Growing ethnic and political tensions across the Balkans have triggered rabid warmongering and ethnic anti-Albanian ethnic slurs in Serbian media, local experts warn.
by Filip Rudić, BIRN, Belgrade
“We will slaughter Serbian children,” screamed the headline in bold slapped above a photo of a former Kosovo Liberation Army guerrilla turned political leader Ramush Haradinaj, which was published on May 11 by Serbia’s tabloid Informer, an outlet considered to be close to Serbian Prime Minister and President-elect Aleksandar Vucic.
The inflammatory article was one of many recent examples of incendiary front pages, which according to Serbian journalist Perica Gunjic, increasingly resemble the wartime propaganda of the 1990s.
“This warmongering, as insane and impossible as it may seem, is a very dangerous thing,” Gunjic told BIRN, adding that as of recently there is always “an explosion of hate” in Serbian media following any sort of incident or political development deemed not in line with Serb national interests in the country or the region.
The fact is that there were several statements made by international or regional officials that openly challenged Serbian key political or national positions, yet experts warn that even that cannot be used as an excuse for media warmongering.
First, in April, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and then Kosovo President Hashim Thaci warned in separate statements that if Albania and Kosovo lose the prospect of EU membership in the near future, all Albanians will decide to live in one country.
These statements sparked incensed reactions from Serbian media and politicians alike.
More recently, the former head of the OSCE mission in Kosovo, William Walker, sparked a new wave of media outrage after he told press last week that he was working on a project to unite Albanians.
Serbian Prime Minister Vucic reacted quickly, accusing Walker of lobbying for a “Greater Albania”.
Walker had been working in Kosovo in 1999 when 45 Albanians were massacred in the village of Racak, so Serbian media have launched a propaganda campaign claiming that the crime, which triggered NATO’s intervention against Yugoslavia, was made up.
Another point of contention is the ongoing political crisis in Macedonia, where the VMRO-DPMNE party is refusing to relinquish power to the coalition made up of Zoran Zaev’s Social-democrats and ethnic Albanian parties.
Most Serbian media portray these events as a US-supported Albanian attempt of a takeover of Macedonia.
“America gives Macedonia to Shiptars [a derogatory term for Albanians] and [Zoran] Zaev by force,” read a recent front page article, again in the tabloid Informer.
Additionally, the tabloid Blic reported two weeks ago that Serbian military intelligence had impounded weapons being smuggled by Albanians from Kosovo to Macedonia, ostensibly to be used in an armed conflict.
With only one unnamed source from military intelligence and no official confirmation, some journalists took to social media to question the credibility of the report.
The website Cenzolovka, which monitors press freedom and where Gunjic is editor, recorded 12 front pages between February 20 and May 10 in the Informer alone, which raised the spectre of war in the Balkans.
Eight of these refer to an alleged plot to create a “Greater Albania“ from the territories of neighbouring countries, while the others accused the Serbian opposition of wanting to overthrow Vucic’s government.
The threat of “Greater Albania” remains a popular scare tactic in Serbian politics, with some media playing up politicians’ statements on the issue.
The NGO Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies, CEAS, expressed concern over the “abuse of regional tensions to spread hate against Albanians in Serbia and the region”.
“We demand that the authorities react to the hate speech against Albanians […] which can have unforeseen consequences amid the tension created by the news of hundreds of armed Albanians and thousands of pieces of [impounded] weaponry,“ CEAS said in a statement on May 8.
Another popular target of Serbian tabloids is the former Prime Minister of Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj, who has been a staple on front pages since a French court refused to extradite him to Serbia, where he is charged with war crimes.
The front page of Srpski Telegraf from May 14 featured a picture of Haradinaj under the headline “I will take [the city of] Nis from Serbia”.
Tabloids have written about the alleged Albanian plan to lay claim to southern Serbia ever since April when Jonuz Musliu, an Albanian politician from Serbia, made the provocative statement that his president was Albanian leader Edi Rama, not Vucic.
Despite the tabloids whipping up ethnic tension and hatred, Idro Seferi, a Belgrade-based Albanian journalist, says he does not feel less safe in Serbia.
However, he says that the atmosphere created by the newspapers spawns distrust between Serbs and Albanians.
“If Albanians only watch the media and have no contact with the Serbs, they definitely won’t feel comfortable,” he said, adding that the language barrier is a big part of the problem.
Seferi questions whether, despite the hyperbole of politicians and the media, there is much real animosity between ordinary people, pointing out that the number of violent inter-ethnic incidents is low.
The article was republished from Balkan Insight with permission.