Monthly Monitoring Highlights – ethnic tensions, sexism and hate speech

October 12, 2023

Throughout September, the RDN monitoring team has detected a range of hateful narratives and discourse. This month, we have seen gender-based violence, sexism, hate speech against journalists and a rise in ethnic tension.

Gender Based Violence in North Macedonia

During the month of September, a woman was stabbed to death by a person she was supposedly romantically involved with. The person in question stabbed the woman 40 times. Prior to killing her, he also threatened that he would publish compromising and explicit videos which were taken during their relationship. This threat was upheld in the form of blackmail, asking her for money to stop him from acting on such threats.

The victim had reported the blackmail attempts and threats to the police, but no effective action was taken to seriously tackle the issue or to protect her. This situation exposes the potential systematic failures and gaps in addressing and preventing gender-based violence as well as supporting victims of abuse and blackmail. This institutional failure to effectively respond can be attributed to both resource limitations and societal attitudes towards gender-based violence, underlining a lack of commitment and approach to preventing femicide and other forms of gender-based violence. The comment sections on social media networks were filled with harmful misogynistic narratives, which indicate the still present attitudes in society. Media can play a significant role in educating the public on gender-based violence, which can lead to a change in public opinion and awareness on the matter.

Sexism in Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina

Sports journalist, Tami Kona recently made a sexist statement during an interview for Euronews Albania. His statement was quite discriminatory as he claimed that “women cannot go to the stadium before the men” to watch the matches of the National Team. The journalist was quite indignant about the fact that men ask for tickets for themselves and for their partners. He even went as far to suggest that women may not even know where the Air Albania stadium is located, alluding that women are not interested or informed about sports, and are uninterested in attending the games solely based on their gender.

This case reflects the patriarchal mentality in society where gender stereotypes such as the one that “women are not interested in sports” prevail. Such sexist comments being broadcasted on a national TV channel such as Euronews are extremely harmful as they reinforce the existing stereotypes. Euronews should not have allowed such sexist narratives to be spread on their channel without being challenged.

In the village of Jardol in the municipality of Vitez in Bosnia and Herzegovina, four young people have committed suicide in the past two years. On this occasion, N1 journalists spoke to the local priest Fr. Velimir Bavrka who went on to talk about  changing values in society. He claimed that the country made women go to work, commenting that “he thinks that women should not be working, mothers need to be at home”. He backed up this claim by arguing that the pay for men should be increased in order to allow mothers to stay at home. He notes that when both parents go to work, it results in children not having conversations, prayers at home or any dialogue, which according to him, leads to  them being vulnerable to various influences.

Arguing that women should “stay at home” is a very discriminatory statement. Narratives such as this not only present the emancipation of women as an “enemy” of a healthy community, but also reduce women solely to the role of mother. Women and men are equal and autonomous, and therefore, should be equally allowed to make the decision to go to work or to stay at home. This is not something which should be enforced on either gender. The role of media should be to look for other opinions and challenge this kind of stance with arguments, rather than just presenting them without a critical lens, particularly when such a sensitive topic as suicide is in question. This stance can be seen as insinuation that women are to blame for the  suicide rate among youth, which is a harmful message that some readers could pick up.

Hate speech against journalists in Montenegro

In Montenegro, the president, Jakov Milatović, threatened daily newspaper Pobjeda by saying that it is connected to a criminal group that dug a tunnel between the Higher Court in Podgorica and an apartment nearby. He claimed that “Pobjeda is financed by the same people who made this tunnel”. Milatović’s accusations were triggered in response to Pobjeda publishing an investigation about Milatović, trying to prove his involvement in arms sales. In reaction to this, the Institute of Media in Montenegro responded by condemning Milatović’s statement.

Pobjeda is a daily newspaper that reported in favour of Milo Đukanović and the Democratic Party of Socialist who lost the elections to Milatović back in April. Nevertheless, despite supporting a political opposition and holding varying political opinions, this does not justify accusations being made with no evidence. This is particularly applicable to accusations that have the potential to undermine credibility and significantly damage the reputation of individuals or groups, such as in the case of the daily newspaper, Pobjeda. Milatović, an individual who holds an important, powerful position, should be held accountable for his actions and words. He should not be using his platform to direct accusations and hate towards a media outlet.

Ethnic tensions in Kosovo and Serbia

In the early hours on Sunday, September 24th, in Banjska/Banjskë, a village near Zvečan/Zveçan in the Serb-majority north of Kosovo, there was an attack lead by a heavily armed group of Serbs in which a Kosovo police officer was killed. In the clashes that followed, three Serb attackers were killed. As the investigation is still ongoing, many details of the event are not yet confirmed.

The attack caused a rise of ethnic tensions, amplified by harmful media narratives. In Serbia, the media published very scant information in the first few days including some misinformation and disinformation that was later proved wrong. The mainstream media also reported and continues to report on this situation in a sensationalistic manner often using emotionally charged language.

On the day of the attack, most media in Kosovo were careful in their reporting, only using the official information of the Government of Kosovo and referring to statements of international representatives. A smaller number of online media used this situation for sensationalist reporting. There were instances of unverified information and disinformation.

Some portals published photographs claiming to be of the killed police officer and attackers that were later proven as false. Furthermore, there was false information on how the Wagner group, a Russian state-funded private military company, was involved in the attack, and wrong speculations on the number of dead.

Mutual accusations for the attack started when Albin Kurti, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, accused “the official Belgrade” for the attack, and president Vjosa Osmani followed, as well as others. Later, public officials in Serbia led by Aleksandar Vučić, the President of Serbia, blamed Kurti and his regime for the attack and used harmful language that was later repeated and amplified in the mainstream media.

A National Day of Mourning was declared in Serbia on September 27th “because of the tragic events in Kosovo” and an unofficially three Days of Mourning in Serbian communities in Kosovo. According to the Law on the Observation of Days of Mourning, mourning is to be declared “following a particularly severe misfortune resulting in death, injury or serious damage to the health of a large number of people”. Despite the fact that we still do not have official confirmation of what has happened, treating the Banjska events as severe misfortune is highly disputable. On this day, the front pages of national print media referred to the attackers as “Kosovo heroes” and “victims of Kurti’s terror”. The front page of Kurir even talked about “the legalization of the hunt on Serbs” predicting “mass emigration of Serbs from Kosovo”. These are all very misleading headlines and statements, given that they are followed by very few facts.

Media reporting aimed at fearmongering and appealing to nationalistic sentiments contributes to triggering ethnic hate in a situation where tensions already exist, which can have very dangerous effects.

For Kosovo officials, experts, analysts, and the media, there was no doubt that the attackers were a “terrorist group”, that they were armed and uniformed, and that they were citizens of Serbia. Similar, critical views can be found in Serbia as well, but they are rare and not mainstreamed.

The public in both Kosovo and Serbia still does not have official confirmation on what exactly happened in Banjska/Banjskë. Daily reporting on various opinions on what was the goal of the armed group that committed the attack can easily deepen the divide between Serbs and Albanians and impact the daily live of people in Kosovo. Media could and should have an important role in informing the public objectively. However, that is far from reality in the region and can potentially have very harmful consequences.