By: Aleksandra Jerkov, PhD
Hate speech in the Western Balkans has become a pressing concern, particularly as the region continues to navigate the complex process of reconciliation and integration after a tumultuous history marked by ethnic conflicts and political upheaval. The term ‘hate speech’ in this context refers to any form of communication that disparages a person or a group based on some characteristic such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or other aspects that might trigger conflict.
In the Western Balkans, a region characterized by its ethnic and cultural diversity, hate speech has been identified as a significant barrier to fostering a political culture of tolerance and inclusion. Despite the progress made since the conflicts of the 1990s, the legacy of division still influences the public and political discourse, making the task of cultivating a culture of respect and understanding all the more critical.
Hate speech not only poses a threat to individual rights and social cohesion but also undermines democratic processes and the rule of law. It can lead to an environment where inflammatory rhetoric becomes normalized, which in turn can erode trust in public institutions and fuel cycles of retaliation and violence. This has particular relevance in the Western Balkans, where the balance between free expression and maintaining social harmony is often delicate.
The public space in the Western Balkans thus becomes a critical arena for addressing the issue of hate speech. It is here that the contest between perpetuating a divisive narrative and promoting a tolerant political culture is most visible. The region’s path toward greater European integration provides both an impetus and a framework for addressing hate speech, as adherence to European values necessitates a commitment to human rights, including the right to be free from hate speech.
Understanding the nature of hate speech in the Western Balkans, its impacts on society, and the efforts to counteract it are essential steps toward building a more tolerant and democratic region. This blog post aims to delve into these issues, offering a comprehensive overview of the current state of hate speech and its implications for the political culture in the Western Balkans.
The primary aim of this blog is to explore the intricate relationship between hate speech and the political culture within the Western Balkans. This examination is not only about identifying the presence and patterns of hate speech within the region but also understanding how it interacts with and influences the political culture, public discourse, and daily interactions among diverse communities.
In this context, hate speech is not just seen as an isolated phenomenon but rather as a symptom and a catalyst of the broader political dynamics in the region. The blog will delve into how hate speech can reflect deep-seated historical grievances, current political tensions, and societal divisions. Moreover, it will investigate the ways in which hate speech can both shape and be shaped by political narratives, media representations, and legislative frameworks in the Western Balkans.
This exploration will encompass an analysis of the tools and strategies employed by political entities, civil society organizations, and international bodies to combat hate speech and promote a culture of tolerance and dialogue. It will also address the effectiveness of these approaches and the challenges that lie ahead in nurturing a political culture that is resilient to the divisive effects of hate speech.
Understanding this relationship is crucial for anyone interested in the progress of the Western Balkans towards greater stability, peace, and integration with the wider European community. Through this blog, we aim to contribute to the ongoing conversation about building an inclusive and respectful political environment that can withstand the challenges posed by hate speech.
The Western Balkans, comprising Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, is a region rich in cultural and political diversity, shaped by its complex history. Historically, this region has been a crossroads of different civilizations, which has contributed to its rich cultural tapestry. Empires such as the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian have left their mark, creating a mosaic of ethnicities, religions, and languages. Political diversity is equally pronounced, with the region housing a range of political systems and ideologies over the past century. The 20th century, in particular, saw the rise and fall of Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. The fall of communism and the subsequent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s led to a series of conflicts known as the Yugoslav Wars. These wars were marked by severe ethnic tensions and instances of genocide and ethnic cleansing, leaving a legacy of mistrust and division that still lingers.
The recent history of the Western Balkans is one of trying to overcome the deep-seated prejudices and animosities that the wars of the 1990s reinforced. The conflicts exacerbated historical grievances and created new ones, often manifested through hate speech and nationalist rhetoric. The legacy of these conflicts has been a significant factor in the political life of the region, influencing both domestic policies and international relations.
Efforts towards reconciliation and fostering regional cooperation have been ongoing, with the European Union playing a central role in promoting stability and democratic standards. Despite these efforts, the region still grapples with nationalism and ethnic divisions, which are sometimes inflamed by political leaders seeking to exploit these sentiments for political gain.
The prejudices and biases rooted in the region’s recent conflicts pose a persistent challenge. Hate speech, often a reflection of these prejudices, continues to be a tool for political mobilization and a barrier to the establishment of a more tolerant political culture. These dynamics make the Western Balkans a compelling case study for examining the relationship between hate speech, political culture, and efforts to build inclusive societies. Understanding this historical context is crucial for any analysis of hate speech and its impact on the region’s progress toward peace and integration.
For the purpose of this paper, we will use the definition which considers hate speech to be any form of expression that spreads, incites, promotes or justifies hatred, violence and discrimination against a person or group based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or national origin. The nature of hate speech is often inflammatory and derogatory, with the intention to demean and dehumanize the targeted group, contributing to a climate of hostility and potentially inciting real-world violence and discrimination.
The legal implications of hate speech are complex and vary from country to country in the Western Balkans, as well as globally. In many jurisdictions, hate speech is a criminal offense when it incites violence or discrimination. However, balancing the restrictions on hate speech with the fundamental right to freedom of expression can be challenging. Legal frameworks in the Western Balkans often reflect international standards and agreements, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, which seek to protect both individual rights to free speech and public order.
Social implications of hate speech are profound and far-reaching. It can lead to increased tensions between different community groups, contribute to a climate of fear and hostility, and undermine social cohesion. Hate speech can also have a silencing effect on its targets, restricting their ability to participate fully in public life. In the context of the Western Balkans, where societies are still recovering from recent conflicts, hate speech can threaten the fragile peace and reconciliation processes, reignite old animosities, and impede the region’s path towards European integration and cooperation.
Therefore, understanding the dynamics of hate speech, its legal boundaries and social consequences, is pivotal in shaping policies and educational programs that aim to promote a culture of tolerance and respect for human rights within the Western Balkans.
Current State of Hate Speech in the Western Balkans
Hate speech in the political arena of the Western Balkans often manifests in nationalist rhetoric, which sometimes escalates during election cycles or in the midst of political crises. Politicians and public figures have been known to use divisive language to rally support, targeting ethnic, religious, or national groups. This can include derogatory comments aimed at neighboring countries or minority populations within their own borders.
One of the examples of this is the most recent statement of the President of Croatia Zoran Milanovic, who stated on December 30 2023: “Bosnia and Herzegovina is a clumsy, sloppy, incompetently led colony” (“Bosna i Hercegovina je trapava, traljava, nesposobno vođena kolonija”). The examples of this type of hate speech also include constant and persistent use of term “shiptar” for persons of Albanian nationality in Serbia, although it is highly offensive. This term is used widely in Serbia in public discourse by politicians, media, officials and on internet, although in 2018, the Serbian judiciary determined that the term ‘šiptar’ is offensive and designated as hate speech.
Everlasting bilateral conflicts or disputes in the region, as well as olitical debates around issues such as the status of Kosovo, the representation of ethnic minorities in government, or immigration can sometimes lead to hate speech. Political leaders may resort to inflammatory language to strengthen in-group solidarity among their supporters, at times using historical grievances or stereotypes to vilify the out-group.
It is also not uncommon for media outlets with strong political affiliations to echo and amplify hate speech, thus giving it a wider audience. Social media, too, plays a significant role in spreading such rhetoric, with the anonymity and reach of digital platforms making it easier for hate speech to circulate and gain traction. The spread of hate speech through popular culture is a common occurrence. Croatian singer Marko Perković Thompson is among the mainstream performers in Croatia, even though his songs glorify Ustasha crimes and call for the expulsion and killing of Serbs. Songs that glorify convicted war criminals are a common occurrence in Serbia and have become almost a usual part of celebrations and festivities. In June 2022, social networks were flooded with a video of the end-of-school-year celebration at an elementary school in Novi Sad, where a teacher played the song ‘Ne volim te Alija zato što si Balija’ (I do not like you Alija, because you are Balija (offensive term for Bosniaks) to ten-year-olds, and pop-folk performers like Baja Mali Knindža have been filling halls and squares for years and are among the most popular in Serbia, even though they sing songs like “Moj je tata zlocinac iz rata” (my dad is a war criminal) and similar.
These instances of hate speech can have a chilling effect on inter-ethnic relations and undermine efforts to build a stable and cohesive political culture. They can lead to discrimination against minority groups, hinder the integration process, and potentially incite violence.
Monitoring organizations and civil society groups in the Western Balkans often document these incidents and work to hold political figures accountable. Latest reports warn about the situation with hate speech in Western Balkans. What is particularly worrying is the fact that, although hate speech is legally prohibited in all countries of the Western Balkans, these examples, as well as statements by officials, go unsanctioned, and some have become so common that they often remain without significant public condemnation.
Social and Political Impact of Hate Speech
In the Western Balkans, where societies are still healing from the wounds of past conflicts, the impact of hate speech is even more pronounced. It can reinforce historical prejudices and interrupt the process of reconciliation.
Erosion of Social Cohesion: Hate speech can drive wedges between different groups within society, eroding the sense of community and shared identity. It can fuel suspicion, fear, and hostility, leading to social segregation and isolation of targeted groups.
Normalization of Prejudice: Repeated exposure to hate speech can normalize bigotry and discrimination. This is particularly concerning when such speech comes from public figures or is disseminated through popular culture, as it may influence societal norms and behaviors.
Psychological Harm: Individuals and groups targeted by hate speech can suffer significant psychological harm, including increased anxiety, stress, and a feeling of unsafety. This can lead to lower self-esteem and hinder their ability to participate fully in society.
Violence and Intimidation: Hate speech can incite violence and acts of intimidation against marginalized or vulnerable groups, leading to a climate of fear and sometimes resulting in physical harm or even death.
Polarization: Hate speech can polarize political debates, making it more difficult to reach consensus or engage in constructive dialogue. It can turn political discourse into a ‘zero-sum game’ where the success of one group is seen as coming at the expense of another.
Undermining Democracy: For a democracy to function effectively, it requires a certain level of civil discourse. Hate speech undermines the democratic process by silencing voices, spreading misinformation, and reducing the capacity for rational debate.
Legitimization of Extremist Views: When hate speech is not adequately addressed, it can lead to the legitimization and empowerment of extremist groups and ideologies, which may gain a foothold in mainstream politics.
Impact on Policy Making: Hate speech can influence the development of policies and laws, especially if it becomes a tool for political gain. Politicians may be swayed to adopt hardline positions or enact legislation that discriminates against certain groups to appease constituents influenced by hate speech.
Tolerant Political Culture: Challenges and Opportunities
A tolerant political culture in the Western Balkans, a region marked by its rich historical layers and complex interethnic relations, implies the creation of a political landscape where debate and disagreement occur within a framework of mutual respect and understanding. This is particularly significant in a region where the legacy of conflict and the deep-seated historical narratives of ethnic and national identity have often been sources of tension.
In the Western Balkans, fostering tolerance means actively working against the currents of past animosities and prejudices that have long divided its people. It involves building a political discourse that is inclusive, one that not only tolerates but also celebrates the cultural and ethnic diversity that each nation within the region possesses. It is about nurturing a culture where political actors and the general populace are educated on and mindful of the language they use, the historical contexts they operate within, and the potential impact their words and actions have on the delicate fabric of their society.
A tolerant political culture here does not imply a mere passive coexistence or the mere absence of conflict. Rather, it denotes an active engagement in democratic practices that protect minority opinions, uphold human rights, and encourage participation from all sectors of society. It is about creating institutional mechanisms that not only prevent hate speech and discrimination but also promote policies that ensure equitable treatment for all, regardless of ethnic background, religious belief, or political affiliation.
In the Western Balkans, where memories of the wars of the 1990s are still fresh in the collective memory, the challenges to establishing such a culture are considerable. The media, educational institutions, and political leaders have a particularly pivotal role to play. Media must strive to be impartial and resist serving as a platform for divisive rhetoric. Education should aim to impart not only knowledge but also empathy, teaching new generations about the region’s diverse heritage in a way that fosters an inclusive identity. Political leaders, meanwhile, have the responsibility to lead by example, to demonstrate that it is possible to hold firm to one’s convictions while still extending dignity and respect to one’s opponents.
Fostering a tolerant political culture in the Western Balkans faces unique challenges, deeply rooted in the region’s recent history as well as its long-standing cultural and national narratives. One of the primary challenges is the legacy of conflict, which left behind a complex web of unresolved issues and grievances. The wars of the 1990s, in particular, have left a profound imprint on the collective consciousness, and the resultant trauma can often be a barrier to building a culture of tolerance.
Another significant challenge is the prevalence of nationalist sentiments, which can be exploited by political figures to gain or maintain power. Nationalist rhetoric often relies on portraying ‘the other’ in negative terms, which can entrench division rather than promote the understanding needed for a tolerant society.
Additionally, the region’s media landscape often reflects and amplifies these divisions. Media outlets sometimes act as echo chambers for hate speech and divisive rhetoric, rather than as conduits for the kind of balanced and fair discourse that could foster tolerance.
Moreover, education systems in some parts of the Western Balkans have not fully addressed the need for curricula that promote critical thinking, empathy, and a nuanced understanding of the region’s diverse history. Without this, younger generations may inherit the biases and prejudices that continue to challenge social cohesion.
Political institutions in the region also face the daunting task of ensuring fair representation and equal treatment for all ethnic and religious groups. In some cases, these institutions themselves may be perceived as biased or untrustworthy, which can undermine efforts to develop a tolerant political culture.
Lastly, the efforts to integrate into the European Union provide both a framework and an incentive for fostering tolerance, but they also present challenges. The EU’s criteria require significant reforms and the development of inclusive policies, which can sometimes be met with resistance from those who see these changes as threats to national sovereignty or identity.
These challenges require a multifaceted approach that includes political will, educational reform, responsible media, and ongoing engagement with civil society. Overcoming them is essential for the Western Balkans to build societies where diversity is not only tolerated but valued as a strength, and where political culture can thrive on the principles of democracy and mutual respect.
Efforts to Combat Hate Speech
Efforts to reduce hate speech in the Western Balkans have been multifaceted and involve various stakeholders, including governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and international bodies. These efforts recognize the importance of addressing hate speech to promote social cohesion, stability, and progress in the region. Here are some of the key initiatives and approaches:
Legal Frameworks: Governments in the Western Balkans have put in place legal frameworks that define hate speech, incitement to violence, and discrimination as criminal offenses. These laws provide a basis for prosecuting individuals and groups engaged in hate speech.
National Action Plans: Some governments have developed National Action Plans against Hate Speech, outlining strategies for prevention, protection, and prosecution. These plans often involve collaboration with civil society organizations and international partners.
Media Regulation: Efforts have been made to regulate media content to prevent the dissemination of hate speech. This includes monitoring and holding media outlets accountable for promoting hate speech.
Education: Governments have introduced educational programs aimed at promoting tolerance, diversity, and critical thinking in schools. These programs seek to counteract the influence of hate speech on young minds.
Monitoring and Reporting: NGOs in the Western Balkans play a crucial role in monitoring hate speech and documenting incidents. They provide platforms for individuals to report hate speech, and their reports often inform policy discussions.
Education and Awareness: NGOs conduct awareness campaigns and educational programs focused on countering hate speech. They work with schools, communities, and online platforms to promote tolerance and respectful dialogue.
Legal Support: Some NGOs offer legal support to individuals or groups who are victims of hate speech or discrimination. They help victims navigate the legal system and seek justice.
European Union: The EU has been actively engaged in promoting tolerance and countering hate speech in the Western Balkans. Accession to the EU is linked to compliance with democratic values, including the protection of minority rights and freedom of expression.
OSCE: The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has a presence in the region and works on issues related to hate speech and tolerance. They provide expertise, conduct training, and support civil society initiatives.
United Nations: UN bodies, such as UNDP and UNICEF, collaborate with governments and NGOs to promote tolerance, youth engagement, and conflict prevention in the region.
Council of Europe: The Council of Europe also plays a role in promoting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in the Western Balkans. It supports efforts to combat hate speech and discrimination through various programs and initiatives.
These efforts, while important, still face challenges, including the need for more effective implementation of existing laws, addressing political and institutional biases, and countering the influence of extremist ideologies. However, the commitment of governments, civil society, and international partners to combating hate speech is a positive step toward building a more inclusive and tolerant Western Balkans.
The effectiveness of measures to reduce hate speech in the Western Balkans varies, and their impact can be influenced by several factors.
Legal Frameworks defining hate speech as a criminal offense have the potential to be effective in discouraging overt hate speech and providing legal recourse for victims. However, their effectiveness can be hindered by uneven enforcement and the reluctance to prosecute high-profile individuals or public figures. Additionally, the challenge lies in defining hate speech within legal parameters, with the risk of potential misuse for political purposes.
National Action Plans against hate speech can be valuable in coordinating efforts across government agencies and civil society. They promote a comprehensive approach to combating hate speech. Yet, their effectiveness depends on their implementation and adequate funding. Regular monitoring of progress and adjusting strategies is essential for continued success.
Regulations aimed at preventing hate speech in the media have the potential to discourage its dissemination and encourage responsible reporting. However, achieving a balance between protecting freedom of the press and preventing hate speech can be challenging. Media ownership structures and political influence can hinder effective regulation.
Educational programs focused on promoting tolerance, diversity, and critical thinking in schools are crucial for countering the influence of hate speech on young minds. These programs have the potential to shape future generations with more inclusive values. However, their long-term impact may take time to become evident.
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) play a vital role in monitoring hate speech, providing platforms for reporting, conducting awareness campaigns, and offering legal support to victims. Their effectiveness varies depending on their reach and resources.
International efforts, including those from the European Union, OSCE, United Nations, and Council of Europe, are instrumental in promoting tolerance and countering hate speech. They provide expertise, training, and support to regional governments and civil society organizations.
In assessing the overall effectiveness of these measures, it is crucial to acknowledge that reducing hate speech is a complex and ongoing process. Success hinges on collaborative efforts, consistent implementation, public awareness, and adaptation to evolving challenges. Additionally, addressing the root causes of hate speech, such as historical grievances and societal divisions, is essential for sustainable progress.
Looking ahead to the future of political culture in the Western Balkans regarding hate speech, several trends and areas for improvement emerge:
Gradual Improvement: The region is expected to see gradual improvements in its political culture concerning hate speech. Efforts to combat hate speech, especially those aligned with European Union accession requirements, will continue to push for greater tolerance and respect for diversity.
Lingering Challenges: Historical grievances and ethnic tensions are likely to persist, and some segments of the population may resist change, particularly during times of political or economic uncertainty. These deep-rooted issues will require sustained efforts to address.
Youth as Agents of Change: Younger generations, growing up in a more interconnected world, may become key drivers of change. Their exposure to global perspectives and access to information can lead to more open-minded attitudes, making them instrumental in fostering tolerance.
Media Responsibility: The role of the media will remain pivotal. Media outlets that prioritize responsible reporting and refrain from sensationalism can contribute significantly to a healthier political culture. However, addressing media ownership and influence will continue to be a challenge.
Civil Society’s Influence: Civil society organizations will continue to play a vital role in monitoring hate speech, advocating for tolerance, and holding authorities accountable. Their impact will depend on their ability to mobilize public opinion and engage with diverse communities.
To further promote a tolerant political culture in the Western Balkans, several measures can be taken:
Strengthen Legal Frameworks: Governments should focus on enhancing and enforcing legal frameworks against hate speech, ensuring that they are comprehensive and effectively implemented. This includes penalties for hate speech and mechanisms to address online hate speech.
Education for Tolerance: Educational programs should be expanded to promote tolerance, diversity, and critical thinking in schools. These programs should address historical narratives and encourage empathy and understanding among students.
Media Regulation and Ethics: Media regulation should be refined to strike a balance between freedom of the press and preventing hate speech. Encouraging responsible journalism and media ethics is essential.
Promote Interethnic Dialogue: Initiatives that facilitate interethnic dialogue and cooperation can help bridge divides and foster understanding among different communities.
Youth Engagement: Engaging youth in initiatives that promote tolerance and intercultural understanding is crucial. Youth-led projects and platforms can empower young people to be advocates for change.
Regional Cooperation: Collaborative efforts among Western Balkan countries, with support from international organizations like the European Union and the Council of Europe, can strengthen the collective resolve to combat hate speech and promote a more tolerant political culture.
Overall, the path toward a more tolerant political culture in the Western Balkans is a journey that requires persistence, collaboration, and a multifaceted approach involving governments, civil society, media, and the active participation of citizens.
Throughout this blog, we have journeyed through various facets of hate speech, from its definition and legal implications to its societal consequences. We have delved into the historical context of the Western Balkans, unveiling the enduring legacy of conflicts and prejudices that continue to shape the region’s political landscape. Through the examination of recent examples, we have witnessed the persistence of hate speech within the political sphere of the Western Balkans, a stark reminder of the challenges that lie ahead. We have also analyzed how hate speech acts as a catalyst for polarization, erodes trust in institutions, and poses the unsettling potential for violence.
In essence, this blog reinforces the message that addressing hate speech is not merely a matter of legal compliance; it is an imperative for the health and stability of the Western Balkans. By combatting hate speech, the region can embark on a transformative journey towards fostering a more inclusive, tolerant, and harmonious political culture.
As we look towards the future, it is clear that the path to change will not be without its challenges. Historical grievances and ethnic tensions may persist, but the role of the younger generation, civil society, responsible media, and international cooperation offers hope for a more positive trajectory.
In conclusion, this blog advocates for a collective commitment to combat hate speech, for it is through such concerted efforts that the Western Balkans can truly embrace a political culture founded on the principles of democracy, mutual respect, and unity in diversity.
References and Further Reading
Reports and Publications:
- “Hate Speech and Incitement to Violence in the Western Balkans: A Regional Overview” – United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
- “Media and Hate Speech in the Western Balkans” – Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)
- “Freedom of Expression, Hate Speech, and Propaganda: Monitoring and Analysing Media Content in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia” – ARTICLE 19
- “Hate Speech in Bosnia and Herzegovina: The Problem and the Solutions” – Selma Porobić (Journal of Hate Studies)
- “Media and Hate Speech in the Western Balkans: The Role of the Media in the Spread of Hate Speech in the Western Balkans” – Branislav Radeljić (Southeast European and Black Sea Studies)
Government and NGO Resources:
- Council of Europe – Official Website
- European Union – Enlargement and Stabilization Process
- OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina – Media Development
- “Ethnic Conflict and Hate Speech in the Balkans: The Influence of Nationalism” – Norbert Bugeja
- “Media, Ethnicity and Nationalism in the European Context” – Janusz Bugajski
Articles and News Sources:
- “The Balkans, Where Hate Speech Flourishes” – Balkan Insight
- “Hate Speech and Media in Bosnia and Herzegovina: An Overview” – Al Jazeera Balkans
Civil Society Organizations:
- Human Rights Watch – Balkans
- Amnesty International – Balkans
 https://mc.rs/rezultati-monitoringa-seksizam-govor-mrznje-i-mizoginija-najprisutniji-u-zapadno-balkanskim-medijima/za-medije/detaljno/1215 , visited on January 15, 2024
NOTE: This Blog is written within the project Regional Youth Dialogue for Europe – RYDE, funded by the European Union