Balkan media still "Islamophobic"


After a decade in ruins, Belgrade's rebuilt Avala Tower, the tallest construction in the Balkans, was reopened Wednesday (April 21) with fireworks and ceremony. Belgrade's residents had considered the 200-meter-tall communications tower an icon of their city, much like the Eiffel Tower is in Paris. Originally built in 1964, the tower dominated the skyline until April 29, 1999, when NATO planes destroyed the tower, an act that left Belgrade stunned, Radio Serbia reported.

"NATO went as far as to bomb the headquarters of the Radio Television of Serbia in Belgrade with a clear goal to silence a propaganda service, Balkans expert Naser Miftari told The Media Project.

The new Avala tower should not be a reminder of the past, but rather the message for the future, Belgrade Mayor Dragan Djilas told Radio Serbia.

The problem, said Miftari, is that, while public figures talk about moving on, Balkan media continue to broadcast racist propaganda. And in some ways - just as the new Avala Tower was built back even taller - the propaganda is even worse than before.

Speaking to an international gathering of journalists in Jakarta, Miftari challenged global media to learn the lessons the Balkans can teach reporters.

The place to start is by admitting that, as a case study in journalistic standards, reporting on the Balkans since the 1990s is one of the most vexing.

In fact, Miftari said that the global media’s greatest single sin in covering the conflict in Kosovo has been oversimplification of the religious elements. Western media took the lead in using shorthand religious frames to make the conflict understandable to their audience.

But local state media in the Balkans went much further and actively caricatured the factions, Miftari explained.

“In the day to day vocabulary of the state television of Serbia the Kosovo Albanians were randomly branded as ‘Siptar’ fundamentalists and Bosnian Muslims were branded with the derogatory term ‘Balije’,” Miftari said.

Though it has been more than a decade since the hot war concluded, the insults still sting the region's Muslims. The controversy over last month's apology by the Serbian government for the Srebrenica massacre clearly shows that the wounds have yet to close.

Racially and religiously provocative language has made a strong comeback, primarily in Serbian media, but in a slightly different form, Miftari said.

In his analysis of two of Serbia's largest newspapers during the 2006 Serb-Albanian negotiations, Miftari found that the reports emphasized Serbian nationalism and emphasized the notion of the Greater Serbia.

This approach came at the direct expense of Albanians, whom the papers described as "victimizers" of the local Serbs.

International journalists, in turn, are forced to deal in too-short formats with this multi-sided conflict whose roots stretch back to the Middle Ages.

And almost no one's hands are clean, according to historian Tim Judah. Judah implicates the Orthodox Church, retreating Ottoman armies, and 20th Century communists for creating, cultivating and exploiting this environment ripe for conflict through the centuries.

The most recent open conflict between Christian Serbs and Albanian Muslims broke out in 1989. Christian Serbs triggered the fight with their handling of the 5-century-old remains of their hero Prince Lazar, who perished fighting the Ottomans in 1389.

Christian Serbs moved Lazar's remains out of the Orthodox Church in Belgrade where Lazar had lain for 5 centuries, and anywhere they carried the remains, Serbs claimed they had conquered that territory.

Western journalists and audiences are not always well equipped to tell and understand stories with such long historical horizons. And though the conflict is not easily explained in 700 words, that is not a sufficient excuse, Miftari insisted.

More international attention must be placed, he argued, on Serbian media's tendency to marginalize Albanians by applying European ideas about the "war on terrorism" and crime indiscriminately to Muslims.

Serbian media's insistence on exposing Kosovo, especially, as a potential breeding ground of Muslim extremists has had far-reaching negative effects, Miftiri says.

Besides altering the international attitude toward Albanian independence, skewed journalism has made the domestic public more suspicious toward Albanians.

Muslims are the largest religious community in Serbia, Miftari pointed out. Yet they are relegated to the sidelines of society. This is the predominant social condition for Muslims in the region.

"It has led to Islam becoming collateral damage of the struggle for independence, with the great under-representation of Muslims in Kosovo's public sphere," Miftari lamented.

In situations such as this, it is not uncommon to see the media acting in a contradictory manner.

Serbian media both over-represent and censor coverage of Islam. The coverage of the religion then becomes completely at odds with its true role in society, Miftari said.

Since there is no "middle ground" reporting on the daily lives of Muslims, coverage of Islam is rare and predictably negative.

Miftari called on media to "keep a safe distance" in reporting on religion in the Balkans. He emphasized the importance of improving training and development of reporters who value journalistic independence.

"There seems to be a much greater need among journalists to understand religions more closely without the need to be part of one religion or another," Miftari said.

Miftari has observed that the media can present a united front when religious leaders overreach. He cited the case of the media's negative response to a Muslim cleric's irresponsible remarks about Mother Theresa. The media criticism moved Islamic leaders to seek an apology from the imam.

Despite a few positive examples of Balkan media acting for the benefit of inter-religious relations, nothing sways Miftari's belief that Islamophobia will continue to dominate Balkan media.

Ironically, Miftari concluded, NATO's bombings that toppled the Avala Tower might have inadvertently contributed to the Islamophobia by energizing Muslim identity in the Balkans.

"Before the West intervened to liberate the country, Kosovo leaders aspired to go back to the "Motherly embrace" of the West," he said.

"But once the conflict was over, and the Western presence emerged in the form of NATO troops and UN staff, it moved Muslims to return their mosques and the rites of Islam."

The question remains about what kind of states the Balkan nations will become, but the religious tensions show no sign of waning.

And in an environment where Serbians and Albanians manipulate public perception and use religion as a means to power, Miftari views media as failing in its responsibility to defend a religiously neutral public square.

Europe, ReligionRichard Potts