TROLL OF THE MONTH: Duda Balje, the President of the Social Democratic Union and Member of the Assembly of Kosovo

The Balkan Troll of the Month is an individual, a group of individuals or a media outlet that spreads hate on the internet based on gender, ethnicity, religion, or other diversity categories. The Balkan Troll is selected based on hate speech incidents identified across the Western Balkans region.

This month’s Troll is Duda Balje, the President of the Social Democratic Union and Member of the Assembly of Kosovo, who spread hate speech directed at an individual contributing to a surge of hateful attacks and violent threats against the individual and her family.

Recently, the director of the Nexhmedin Nixha Technical High School in Gjakova/Đakovica, Florentina Gjergjaj, was forced to resign from her position due to a wave of hateful and personal attacks towards herself and her family.

It all started following the revelation of a set of school rules which included a headscarf ban on wearing a headscarf alongside other bans including carrying weapons, wearing make-up, and more. The headscarf ban led to an outcry and backlash towards Gjergjai as this ban is thought to be her decision. As a result, Florentina Gjergjaj was asked to step down from her role as director of the technical school at the insistence of Gjakova/Đakovica County Educational Director Eranda Kumnova.

Following the revelation of the situation and of the ban itself which spread amongst the public, Gjergjaj received an overwhelming number of personal attacks on various social media. The comments and attacks were directed personally at her and her family and included, among other things, threats of burning down her house.  As a result of these attacks, she and her family were forced to move away, and they are even considering leaving Kosovo.

Florentina Gjergjaj reported the hateful comments and threats she was receiving to the police which, in her opinion, stem from the reaction of MP Duda Balje, who publicly addressed and called out Gjergjaj to answer regarding the school’s ban.

Balje, among other things, wrote on her Facebook profile “Director of the Secondary Technical School ‘Nexhmedin Nixha’, in Gjakova/Đakovica, Mrs. Florentina Gjergjaj, on the basis of which Constitution or law did you set the symbols of prohibition?! I agree with some of them, but the symbol of the girl with the headscarf and comparing symbols in this way is scandalous and an insult to every citizen and our Republic, not excluding religious beliefs”.

This was seen as an instigation to the stream of hate speech and threats that Gjergjaj and her family received.

Most threats and comments that Florentina Gjergjaj received were based on religious grounds. In the context and period of Ramadan or Eid, the media and headlines focused on a variety of topics including that of the permission of individuals to wear headscarves in primary and secondary schools. The President of the Islamic Community of Kosovo, Mufti Naim Ternava stated that he believed the case at the Technical High School to be an omission as in no case can a headscarf be equated with a weapon or alcohol and other negative things.

That headscarf ban was probably imposed at an earlier stage, but was rather used at this timing to initiate a public conversation on the topic itself.

There is an Instruction by the Ministry of Education which does not allow underage girls to wear headscarves in schools. Indeed, following this case, the ‘Kosovo’s Islamic Community Council has requested from ‘the Ministry of Education, Science, Technology and Innovation, to remove the ban of wearing religious symbols in high schools’.

In addition, it is believed that the fact that Gjergjaj is a Christian Catholic adds another layer to this story as her religion have been misused in some comments directed at her.

Almost every media in Kosovo covered this case and incident at the Technical High School in Gjakova/Đakovica, reporting primarily in a professional and correct manner. However, there were also a number of comments on social media networks which insulted and demanded punishment for Florentina Gjergjaj whilst others defended her, reminding the public that Kosovo is a secular state.

This incident is one surrounding the important topic of religious freedom and individual rights in Kosovo. As a result of the direct targeting by MP Duda Balje and other social media users, both Florentina Gjergjaj and her family were forced to move away from their home and are even considering moving out of the country altogether. Both her and her family have fallen victims to hate speech and violent threats as a result of social media trolls and comments.