By Remzi Lani*
This essay is from the upcoming book to mark the Media Diversity Institute’s 25th anniversary. The book consists of essays by academics, journalists, media experts, civil society activists, and policymakers – all those who have supported us in our work towards diversity, inclusion, and fairer representation of marginalised and vulnerable communities in the media. The paper version of the book will be launched at the Anniversary celebration on the 17th of November 2023 in London. Watch this space for the other 24 essays.
It was early June 1997, a month that Albanians won’t easily forget, as a curfew was in effect following the civil turmoil that had kicked off in March earlier that year. All the while, 11 foreign armies patrolled the streets of Tirana at their pleasure, just like in an absurd theatre play in which no one understands who is fighting whom. Precisely during those days, after crossing the border between Albania and Montenegro with the help of local fishermen, Milica Pesic arrived in Tirana. Our joint efforts to secure her an entry visa to Albania had failed, partly due the fact that the Albanian state at that point had almost ceased to function altogether, and partly due to the fact that back then it was no mean feat for a Serbian to visit Albania. It required an incredible amount of paperwork, and many official signatures and seals. However, in an Albania drowning in anarchy, the idea that one must have a visa to enter the country did not make much sense.
Milica arrived in Tirana and we met at Fidel Cafe, a modest bar where journalists used to get together without even arranging it in advance; one would just show up and sit at the table they liked most, or at whichever table they had more friends sitting around. I had known Milica from a few years earlier when we both used to write for AIM (Alternativna Informativna Mreza-Alternative Information Network). This was a network of journalists from the Balkans, most of them from former Yugoslavia, who in the midst of bloody conflicts across the region refused to bow to the media controlled by nationalistic autocrats and tried to provide an independent and unofficial view of events.
A few months before her visit to Tirana, Milica, who at the time was based in London, had invited the newly established Albanian Media Institute, which I was managing, to take part in the Reporting Diversity project, along with the Center for Independent Journalism in Budapest, a Russian organization based in Saint Petersburg, and others. I gladly accepted the proposal. Unfortunately, due to the shutdown of the Tirana airport during the March turmoil, I could not participate at the first meeting of the full group, which had been held in Russia.
Now we were sitting at the Fidel Café and in no time the table was filled with journalists. They were polite and friendly to each other while sitting there, whether they fancied themselves as right-wing or left-wing, pro-government or against it. But come the evening hours when they would be writing their newspaper articles, they would revert to accusing each other of being servants of the regime or mercenary scribblers for the opposition, only to get together the next morning at the same table sipping coffee and striking up a conversation as though nothing untoward had happened.
Amidst all this, Milica was trying to explain to them what was meant by media diversity, hate speech, negative stereotypes, why it was important to achieve gender balance in the media etc, and would ask them questions about their jobs and their personal experiences in the newsroom. Truth be told, most of them were more intrigued by the fact that Milica was Serbian, an anti-Milosevic Serbian at that, rather than by what she was saying. Some of them had never met a Serbian, let alone conversed with one in the center of Tirana.
Without digressing any further, I must point out that the first handbook on Reporting Diversity in Eastern Europe was produced thanks to this project, published first in Albanian, and later in Hungarian and Russian. In the archives of the Albanian Media Institute, we still have a copy of this handbook, which looks like a boring bundle of A4 paper sheets stapled together – not unlike the makeshift textbooks used by the Department of Philosophy of the University of Tirana when I was a student in the early 80s. Nevertheless, I was later told by Milica that this project was the starting point for the establishment of the Media Diversity Institute (MDI).
By the way, while Milica was meeting people at the Fidel Cafe, the foreign ministry called to say that they had approved her Albanian visa.
Almost simultaneously, ACCESS Sofia, a very active Bulgarian NGO, had initiated an interesting project named Balkan Neighbors. A group of experts from all the countries in the Balkans, from Albania to Greece, from Bulgaria to Turkey, including the countries that had come into being following the dissolution of what was still called Yugoslavia, would monitor the media in their respective countries to get acquainted with and analyze the portrayal of their adjacent and distant neighbors. Our Bulgarian colleague Roumen Yanovski, known for being scrupulous when it comes to his work, published a quarterly newsletter with the reports drafted by the experts of each country. The countries of the former Yugoslavia were still engulfed in conflicts and the media was dominated by negative stereotypes. Hate speech was almost the norm. L’enfer, c’est les autres. The “Others” were primarily the neighbors, with domestic ethnic minorities a close second.
In his 1995 report on the role of the media in the origins of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, UN emissary Tadeusz Mazowiecki came to the conclusion that the media were to blame for stirring up racist and ethnic hatred, thereby directly contributing to the outbreak of these wars. It is no coincidence that in his 1999 book Forging War, the Balkan expert Mark Thomson paraphrased von Clausewitz’s well-known expression as “War is the continuation of television news by other means.” The “campaigns” of the media were the forerunners of military campaigns; the mercenaries of the microphone and pen led to the mercenaries of the Kalashnikovs and landmines. The historian Timothy Garton Ash labeled the Milosevic regime a “TV dictatorship”. Now, more than two decades after the end of these bloody conflicts, we have achieved the necessary distance for a serious examination of the role played by the media. What is still needed is a deep analysis and of the semantics of the wars: the establishment of nationalistic myths, the projection of the image of the Other, the use of hate speech and hate silence, and so forth.
The image of the next door neighbor has continuously intrigued me, and that was the reason why I decided in 2015 to get back to this topic, some 15 years after the completion of the ACCESS project. At that point, with the wars having been left behind, the question became how the Balkan peoples view one another in times of peace. How do we report on our neighbors when the Balkan conflicts are a thing of the past and the countries of the region find themselves in the process of Euro-Atlantic integration? What is the image of the Other in the media of the region?
How are minorities in the country perceived? Are they a Trojan horse or a connecting bridge? What is the impact of the process of European integration on the way countries of the Western Balkans see each other? What is the role of new media and social media in creating perceptions of one another? These were some of the questions that needed answering when we started this new project in 2015. In summary, the answer was that despite the changes of the last decade, the way Balkan peoples view each other can hardly be called amicable. A number of negative stereotypes and prejudices vis-à-vis one another are still strong.
Compared to the first Balkan Neighbors project, Balkan Neighbors 2.0, as we called it, covered a smaller geographical area. Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania had joined the EU and escaped the Balkans. I remember that we had to postpone the publishing of the book for a few weeks to include an unexpected and interesting case study: the flying of a drone carrying a flag representing a map of Greater Albania over the Belgrade stadium by an Albanian youngster, an incident that was reported extensively by media outlets all over the region and instigated an ‘internet war’ between Albanians and Serbs. Nationalistic propaganda mobilization in Belgrade, Tirana, Pristina, Banja Luka reached fever pitch. At the time, I wrote that the Balkan wars were over on the battlefields but were still raging on the internet. Cyber-nationalism had reached our shores.
The exit from communism was followed, among other things, by a departure from unanimity, uniformity, unity, homogeneity – very familiar terms to those who have lived under that system in Russia, Romania, Yugoslavia, or elsewhere. In the case of Albania, it was also an exit from totalitarianism, the most extreme form of communist control, a real-life application of George Orwell’s Big Brother. Any step out of line – a colorful dress, a careless hairstyle, a pessimistic poem, an ambiguous comment – was just too dangerous. One for all, and all for one! Voter turnout in Albanian elections stood at 100 percent, while 99.99 percent of the voters cast their ballots for the uncontested candidates of the sole political party, which meant that officially, in many elections only a single vote was reported to have been made against the party’s candidate.
Pluralism was a word that was nowhere to be seen in newspapers, nor heard on the radio. Diversity was a minefield. Whoever endeavored to walk that path risked a lot. Minorities constituted a threat to society, but that was carefully kept under wraps, and they were treated like a mere façade.
The transition to a democratic society marked the end of the totalitarian regime and the first steps towards pluralism, or differently put the first steps towards diversity. In the meantime, a series of bloody conflicts in former Yugoslavia contrasted starkly with these developments. Minorities were no longer mere façades of socialist harmony, but rather Trojan Horses working for the enemy neighbors next door.
It was precisely in this context that, at the beginning of the 90s, training programs for journalists focused strongly on the topic of diversity, applying two main approaches. The first involved Reporting on Minorities – ethnic, cultural, linguistic, religious, etc. The second involved Reporting Diversity.
It is fair to ask: what is the difference between these two approaches? While Reporting on Minorities focused generally on one of the specific minorities, Reporting Diversity adopted a more comprehensive, holistic approach. While Reporting on Minorities had a protective approach in terms of promoting anti-discriminatory policies, Reporting Diversity adopted a more pro-active, more inclusive approach. We live in a reality of multi-color diversity, and in the final analysis the media is duty-bound to reflect this reality – this is in a nutshell the philosophy of Reporting Diversity. The Media Diversity Institute is a product of this philosophy and has done more than any other organization to promote diversity from the Balkans to the Middle East, from Southeast Asia to the Caucasus.
Old habits die hard. Young democracies have no doubt achieved a great deal over a relatively short period of time, but they have still continued to suffer from old ailments. Past traditions, habits and beliefs are still strong. One of these traditions is majoritarianism.
Dr. Stockman, in Ibsen’s play The Enemy of the People, says: “The most dangerous enemies of truth and justice in our midst are the compact majorities, the damned compact majority.”
A strong culture of majoritarianism is still dominant in the Balkans. Minority rights are proclaimed and promoted, but they often are seen as concessions, if not presents – gifts that the majority offers to the minority. If you are in Albania, you will hear politicians declaring that ”we have granted full rights to the Greek minority”. Question: who are the “we” who grants these rights? If you are in North Macedonia, you still encounter a strong feeling among the Macedonian majority that the Ohrid Agreement was imposed by Washington and Brussels. The rights of Albanians deriving from this agreement are seen as concessions that the majority was obliged to grant under pressure. Unfortunately, the media is one of the pillars of this culture of Balkan majoritarianism.
I like very much a famous quote from Sub-Commandante Marcos of Zapatistas: “Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10pm, a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains. Marcos is all the exploited, marginalized, oppressed minorities resisting and saying `Enough’. He is every minority who is now beginning to speak and every majority that must shut up and listen.”
If there ever were a topic that would stand out in the Balkans in terms of the number of papers and books published, conferences and workshops organized, it would definitely be hate speech. And for good reason. As Adam Michnik puts it, “The Balkan war first started in the newspapers, radio and television stations.” The term Media War was first coined in Bosnia; it was later used in Rwanda, and then unfortunately became an integral part of handbooks and manuals that analyze the role of media in conflicts.
Sadly, historic knowledge and present experience provide rich material concerning the mechanisms of generating and amplifying hatred. Especially in the Balkans, but also elsewhere.
The first step is an exaggerated, artificial differentiation between the majority of the population and a minority group, the separation of Us and Them. This includes an over-emphasis on the features that distinguish or supposedly distinguish the minority groups from the majority. Instead of a source of richness, difference becomes a stigma and a stain.
The next step is separation of the two groups by cutting off the bridges between them. The Others, now seen as a distinct, homogenous group, become viewed as representing aggression, danger and crime; they are associated with poverty, sickness, weakness, laziness. Generalizations become routine; a crime committed by a member of the community becomes viewed as characteristic of the whole group. The process starts with prejudice and ends with radical rejection: the normality and humanity of the “Other” are gradually denied.
Simultaneous with the dehumanization process, the other side – “Us”- identifies itself only with the most positive features. Representatives of the dominant majority view themselves as champions of noble values that are threatened by the minority group. The “other” threatens, exploits and endangers “us”; the majority group becomes a “victim” that is obliged to defend itself. The victimization syndrome, which we have seen repeatedly during Balkan conflicts, is not a phenomenon of the past. It is still strong and present.
Albanesi antes portas, warned the Italian media 30 years ago while Albanians disembarked on Italian shores. Invasion of Albanians, warned the UK home secretary Suella Braverman 30 years later, in autumn 2022. The same technology, different times.
Also 30 years later, during the Covid 19 pandemic, the Albanian media raised the alarm about migrants at the gates: “…In Albania can enter “pigs and sows”, illegal immigrants as well as Indian, Syrian, Afghani, Bangladeshi, Asian immigrants who are bringing with them the deadly virus,” declared an article in a Tirana newspaper, as quoted by a report from the project Reporting Diversity 2.0, organized by MDI. So is it really 2.0 or is it 1.0 all over again? This is the question.
Usually, when we talk about mechanisms of hate in the media we focus on “hate speech”. I think it would also be interesting to analyze “hate silence”. This, for example, is the treatment of the Roma, who simply do not exist in the Albanian media. Nobody talks about them. In this sense, hate speech is replaced by hate silence. The media influence their audiences not only through what they say, but, just as importantly, through what they don’t say.
What we see today is the spread of unprecedented hate speech on the Internet. New media has offered an ideal platform for spreading hate speech because of its decentralized, anonymous and interactive structure. The image of the Greek as wily; of the Serb as an enemy; of the Roma as a thief; of the Vlach as a non-Albanian, and so on, is very present in the Albanian virtual sphere. Cyber-hate is the dark side of information technology. Cyber-hate knows no boundaries; its perpetrators are anonymous and fluid; its messages globally available.
It is 2021 and the Balkans, like the rest of the world, face the pandemic of COVID-19, practice vaccine diplomacy as much as they can, become part of the “vaccine war” against their will, and do not miss the opportunity to cultivate vaccine nationalism. And like all other countries, in fact more than others, the Balkans are infected by what is now widely regarded as an infodemia.
Conspiracy theories and, along with them, misinformation have gone viral. (Ironically, the frequent use of the term “viral” itself means that we have actually been dealing with two viruses at the same time.) These tales begin with theories about the origin of the virus: according to some, the coronavirus came from a laboratory in Wuhan and was engineered by China; according to others, the coronavirus was created by the United States as a biological weapon; and according to still others, it was actually created by Big Pharma to make extraordinary profits from vaccines and medicines. Then, those promoting conspiracies and misinformation began linking 5G technology to the coronavirus and even accused Bill Gates of seeking to place microchips in human bodies through mass vaccination campaigns and thus establish total control over the human race.
And if the above theories are in fact global, and crashed on our shores as they swept across the world, local theories did not take long to follow, as is always the case. A so-called Albanian conspiracy theorist stated on TV that COVID-19 is a biological weapon spread by the “White Brotherhood” in a battle between the Illuminati and Donald Trump. A Montenegrin politician claimed that behind the coronavirus pandemic stands “a global Satanist pedophile deep state”.
A survey from The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group on the spread of coronavirus conspiracy theories in the Balkans, published in early 2021, reported that approximately 80% of the population believes in one or more of these fantasies and conspiracies. The report stated that the country in the region with the most supporters of conspiracy theories is Albania.
According to another survey, this one from the Institute for Development, Research and Alternatives in Tirana, “one third of the respondents believed that the 5G internet coverage network is one of the factors for the rapid spread of the virus, while 29% of the respondents believed that the vaccine would implant microchips in humans to track them.” Various data show that this is more or less the situation in other countries in the region.
How much does this situation have to do with what has long been said and written about the Balkans as the land of conspiracies? And what does it have to do with what the well-known political analyst Ivan Krastev calls “the rise of the paranoid citizen” nowadays, not only in the Balkans but worldwide? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the role of the new media and communications eco-system in the birth and spread of conspiracies and misinformation?
It was in a discussion session organized by MDI during the autumn 2021 Media Festival in Fazana, on the Croatian coast, in a room that was almost empty due to the pandemic, that I first used the phrase “fake speech”. Of course, this is a metaphoric term, and it is by no means an academic or professional construct. After hate speech arrived fake speech. More precisely, we now have fake speech alongside hate speech.
Fake speech, in my opinion, is term denoting a dangerous cocktail of fake news, disinformation/misinformation/mal-information, and conspiracy theories. This booming avalanche is the core of what is widely regarded as the Information Disorder.
Eric Schmidt, former chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is quoted as saying: “The internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand…” The cyber-utopia we fantasized about at the beginning of the last decade, when we naively celebrated a wave of Facebook and Twitter Revolutions while China cynically perfected the Internet Dictatorship, seems to have been gradually replaced by cyber-realism. And it is indeed realistic to accept that the Internet is something we do not understand.
However, the 2.5 billion citizens of the Republic, or rather, the Kingdom of Facebook, have experienced on the one hand a strong dose of previously unknown freedom and, on the other hand, something of a casino-type addiction that paradoxically offers an illusion of freedom. The Balkan peoples are active citizens of this space, whether using real names or hiding in anonymity. (I have to disclose here that I am not a citizen of Mark Zuckerberg’s virtual empire, but I spend quite a few hours online every day).
Mark Deuze, a well-known media studies academic, writes that “we do not live with, but in media.” Long gone are the times when we lived with media and in front of us stood a vertical media system whose operating keyword was transmission. Now, we live in media; in fact, we are part of a horizontal media system, the operating keyword being share. And perhaps what is most important here is not the lack of hierarchy, but actually the lack of rules. Paolo Mancini, the well-known media systems researcher, brilliantly defines the situation when he says that what we see today is the de-institutionalization of the media and communications system.
What interests me in this context is how conspiracies and misinformation spread massively on the web, and in the case of the Balkans, invaded it.
The term “fake news”, which is actually misused by Donald Trump and others, metaphorically resembles a fast bike that transports, aside from short-term lies of the day that will be forgotten tomorrow, long-term conspiracies that are thrive for a decade or longer. Labeling something as fake news is an easy and convenient way to spread and amplify conspiracies. Especially in times of crisis. And especially in the Balkans.
This is to a large degree a symptom of a serious problem of the modern communications eco-system, which overwhelms individuals with excess information – known these days by the term “infobesity” – but finds them unprepared to navigate and orient themselves in this ocean of abundance. The latest Media Literacy Index emphasizes once again that the citizens of the Balkans continue to be the most vulnerable in Europe to information manipulation, with these countries all ranking among the last ten on the continent.
Some specific issues make the situation in the Balkans particularly complex and problematic. It is not difficult to notice that our societies are firstly characterized by low trust, and secondly, are polarized to the extreme. Both of these factors create fertile ground for disinformation conspiracies of all kinds.
In our societies, which are marked by little trust in local institutions and leaders, individuals tend to seek out other authorities they believe they can rely on. In the vacuum created by distrust, questions raised are easily answered with simplified conspiratorial narratives.
The populist politicians who have invaded our political scenes present themselves as speaking on behalf of the people, on behalf of the whole people, even on behalf of the whole nation. In this context, those who are different, those who think differently, are viewed at best as sell-outs, or at worst as traitors. It is not difficult to notice that accusations of traitors and plotters “in our midst” have increased considerably in Balkan political discourse, from Albania to Serbia, from Bosnia to Kosovo.
Mistrust and polarization fuel conspiracy theories, and conspiracy theories reinforce polarization and mistrust. When this happens, democracy erodes; diversity and pluralism are under threat. We witness this in the Balkans on a daily basis.
Seems that the Open Society is threatened by exactly what seemed like the Great Open. An aggressive and often blind threat. However, at least we have already realized that while for the pandemic virus there seems to be one or several vaccines, for the disinfodemic virus there can be none. We will have to look for immunity in developing critical thinking skills, building trust, promoting diversity and, above all, defending what John Stewart Mill calls “freedom of thought”.
One of the most brilliant stories in Danilo Kis’ The Encyclopedia of the Dead is undoubtedly The Book of Kings and Fools. The main character of this novel is not a human, but a book, entitled “The Conspiracy, or The Roots of the Disintegration of the European Society”. Gracefully mixing fiction and nonfiction, the great Balkan writer has created an anti-story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and warns that the history of conspiracies and manipulations is not over. The title in particular sounds like a warning for today.
*Remzi Lani is the Executive Director of the Albanian Media Institute. Lani has a long career in journalism working for ”Zeri i Rinise”-Tirana, El Mundo-Madrid, Zeri-Pristina, and the Alternative Information Network–AIM. He has also written articles on Balkan affairs for different local and foreign papers and magazines. Lani has been an expert for the International Commission on the Balkans (Amato Commission) and is a member of the European Council of Foreign Relations. Lani has vast experience working on media freedom in the Balkans, Caucasus, Middle East and Africa. In 1990, he was a founding member of the first human rights group in Albania, the Forum for Human Rights. The Albanian Media Institute was one of the first two MDI Balkan Reporting Diversity partners.