Monthly Monitoring Highlights – problematic narratives all around the Western Balkans

November 15, 2023

Throughout the month of October, the RDN monitoring team has detected a range of hateful narratives and discourse. This month, we have seen hatred based on gender, ethnicity as well as hatred aimed towards journalists and persons with disabilities.

Trivialisation of rape and attacks on a journalist reporting on sexual abuse in Albania

In the last weeks of October, a horrible case of sexual abuse and rape happened in the city of Vlora, where a 26-year-old girl was allegedly encouraged to use narcotics by some citizens, three of whom were then suspected of having violent sexual intercourse with her. The case was reported by local and national media outlets. A local correspondent, Afrovita Hysaj, who was covering and reporting on the event, was threatened by the administrator of a local television “6+1” in Vlora – Albert Deliaj. This came as a reaction to Hysaj, who reported that there were not three but rather four people who had allegedly raped the girl after having drugged her, without ever mentioning the identity of the fourth person. However, the owner of the local television “6+1”, mistakenly understood as if the correspondent was implying that the fourth person involved was his son.

Due to this, Hysaj proceeded to fall victim to a banal, criminal attack by the television owner. This included a derogatory article published on the local television website and on its social networks. The attack and threats were based on what Hysaj says were incorrect claims that she had connected the television owner’s son with the drugging and rape of the 26-year-old girl. Albert Deliaj, the owner and administrator of the local television threatened Hysaj. As a result, Hysaj reported to the police that she had received death threats.

Following this, the police of Vlora announced that they had started a criminal proceeding against Albert Deliaj on the basis of ‘intimidation’. The attack of Hysaj resulted in a harsh reaction from colleagues and media organisation such as the Union of Albanian Journalists. Furthermore, the Safe Journalists’ Network also condemned the event as an unprecedented attack on a journalist from a media outlet, asking 6+1 Vlora channel to publicly apologise. 

After the rape case was reported in the media, lawyer Vjollca Pustina made a very shocking and surprising statement. She claimed that cases like these “usually happen after girls drink too much”. This statement resulted in numerous reactions on social media networks, as it was both said and broadcast on national television Vizion +. Furthermore, being a lawyer and so being by profession, someone who should be implementing the law and bringing perpetrators to justice, one should expect someone in such a role to be professional in their attitudes towards serious crimes and not justify abusers and cases of rape. Victims of rape are never responsible for the violence they endured and the only one to blame is the perpetrator(s). Using victim-blaming narratives can have devastating consequences not only towards the person it is directed to, but to all other women who are enduring sexual violence or have so in the past.

Ethnic discrimination in Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro

Uroš Bjelica, the advisor to the President of Republika Srpska, said Sarajevo is “Unfortunately, today, an ordinary Islamic quarter in the heart of the Balkans, which we can see only in Arab countries”. This remark was made as a response to the protests held in Sarajevo against the killing of civilians in Gaza. Bjelica reiterated that Sarajevo is indeed a monoethnic, Muslim town and that therefore, it is a false narrative from both politicians and the media who highlight the multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan life of the city.

Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska, often states the same opinion, that Sarajevo is not a multi-ethnic city, that there are no Serbs in it. His advisor equally continues to uphold and spread this rhetoric. Bjelica emphasises how Sarajevo is falsely multi-ethnic when despite having mosques, synagogues, churches, and cathedrals, it is the people who live there that define the city. To him, Sarajevo is now what he defines as ‘an ordinary Islamic quarter in the heart of the Balkans’. His statement has Islamophobic undertones, as by saying this can only be seen in Arab countries may imply that there is no place for Muslims in the Balkans.

Furthermore, Bjelica goes on to claim that unlike Sarajevo and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republika Srpska has a life of openness, cooperation, and dialogue with an aim of building a system which is to the benefit of all in the county. In comparison, according to him, the politicians of the Bosniak people only send poisonous arrows with the ‘clear intention of creating a unitary BiH’.

Within an ethno-religiously diverse society and country such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, spreading narratives of divide can result in further division and tension amongst various groups in society. Holding a protest for the protection of citizens in Gaza is a democratic right of the people of Sarajevo and not something which should be punished nor taken as an attack on the multi-ethnic and religious nature of the city. An individual with a platform such as Uroš Bjelica, should not be using his influence to spread hateful rhetoric and ethnic discrimination.

Following the recent incident in Kosovo where a group of armed Serbs attacked the Kosovo police in the north of the country, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of North Macedonia, Bujar Osmani, came out with a statement that if it was found that Serbia was in some ways involved in the attack on Kosovo soil, then Macedonia should rescind its membership in the Open Balkans initiative. As a result, a private X (formerly Twitter) user published a Tweet saying that the ‘Shi*** Ministers do not give a f*** about the PM Dimitar Kovacevski’ who is a vocal supporter and champion of the Open Balkans initiative. North Macedonian officials of Albanian origin have been criticised in the past that they care more about the interests of the neighbouring Kosovo and Albania than for Macedonia’s democracy, as revealed by the insulting response of this private X (Twitter) user.

Unfortunately, hate speech and insults towards ethnic Albanians persists in other areas of the country such as in a recent statement, where the mayor of Tetovo expressed a viewpoint that if the government is considering the singing of the Macedonian national hymn in schools, it should simultaneously recognize the significance of the Albanian population in regions where they are a majority. Specifically, in cities like Tetovo, where Albanians comprise a significant part of the demography, their cultural and national symbols should be granted equal importance and respect. Following this, a X (Twitter) user similarly published an insult to the mayor, saying that he should “go to Albania” if he wants the Albanian national hymn to be sung in schools. Cases like the recent debate around the singing of national hymns in schools highlight the fragility of the relationship between these two communities therefore, comments such as these are extremely dangerous and can result in heightened tensions.

Furthermore, this month, a heated altercation erupted on an episode of the political talk show “Only the Truth” on one of the most popular media outlets in the country, the national Channel 5 TV, with journalist and host Aleksandar Vidinovski clashing with a guest, the analyst Ismet Ramadani. The dispute escalated to the point where the director of Channel 5 intervened by going live from outside the studio, defending the journalist and the station and ultimately demanding that Ramadani be removed from the program and his appearance be cut short. The confrontation was sparked when Ismet Ramadani, president of the Euro-Atlantic Council, accused the host of biased reporting by only spotlighting Albanian nationalist remarks while ignoring nationalist rhetoric from the largest opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, the leftist party “Levica,” and other parties within the Macedonian political spectrum. The incident resulted in numerous individuals on X (Twitter) and Facebook, labelling Ismet Ramadani using a derogatory, insulting label applied to Albanians. This term has been historically used in a disparaging manner and reflects underlying ethnic tensions within the region. In no instance is the use of hateful, derogatory labelling and language justified.

In Montenegro, the citizens received a message from the patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church who, two weeks before the initially planned start of the population census, called on the citizens of Montenegro to claim themselves to be Serbs, believers of the Serbian Orthodox Church and speakers of the Serbian language. This message can be viewed as a form of pressure and intimidation towards other ethnicities in Montenegro. Montenegro is a multi-ethnic society and existing tensions are being heightened due to the upcoming census. Divisions along ethnic lines are being amplified with the preparation for the census, which focuses on the citizens ethnic, religious and language choice of identification. Throughout the preparation there was a lot of division and messages being sent out from pro-Serb and pro-Russian influences in Montenegro calling for citizens to declare themselves as Serbs, as well as the pressure and messages coming from the patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The media was equally divided on this topic, with pro-Montenegrin outlets offering criticism and pro-Serbian outlets supporting such campaigns and narratives. It is the duty of the media to report in a responsible manner and not cause division amongst the public. Likewise, it is important for political and religious leaders and representatives to refrain from using their influence and platform to create and deepen existing ethnic divisions within multi-ethnic countries such as Montenegro.

Transphobia in Kosovo

During a talk show ‘Big Talk’ on TV Klan Kosova, journalist Edona Gashi stated that she has many friends who belong to the LGBTIQ + community. However, she made a point to note that she does not support transgender people, that is, to be more specific, “sex change”. According to her, it is something which goes against God’s will. The term “sex change” is often used by the media in the Western Balkans – however, it is outdated and harmful to the transgender community. It is also inadequate and inaccurate since it refers to a process of adapting or adjusting one’s sex to their gender identity. It is used in different ways, however, mostly when talking about gender-affirming surgeries, which is a much more fitting and accurate term. This statement was also reported on by the online media Insajderi. Although there was not a wide reaction on the social media network Facebook, all the commenters nevertheless supported the position of the journalist Gashi.

Within Kosovo, conservative views often dominate when it comes to the LGBTIQ+ community.  Personal religious views and beliefs are often used as arguments against LGBTIQ+ rights. However, it is not anyone’s religious freedom to deny a person their human rights. It is important to note that every individual has the choice and right to express their gender identity freely and to have access to quality health care. Transphobia, as well as homophobia, should never be accepted – narratives like these promoted by journalist Gashi, only serve to promote anti-LGBTIQ+ rhetoric. Furthermore, the media should refrain from spreading these messages to their audiences, which can promote homophobia and transphobia, especially without providing a critical viewpoint to such attitudes.

Discrimination against persons with disabilities in Serbia

Influencer Milica Popadić, in an online show on Hype TV, commented on how persons with disabilities should not get exposure or influence on social media. Popadić justified this by explaining that she believes they will face discrimination, and therefore, they shouldn’t expose themselves “at all costs”. She also said it is okay for persons with disabilities to get exposure on social media if this is a way for “someone to help them”. However, when referring to persons with disabilities, Popadić used harmful terminology such as “physical and mental defects”. She continued talking about this topic and used influencers Julija and Natalija Đukić or Fitness Bliznakinje (the Fitness Twins) as an example, mocking them, even though they have never identified as persons with disability, nor has this information ever been shared before. She mocked the way they speak, their tone of voice and similarities, implying this is a disability. Using someone who does not have disability but only has a slightly different manner of speech as an example may indicate there is little room provided for any kind of diversity on the Serbian and Balkan online space.

Individuals with disabilities are individuals – they should be treated with equal respect as anyone and everyone else. Using harmful and stigmatising terminology to describe and attribute characteristics to individuals with disabilities is extremely hateful and ignorant. An influencer such as Popadić who is making a public appearance, and has over 500k followers on TikTok, should be aware and responsible for her words. She should not use her platform to promote harmful and stigmatising rhetoric towards individuals with disabilities. Furthermore, commenting that individuals with disabilities should refrain from getting exposure due to possible discrimination says more about the society and the population’s attitude towards persons with disabilities than anything else – no one should be treated differently, be discriminated against, or excluded from public life for any reason.