty is to hold responsibility for what is broadcasted and shared on their platforms, thus they hold accountability for the spread of such narratives. In this instance, by allowing Kljuić to make these personal, insulting comments in relation to the religion and appearance of the Minister of Education in Sarajevo Canton, the media helped to diffuse these discriminatory narratives and Islamophobic rhetoric amongst the wider public.

In Albania, during the show ‘Arnautistan’ for MCN TV, Analyst Mustafa Nano called for the ban of prayer within public spaces in Albania. This was accompanied by an image of a mass prayer in Elbasan on Eid-al-Fitr where he stated that “this is not my Albania; my Albania has been stolen”. Nano argued that prayer should be restricted to religious sites as such displays “may affect the non-religious part of the country”. “At this rate, Albania will turn into an El Dorado for religious fanatics all over the world”, the analyst added. In reference to the photograph itself, he added that “these women in the photo are humiliated…these women dress like this because their husbands want them to.”

This incident has resulted in a response by the head of the Inter-Religious Institute for Albania, Dr. Arben Ramkaj, who called out Nano for his Islamophobic comments and made a statement for the Audio-visual Media Authority as well as the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination to react to such statements and incidents.

TV channels such as MCN TV hold a moral and legal responsibility to prevent the spread of discriminatory and hateful narratives. Providing a platform for the dissemination of Islamophobic narratives only upholds and justify religious hate speech in society.

Ethnic discrimination in Kosovo and Montenegro

In Kosovo, marking the occasion of the Abetare Day, an event was held at Xhemajl Kada school in Peje, to mark the usage of the children’s Albanian language textbook (Abetare) which will be used both in Kosovo and Albania.

At the event, students from the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities watched the programme separately from other children. Journalists who covered the event and questioned this practice received an answer from the teacher of this school claiming that the students themselves asked to sit separately. This, however, did not match up to the version of events told by the students. The students from the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities said that the teacher told them that if they wanted to follow this program, they had to sit separately from the other children. Later on, there was a statement saying that children from Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities do not regularly attend school and that they study in a separate, special class. Furthermore, although it was not planned, at the students’ request, they were allowed to follow the programme.

There are only a number of schools within Kosovo where students from various communities attend, and although this has received criticism from civil society as unacceptable behaviour, school principals continue to justify and explain that this was a reflection of the demand of parents of students who do not want their children attending classes with Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian students.

Following this incident, the Minister of Education reacted to this discriminatory attitude and in addition to a number of civil society organisations, the Ombudsperson also stated that this was an unacceptable attitude towards students of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities. Despite the media in Kosovo reacting and responding well to this type of discrimination and racism, including a number of social media commentators, this incident highlights the level of discrimination within public institutions – in this case schools. This incident is highly sensitive one. By creating a division and excluding children and pupils from various ethnic communities, this only further upholds and perpetuates the social exclusion and marginalisation of ethnic communities in Kosovo.

In Montenegro, under the slogan for the celebration of the Day of Victory over Fascism in Danilovgrad, a protest was organised calling for Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Victory Day over Fascism is a day which commemorates and highlights the fight against fascism – the fight for individual rights, defence of democratic values and individual freedom. Calling for active aggression by Russia against Ukraine, only leads to further division within society and undermines the significance of the celebration and organised event taking place. Montenegro is a country with a highly polarised population, divided on many issues including that of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. This type of public support is extremely dangerous and runs the risk of promoting further tension, fragmentation and hostility within society.

Sexism in North Macedonia

This month, the Macedonian representative at Eurovision, Andrea Koevska, was being photographed holding the Macedonian flag. During the photo shoot, she was asked to be photographed without the flag which led her to leave the flag on the floor at that moment. Following this, parts of the public in Macedonia condemned the singer for her action and insulted her using various offensive names as a reaction to her actions. The prosecution even opened a case to see if she violated the relevant legislation.

This led to a number of hate speech comments on various social media, where individual users insulted Andrea in a highly derogatory and personal manner. One comment read: “Stupid, freak, and I don’t know what else”.

Controversies involving Macedonian singers and the Macedonian flag is not a new phenomenon. There has been a similar case involving Macedonian singer Tamara Todevska who once sang the Macedonian national anthem and curiously omitted some of the text within the anthem resulting in her being blamed for acting out of political motives. In this case, citizens were quick and prompt to react following the publication of the video depicting Andrea throwing the flag.

This incident highlights the importance of monitoring social media including the need and significance of various mechanisms put in place to prevent the spread of hate speech and insults aimed at individuals and groups.

Homophobia in Serbia

There has been a number of reported cases of the monkeypox infection in Europe, the United States, Australia and Canada. After the cases of infection were discovered amongst gay and bisexual men, the media began to spread homophobic narratives surrounding the spread of monkeypox.

Various media in Serbia began to report on the infection, claiming it to be a disease that is “transmitted by gay sex”.  In its original title published by newspaper Kurir, their headline read “Monkeypox transmitted by gay sex! Still no cases in Serbia but if the husband has them the marriage can fall apart”. Kurir, alongside the evident homophobic headline, presented a number of misinformation surrounding the spread of the disease. In addition, they intentionally left out the information that the advisor for HIV, hepatitis and sexually transmitted infections at the World Health Organisation (WHO), Andy Seale emphasized that although “we can see some cases amongst men who have sex with men this is not a gay disease”.

Some media also had headlines and narratives similar to that of Kurir, including Radio Television Vojvodina who shared an article titled “no need for panic: mostly homosexuals get infected with monkeypox”. These narratives and headlines only spread fear and mistrust within society, especially towards gay and bisexual men. These headlines and articles which spread information holding little to no truth can result in dangerous homophobic rhetoric and divide amongst the public resulting in the stigmatisation and targeting of certain groups in society. The media should approach topics of importance as public health issues, by providing factual, objective and relevant information for public interest and knowledge without spreading homophobic and harmful disinformation.