By Anida Sokol*
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.
These are the recollections of three members of Mediacentar Sarajevo about the first Sarajevo Queer Festival, which was held in September 2008.
Long-time journalist and Mediacentar director Boro Kontić was a participant in the festival and the person who opened the doors of this organisation to the guests and organizers. Slobodanka Dekić, an associate of Mediacentar Sarajevo and the group’s former project coordinator, was one of the organisers of the festival and an activist with the Q association, the first organization of LGBTIQ people in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Marija Arnautović, the chief editor at Mediacentar Sarajevo, reported on the preparations for the festival and devoted many years of journalistic work to reporting on minority groups.
It is worth noting that Mediacentar Sarajevo issued its first manual to help ensure more professional reporting on these topics, “The Right to Diversity”, in 1999. The manual addressed the issue of how to report professionally on sexual minorities almost 25 years ago. We developed it in cooperation with the Media Diversity Institute. That productive collaboration has now lasted for more than two decades.
Media and the LGBTIQ Community: Stories of Media Representatives and Activists from Sarajevo
Billboards announcing the first queer festival in Bosnia and Herzegovina, scheduled for September 2008, appeared on the streets of Sarajevo the month before. They were very simple, with a figure and the headline “Queer Sarajevo Festival”. Slobodanka Dekić, one of the organizers, remembers that, with the announcement of the festival, the media rush also began. The Bosniak print magazine SAFF and the daily newspaper Dnevni avaz were at the forefront and portrayed the festival primarily as anti-Bosniak, with headlines such as: “Who Is Forcing the Queer Festival on the Bosniaks?” and “Gays in Sarajevo on the Night of Laylat Al-Qadr”. All the journalists were asking the same question: “Why is the festival being held during Ramadan?” Slobodanka Dekić says that it was a legitimate question, and in hindsight, she regrets not providing a “smarter” answer: “Maybe we should have said it was precisely because it was Ramadan and we wanted everyone to celebrate the beautiful holiday, even the non-believers.”
The organisers had been receiving death threats for weeks before the opening of the festival. The media were completely polarized, and only a few had come to the defence of the festival and LGBTIQ people. These included the Sarajevo magazine Dani and the public service broadcaster of the Federation, FTV, recalls Slobodanka. In some media, this support came as a result of the individual efforts of journalists and editors who supported LGBTIQ rights, such as Kristina Ljevak, who worked at FTV. On Internet forums, users called for the lynching of the organizers, media outlets that sponsored the festival received threats, and posters with homophobic content were distributed and put up all over the city. Certain politicians and religious leaders propagated intolerance against LGBTIQ people, thereby further spreading hatred.
Almost every day, the Dnevni Avaz published homophobic statements by political and religious leaders and headlines suggesting that homosexuals were insulting Muslims. One cover featured the statement of a religious official as a headline – “Freedom should not be used to promote that garbage from the West.” The cover also included a sub-title: “They are doing it on purpose during Ramadan because the mosques are full.”
The festival was originally scheduled for September 9, but due to the media frenzy a large number of places where exhibitions and screenings were supposed to take place cancelled because the owners were afraid that their premises would be the target of hooligan attacks. The festival was rescheduled for September 24.
In the lynching atmosphere, open threats targeted the media that supported the festival. Threatening letters signed by “war veterans of Sarajevo” were sent to the editors of Dani magazine, the student radio EFM and Radio Sarajevo. “From this moment in which you have condemned yourself, you will not be at peace in the endless future…”, they wrote to the newsrooms. Those three media outlets were the few that openly supported the festival as patrons. The rest either reported about it in an inflammatory manner or often asked inappropriate questions under the guise of objective journalism, Slobodanka Dekić recalls fourteen years later.
According to Boro Kontić, the director of Mediacentar Sarajevo, there was also a negative reaction from the Union of War Veterans, leading Bosniak politicians and religious representatives. The city was plastered with posters that directly called for violence with slogans like “death to fags”.
As the opening day of the Queer Festival approached, the threats became more and more severe and frequent, with daily media incitement. The organizers decided to hold the festival anyway. Two days before the opening, Marija Arnautović, the current editor of Mediacentar Sarajevo, interviewed the organizers about the threats for Radio Free Europe. She also talked with some of the editors of the newsrooms that had been threatened. She asked politicians why, in a constitutionally secular state, an atmosphere of hatred is being created and what the relationship between the arts festival and the month of Ramadan should be. Although the question was not whether he was looking forward to the festival, a representative in the State Parliament, Bakir Izetbegović, answered, “I am not happy about it at all. A reminder of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of the 27th night, a noble night that Muslims celebrate, I am not happy about it at all.”
Although she didn’t spend much time thinking about it back then, she nonetheless believed that it was important for all those who understood why this kind of festival was important to be as loud as possible. Maybe we were naive, says Arnautović today, but even with all those threats, we believed that nothing bad would happen. She says that they trusted the police to prevent possible riots, but also viewed Sarajevo as a tolerant city. After everything that happened on September 24 in front of and around the building of the Academy of Fine Arts, according to Arnautović, it became clear that some blatant and intentionally aggressive journalistic misconduct, and perhaps some clumsy but unintentional journalistic errors, were largely responsible for the heated atmosphere before the first queer festival.
There Will Be a Festival
It was the end of September 2008, but a warm evening, remembers Boro Kontić. The long footpath along the Miljacka, usually deserted, was packed with people. He almost had to fight his way into the building of the Academy of Fine Arts, the large exhibition hall on the ground floor where the opening of the first Queer Sarajevo Festival was being held. More precisely, the evening represented the first public appearance of lesbian, gay, transgender, and intersex persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
It seemed to him, Kontić says, that everything would pass without incident because, a few hours before the opening ceremony, only a small group of citizens, including several Wahhabis, showed up at the scheduled protest against the queer festival. In the invitation to the anti-festival rally in the centre of Sarajevo, Kontić says, “conscientious citizens were asked to express their protests against the deviant ideas that are trying to be presented as normal and acceptable to the Bosnian public, our children and future generations.” The appeal ended with a slogan: “Stand Up Sarajevo.”
Mediacentar, under the leadership of Kontić, was actively involved in supporting the festival in accordance with their policy of respecting diversity and advocating for the protection of freedom of expression and human rights. The least he could do, he says, was to appear at the opening and express solidarity with the participants.
According to Slobodanka Dekić, about 200 people attended the event. A group of about 70 hooligans gathered across the street from the Academy, on the other side of the Miljacka. They started insulting the festival visitors and throwing stones. They followed some visitors and physically attacked them.
The media reported that festival participants were attacked. While watching television coverage of the events, Marija Arnautović recognised a friend of hers, who was describing how “a girl was attacked over there” and how a group of people who blocked the entrance to the Academy of Fine Arts building were harassing and insulting people. Arnautović knew that some of her friends and colleagues were inside the building at the festival. She tried to find out what was going on by texting them. A colleague wrote that she could not leave the Academy building, and others reported that groups of people were waiting for festival participants in the streets of Sarajevo. The most painful thing, Arnautović says, was finding out that a “witch hunt” was going on in the streets of Sarajevo, which continued in the coming days as well.
During these events, fear and uncertainty reigned in the Academy of Fine Arts building. The security managed to take the organizers out of the building and, as Dekić remembers, “put them in a taxi”. They went to the emergency room because the festival selector Andrej Viskochis was seriously injured and needed emergency medical assistance. After that, they went to the police to give their statements. Another group of volunteers tried to get home by taxi, miles away from the Academy building, and a group of hooligans intercepted them and broke the window of the taxi with a gun in order to drag them out and beat them.
After the opening of the exhibition of portraits by the photographer Irfan Redžović and an address from the ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, all the guests left the premises of the Academy. Boro Kontić, together with several journalists from Dani magazine, set off on the footpath towards the city. On the other side of the Miljacka river, from the stone fence in front of the Faculty of Law, a large group of people loudly shouted slogans, of which, he says, he only caught: ‘Fags, we will find you tonight’. They were passing through a barrage of people, among them several Wahhabis, who were watching them, as he says, with the kind of interest one would see in, say, a zoo. They were agreeing on which pub to stop by and when they started down the street that leads north from the Čobanija bridge, only ten meters away, he sensed something happening
behind him. He turned and saw journalists Peđa Kojović on the ground and Emir Imamović wrestling with a couple of young men. “We ran to them and someone shouted: ‘Police!’ A few uniformed people appeared and everything quickly calmed down. The attackers ran away, one was still caught, and Peđa and Emir went to give statements.”
What were the stats of that night? A total of eight people were injured, and seven were arrested. The Danish selector of the festival’s film program, Andrejs Viskochis, suffered the most serious injuries and was operated on and kept in the hospital. The attackers approached him from behind, knocked him to the ground and kicked him. Several festivalgoers were literally dragged out of a taxi and beaten. More attacks happened miles away from the event venue.
The festival was effectively cancelled, but certain programs continued in changed locations. Mediacentar provided space to continue at least some of the activities, says Boro Kontić. A media conference was also held in the Mediacentar hall the day after the attacks. The president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, Srđan Dizdarević, called the events in Sarajevo scandalous, unacceptable and anti-civilization, pointing out that the fascist rhetoric triggered the violence.
“Should we fear that in the future the cultural and public life of Sarajevo will be regulated by paramilitary gangs that will determine which exhibitions we can visit, which movies we can watch and which swimming pools we can swim in?” asked the editor of Dani magazine, Senad Pećanin, who witnessed the hooligan attack on his colleagues Kojović and Imamović.
After the attack, the Queer Sarajevo Festival continued with its activities, but without public gatherings and promotions, and in a new location. With so many doors closed for them, says Slobodanka Dekić, they still needed a place to gather people because a lot came from outside Sarajevo, and Mediacentar opened theirs. First of all, she says, people who worked there were not afraid, and also truly open-minded.
The feeling of acceptance and security, which Mediacentar provided to the organizers after everything that had happened, was extremely important for her. Mediacentar, she says, is a big company, a company that is not in any way explicitly associated with the LGBTIQ community, although they called themselves a gay centre in the days of the festival. But that’s where she found herself experiencing a sense of security at a time when it was vitally necessary.
At that time, she did not know that she would soon become part of the Mediacentar team. Before the festival itself, she was being screened for a job and her task was to design a conference about feminism and prepare a budget. While she was performing this task, she received information on her mobile phone that her email had been hacked and that various messages were being sent from her address. “I said, ‘Wait, just let me finish the budget!’” she recalls, so eager was she to pursue the position. She found out that she got a job at Mediacentar after the festival, in a taxi, when a Mediacantar employee who was also a member of the festival’s organising committee said to her: “Boba, I completely forgot to tell you. You got a job at Mediacentar.” She started working with a team in which, as she says, different people work, but the principle is that everyone must feel comfortable and respect each other.
The festival continued for a short time at Mediacentar. The organizers were receiving threats and they got a round-the-clock police escort, as did other festival participants. In the “hunt” for the participants, visitors were followed, and groups of Wahhabis and hooligans visited the planned festival locations. On Thursday, September 25, they were spotted hanging around Mediacentar, and the next day near the Meeting Point cinema, as reported by Dani magazine. In the meantime, a video was published on YouTube – an open death threat against one of the organizers, Svetlana Đurković, with an animation of a knife cutting off the head of the figure pictured on the official festival poster. After much thought and discussion with the police, it was decided – the festival was cancelled.
The following year, the festival was reduced to virtual presentations, posters and video messages in different media.
The next year, in 2010, there was only a single discussion about “how to revive the queer movement in BiH,” Boro Kontić remembers. It was said that there was no association or non-governmental organization for the representation of queer rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, nor was it possible to find a single person from public life, especially from the government, who would be willing to get engaged in this segment of human rights. According to organizers from the Sarajevo Open Centre, who hosted the meeting, it was closed to the public to avoid the possibility of more violence.
Violence as the Result of Media Incitement
The violence that happened in 2008 at the first queer festival in Sarajevo was largely the result of media coverage, says Slobodanka Dekić. In that situation, the media demonstrated their potential for producing fear-mongering journalism. Hiding behind the guise of objective journalism, the media asked inappropriate questions, omitted certain key information, failed to regulate comments that publicly called for lynching, and sent a clear message – that they do not approve of the Queer Sarajevo Festival being held in the month of Ramadan. The most frequently asked question was why the festival was being held during Ramadan.
According to Dekić, the inflammatory media coverage brought the most trouble to people who were not among the festival organizers but were nonetheless now visible in the media. “Suddenly now everyone knew what queer was – before that, no one had any idea what it meant,” said Dekić. One of her gay friends agreed to give an interview to the Sarajevo magazine Dani, including his photograph and full name. He says that he insisted on this sort of visibility out of his sense of anger and revolt in the moment, even though the journalist who interviewed him was aware of the possible consequences. That interview brought him serious negative consequences, including threats directed not only at him but at his entire family because, as Dekić says, violence never stops at one person.
As a festival organizer, she was not prepared for how the media reacted, nor did she even think about the media scene beforehand. “That was a big lesson for later,” she says. “Now I understand what visibility means and that you have to have control over how communication flows to the public and what information goes out at all times.”
Today, Marija Arnautović believes that journalists were not ready or sensitized to the issue, even those who believed that the festival should take place as a promotion of diversity. “We should have thought from the very beginning about the need to protect the identities of the organizers,” she says. To reveal their identities was to put a target on their foreheads and they had to live in fear for their safety for months before and after the festival.
The Press and Online Media Council, after complaints by the organizers of the festival, determined that Dnevni avaz violated provisions of the Press Council Code, including the provisions against incitement and discrimination. The organizers of the Sarajevo Queer Festival then also announced that they would be filing criminal charges against certain media outlets, including Dnevni avaz, as well as individuals who propagated hatred towards people of a different sexual orientation through public speeches and writings. The editor of Dnevni avaz at the time said that such threats of filing reports against the media were characteristic of the era of totalitarianism and conformity, that the times have passed when journalists could be threatened for their writing, and that Dnevni avaz only reported the statements of people they spoke to about the event.
Certain television and radio stations were penalised for transmitting homophobic text messages that had been submitted as answers to television survey questions. The Communications Regulatory Agency, for example, fined the OBN Television 30,000 convertible marks because homophobic text messages were published in the Mimohod television programme answering the survey question: “Gay parade in Sarajevo?”
First Pride Parade – Lessons Learned
After a long break, the first Pride Parade was held in Sarajevo under the name “No life within four walls” only nine years later, in September 2019, with the support of the new cantonal government and without the participation of nationalist parties. According to Boro Kontić, almost 2,000 people gathered, passed through Sarajevo’s main street, and listened to several speeches in front of the Bosnian and Herzegovinian Assembly building.
Eleven years after the Sarajevo Queer Festival, Marija Arnautović reported on this first Pride Parade. The procession, with strong police protection, passed without incident, but the participants still remembered the violence that had occurred at the earlier event. They feared that the violence could be repeated. But news coverage was much fairer this time around, inappropriate comments on social media were deleted more often, and most media reported on the parade just like they would report on other daily events in the city.
Slobodanka Dekić also believes that media reporting has improved, but that this improvement has mainly consisted of changes in the words and phrases used to describe minority groups but not to fundamentally different attitudes toward them among the media. She says that there is a lack of reporting about peer violence against children with different gender identities or about LGBTIQ people who, during the pandemic, were forced to live in confined spaces with parents who do not accept them.
“Now I always look at the younger people who organize the parades and I always wonder if it’s the same for them,” says Dekić. “It’s terrible because you are completely unprotected and because you know that most people think that everything that happens to you is well-deserved.”
Today, when Arnautović conducts training sessions for journalists on how to report on marginalized social groups, she always uses examples of unprofessional media reporting on the LGBTIQ community.
In the patriarchal and conservative society of Bosnia and Herzegovina, resistance to this group and to any topics concerning sexual minorities, gender issues, and women’s rights is still very powerful. High-quality, professional and engaged media reporting on these issues is very important for helping to overcome these traditional attitudes and for improving the rights of minority groups. But the media of BiH devote little or no time to investigating and reporting on the discrimination that LGBTIQ people experience in healthcare, education, and employment.
There was no violence or incidents on the streets during the first or subsequent Pride Parades in Sarajevo, but hate speech in the comments sections of articles on online portals and social networks, as well as malicious statements by politicians denying support for basic human rights, continued.
Actions sometimes speak louder than words. While the line of participants of the first Pride Parade – waving rainbow flags and holding banners expressing solidarity, love and defiance – was turning the corner near the BiH Presidency building, Boro Kontić remembers, local utility company workers had already thoroughly washed Sarajevo’s main street with hoses, as if they wanted to disinfect the streets, starting from the point where the Pride parade began.
During the preparation of this text, on March 18, the members of the Organizing Committee of the BH Pride March were attacked by hooligans during an informal meeting on the Banja Luka premises of Transparency International, the international anti-corruption organization. Three people were injured, including two journalists who came to report on the matter after they heard that the police threw the activists off the NGO’s premises, declaring that they had to leave for their own safety and that the police could not protect them. After the police left, the activists were violently attacked by 30 hooligans. The members of the Organizing Committee of the BH Pride March stated that the attack was planned and that the police handed them to the hooligans.
The attack was preceded by inflammatory and hateful statements from leading political figures in Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik and Draško Stanivuković, who asked the police to prevent the organization of an LGBTIQ cultural event that was scheduled to take place on 18th of March. They also said that they don’t approve of such an event and that Banja Luka should defend its traditional values. After their statements, the Ministry of Interior of Republika Srpska forbade the public event that was scheduled to take place on March 18th, a screening of a film and a panel discussion on the premises of the cultural center Incel.
This announcement came on the same day the event was supposed to be held. Since many activists were already in Banja Luka, they decided to hold an informal meeting at a site that was known only by the police. The BH Pride March organisers and international organizations and media organizations connected the violent attacks with the hate comments of the leading political figures in Republika Srpska and called for their prosecution. Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska, continued with hate speech, stating that Republika Srpska will introduce a law according to which LGBTIQ persons will not be allowed to attend schools and universities. Many media outlets in Republika Srpska republished these statements without criticism and some also spread disinformation. Overall, the media failed to report on hate crimes, on LGBTIQ rights, and on the violation of the right to peaceful assembly; instead, they focused on the attack and the violence. This most recent incident reminded many of the attacks during the Queer Sarajevo Festival many years ago.
*Anida Sokol is a media researcher, coordinator of media research projects and trainer from Mediacentar Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. She is the deputy editor of Mediacentar’s online magazine Media.ba dedicated to journalism and the media. She is the author of various research studies on the media in BiH and the Western Balkans, including on regulation of harmful content online, media financing from public budgets, media trust, propaganda, disinformation and hate speech. She holds a PhD from the Faculty of Political Science, Sapienza University Rome.
Anida has worked as a lecturer on Politics and the Media and Political Communication at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology and Burch University in Sarajevo. She holds training courses on verification of information, media literacy, hate speech, solutions journalism and ethical standards in journalism. She writes articles on journalism and the media for Media.ba.