Words as weapons: Information activists in Eastern Europe 

Article published on Jan. 26, 2018
Article published on Jan. 26, 2018

In a time where Europe’s socio-political context is unstable, the responsibility of the press can be important. But in a region where there are still young people who have lived through war, a responsible press is essential. Here is a portrait of three media organisations committed to fighting against social divisions in Eastern Europe. 

Eraldin Fazliu, a member of the editorial staff at Kosovo 2.0, paves the way to the entrance of an anonymous building a few steps away from Priština’s city centre. Hundreds of newspapers lay piled up on the staircase. Through an office window, the snowy streets come alive and groups of students crowd around the neighbourhood shops. It’s the end of the school day for high school students, and Kosovo’s population is among the youngest in Europe. “Here in Kosovo, 17 years after the war, there is not a single person who wasn’t affected by the conflicts,” says Eraldin. “Even the generations born after the war cannot be objective. They are influenced by their family, and our recent history is always biased.”  

"Unlearn what we have read in our history books”

No need to leaf through the pages of Kosovo 2.0 very long to understand the media outlet’s recurring theme. Born as a result of the Balkan wars and of the Post-Yugoslavian era, this magazine and online media outlet has popularised a long-term approach to information and broken the taboos of a divided society. The magazine did all of this with just 12 members in the core team and about a hundred freelancers. “At Kosovo 2.0, we present a more thoughtful and contextualised version of current events in order to avoid separation,” Eraldin explains.  

In fact, tensions between the country’s Albanian and Serbian communities have hardly improved over the past years, and are stirred up by a political class that is always aggressive towards their opponents. In 2015, the Serbian government called mothers of missing Albanians “barbarians” as they protested the passage of a group of Serbian pilgrims. The incident provoked several anti-Serbian demonstrations in the country. According to Eraldin Fazliu, “the most important thing is that every citizen, be they Serbian or Albanian, can access the same information. We can contribute to the future of the reconciliation process by providing objective information.”

It’s important to start with terminology, which is often the object of controversy and debates in the general public. To describe the 90s, a period synonymous to segregation and injustice for the majority of Albanians who were then expelled from universities by the Serbian army, the editorial team chose the term ‘repression’. Although most Albanians commonly consider this decade as a period of occupation, using this term would be incorrect because Kosovo didn’t proclaim its independence until 2009. “We do not avoid controversial subjects, but we choose words very prudently,” Eraldin summarises. “Words count. They are loaded with meaning and implications.”

More than 2,000 km away, at Europe’s borders, Dodie Kharkheli – a journalist at the Caucasian media organisation Chai Khana – is holding a speech surprisingly similar to that of her Kosovar counterpart. “The media have greatly exploited the conflicts in the Caucasus with big, catchy and violent headlines. I think it is the responsibility of the media to at least not pour fuel on the fire.” Backed by its network of reporters in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, the Tbilisi-based media outlet aims at making the voices of underrepresented populations (and women in particular) in the region heard. “We have heard a lot about the point of view of men on war and on ethnic divisions of today. The female gaze is different, often more pacifist.”

Preventing the debate on inter-ethnic relations from being taken hostage by the most radical fringes of the population, fighting against disinformation and shining a light on current events rarely covered by other media outlets are all at the core of Chai Khana’s goals. The media outlet hopes to expand the horizons of the local press. “Readers and journalists alike, we all have our own biases on the Caucasus wars that we have a hard time escaping. We must unlearn what we have read in our history books, approach every subject as if we knew nothing about it.” From the Balkans to the Caucasus, in schools just like in families, the narratives around the wards still vary greatly from one camp to another. To push its editors to avoid their own bias, Chai Khana creates transnational collaborations between Georgian, Russian, Armenian and Abkhazian reporters to cover sensitive subjects such as nationalism, racial discrimination and the fate of bilateral victims who face tensions from the borders.

Above all parties 

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the fight led by Balkan Diskurs is similar to that of its European counterparts: “To offer young Balkan citizens the opportunity to follow current events on a transparent and objective platform, in an environment dominated by divided political factions.” Tatjiana Milovanovic, associate editor at Balkan Diskurs, has been a volunteer since her teenage years at the Post-conflict Research Centre (PCRC), the organisation behind this news outlet. Of Serbian descent, she grew up in Brcko, one of the few districts in Bosnia and Herzegovina that has remained multi-ethnic after the war. At 24 years old, she is among the few activists who refuse to disclose their ethnic origin during the annual surveys, a choice that could lead to being banned from running public elections.

To this day, Tatjiana continues to host debates in high schools about the manipulation of information and about the public debate around hate, in a country deeply divided into the Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian political factions. “Many Serbians still think that the Srebrenica genocide did not happen, or that the number of victims was made up,” the journalist explains, referring to the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian men and teenagers perpetrated by the Serbian army in 1995. In parallel to its editorial activities, Balkan Diskurs hosts numerous pedagogic activities on disinformation and on tools to recognise false or wrongful content. The media organisation also educates high schoolers on “free and independent” journalism, and in the span of a few weeks, managed to create a network of 53 young local correspondents.

Concerned with promoting the inter-ethnic reconciliation, Balkan Diskurs has been carrying out a long-term investigation project since 2008, aimed at collecting testimonies of individuals who rescued or concealed a person from an opposing ethnicity during the war, and risked their lives doing so. “These stories are a revelation to high schoolers. They embody what moral courage is about, but they are difficult to obtain: rescuers often fear judgment from their community for what they have done.” These are the stories of Mina, Hassan or Dorde, who sheltered orphans, former neighbours, complete strangers and even wounded soldiers, risking their own lives. They send a strong message to the new generation in Bosnia and Herzegovina; acts of civil disobedience have taken place on either side of the story. The trainee reporters involved in the project participate in the research to find these silent resisters and gather their stories.

These three, atypical examples of activist journalism were born as a response to failures of the press in countries stricken by corruption and social division. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, just like in Kosovo and in Georgia, threats and political pressures on journalists are still frequent, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in their 2017 World Press Freedom report. In Bosnia, media allied with the government continue to receive direct and indirect subsidies from the state. When it comes to Kosovo, ranked in 82nd position on the RSF index, journalists who criticise the government are regularly labelled as “traitors” or “Serbian sympathisers”. Today, the audience of these alternative media organisations remains small, and their survival largely depends on donations granted by non-governmental organisations. Their ability to reach beyond a very committed readership and to find a long-term economic model represents a substantial challenge for these information activists, and for the health of the press in these regions.

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This article has been published in collaboration with Tales of the Afterwar, telling the individual or collective stories of civilians working for peace and tolerance in the European regions that experienced conflict.

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