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UNMIK Media Observer, Afternoon Edition, December 3, 2021

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UNMIK Media Observer, Afternoon Edition, December 3, 2021

Albanian Language Media:

• PDK: Shadow government will be formed after New Year holidays (T7)
• Kosovo Minister of Defense reports to parliamentary committee (media)
• Berisha: Army was never involved in police operations (media)
• The Western Balkans with “Russian troubles” (Radio Free Europe)
• New board no silver bullet for troubled Kosovo broadcaster (BIRN)
• Haradinaj: Deeply grateful to Merkel, a great friend of Kosovo (media)
• Abazovic: If Open Balkans is alternative to EU, Montenegro disagrees (Telegrafi)
• COVID-19: 13 new cases, no deaths (media)

Serbian Language Media:

• Serbian Government most strongly protested the Pristina’s new ban for Petkovic (GoS website, media)
• Serbian PM says support for EU membership highest in five years (N1)
• Serbian media continue reacting to awards presented to language non-compliant institutions, seek public apology (KoSSev, Gracanica-online, Radio KIM)
• Lawyer: Rada Trajkovic acquitted of charges for slander against BIA official (KoSSev)
• Vucic grateful for EU financial gift for Nis-Merdare highway construction (N1)
• Rakic: SOC pillar of support for Serbian people (Kosovo-online)
• Vasic: Confirmation of verdict to Krstic a scandal that is no surprising (Radio KIM)
• Tadic on Rio Tinto Company: “Negotiations started during time of Zoran Djindjic’s government” (B92)
• EC’s Pisonero: Rio Tinto ‘Jadar’ project can be good economic chance for Serbia (N1)
• Godfrey: US support participation of other countries from region in “Open Balkan” initiative (Kosovo-online)
• EU-W. Balkans Ministerial Forum: Importance of rule of law, judicial reforms (N1)

International:

• Far-Right Exploiting Pandemic to Spread Hate, in the Balkans Too (BIRN)

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Albanian Language Media:

  • PDK: Shadow government will be formed after New Year holidays (T7)
  • Kosovo Minister of Defense reports to parliamentary committee (media)
  • Berisha: Army was never involved in police operations (media)
  • The Western Balkans with “Russian troubles” (Radio Free Europe)
  • New board no silver bullet for troubled Kosovo broadcaster (BIRN)
  • Haradinaj: Deeply grateful to Merkel, a great friend of Kosovo (media)
  • Abazovic: If Open Balkans is alternative to EU, Montenegro disagrees (Telegrafi)
  • COVID-19: 13 new cases, no deaths (media)

Serbian Language Media:

  • Serbian Government most strongly protested the Pristina’s new ban for Petkovic (GoS website, media)
  • Serbian PM says support for EU membership highest in five years (N1)
  • Serbian media continue reacting to awards presented to language non-compliant institutions, seek public apology (KoSSev, Gracanica-online, Radio KIM)
  • Lawyer: Rada Trajkovic acquitted of charges for slander against BIA official (KoSSev)
  • Vucic grateful for EU financial gift for Nis-Merdare highway construction (N1)
  • Rakic: SOC pillar of support for Serbian people (Kosovo-online)
  • Vasic: Confirmation of verdict to Krstic a scandal that is no surprising (Radio KIM)
  • Tadic on Rio Tinto Company: “Negotiations started during time of Zoran Djindjic’s government” (B92)
  • EC’s Pisonero: Rio Tinto ‘Jadar’ project can be good economic chance for Serbia (N1)
  • Godfrey: US support participation of other countries from region in “Open Balkan” initiative (Kosovo-online)
  • EU-W. Balkans Ministerial Forum: Importance of rule of law, judicial reforms (N1)

International:

  • Far-Right Exploiting Pandemic to Spread Hate, in the Balkans Too (BIRN)

 

 

Albanian Language Media  

 

PDK: Shadow government will be formed after New Year holidays (T7)

Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) member Betim Gjoshi said in an interview with the TV station on Thursday that this party will form a shadow government after the New Year holidays. He said that PDK leader Memli Krasniqi is working with the party leadership “and I believe that right after the New Year holidays we will present the shadow government and an institute for political studies within the PDK”. Gjoshi also said that the shadow government will give alternatives for better governance in many areas. 

Kosovo Minister of Defense reports to parliamentary committee (media)

Kosovo’s Minister of Defense, Armend Mehaj, said today that during his mandate so far he has increased the human capacities and military equipment for the Kosovo Security Force. At a meeting with the Kosovo Assembly Committee for Security and Defense, he said that they have spent €32 million to modernize the armed forces. He said that the purchases include armored vehicles, drones, snipers and other equipment which he could not reveal in the presence of the media that were covering the meeting.

“To modernize the army, we have purchased military equipment from the United States. The purchases are safe and with great guarantees. In the last eight months, the total amount of equipment purchases is €32 million. This includes armored vehicles, armaments, snipers, drones and other equipment which I cannot disclose before the media,” Mehaj said.

Mehaj also said they are working on reviewing several laws which they will soon send to the government for approval. He also mentioned Kosovo’s participation in the Defender Europe 2021 exercise. “330 members of the KSF participated in the exercise,” he said. 

According to Mehaj, he has received confirmation that Kosovo will host the Defender Europe 2023. “This is proof of our close cooperation with the United States. Our cooperation has never been stronger,” he added.

After making the opening remarks, Mehaj asked for the meeting to be closed for the media saying that he has confidential matters to report on.

Berisha: Army was never involved in police operations (media)

Beke Berisha, head of the Kosovo Assembly’s Committee for Security and Defense, told a press conference in Prishtina today that the armed forces were never involved in police operations in the northern part of Kosovo. Following a report to the committee by Defense Minister Armend Mehaj, Berisha said that certain media reports that the army was involved in police operations in the north were lies. “This concerns the army of Kosovo, and we as MPs and you as reporters have a sentiment for the army of Kosovo. We need to be careful and not produce these kinds of lies and manipulations that the army of Kosovo allegedly tried to get involved in the police operation. We aspire to join NATO and we have the Kosovo Police that is capable of managing these situations. These are unnecessary fabrications,” Berisha said. 

The Western Balkans with “Russian troubles” (Radio Free Europe)

The Kosovo Government believes it is aware of the intentions of the Russian Federation in the Western Balkans and it does not stop from opposing its eventual influence in Kosovo, government officials told the news website.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at a meeting with foreign ministers of NATO countries talked about stability and security in the Western Balkans and about “concerning developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina and tensions between Kosovo and Serbia”. “We are witnessing concerning developments. We are very concerned with inflammatory rhetoric in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Tensions between Belgrade and Pristina continue. Reforms are stalling and foreign actors have increased their malignant influence,” he said.

Radio Free Europe asked the Kosovo Government to comment on Stoltenberg’s remarks and if they have any concrete information about “foreign actors” and “their malignant influence”. A government spokesman said in a response: “The Russian Federation frequently and especially through Serbia aims to destabilise the Western Balkans and to weaken the European Union. Let us remind you that we have recently declared two Russian officials in Kosovo personae non grata. As state institutions we are doing our best to oppose these influences, always in cooperation with our international partners, the United States, NATO and the European Union”.

New board no silver bullet for troubled Kosovo broadcaster (BIRN)

Kosovo’s government is determined to appoint a new board of directors at Radio Television Kosovo, but fresh faces alone won’t be enough to fix the troubled public broadcaster.

When Albin Kurti’s Vetevendosje [Self-Determination] party took power in Kosovo in March for the second time, it made installing a new board of directors at Kosovo’s public broadcaster a top priority.

The former 11-member board – dismissed in June – stands accused of doing little to halt the decline of Radio Television Kosovo, RTK, from the heady days of its creation in the wake of a 1998-99 war to the current day, when critics say it has been ruined by nepotism, mismanagement and fealty to political parties.

On November 26, after a lengthy recruitment process, candidates for the new board came before parliament for approval, but a no-show by the opposition Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, and Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK, meant the session lacked the required quorum.

It is yet to be seen whether Vetevendosje will get its way when parliament meets on the issue next week, but even if it does, media experts say the new board will not be a silver bullet for RTK’s considerable ills but only a first step on a long road to reform.

Haradinaj: Deeply grateful to Merkel, a great friend of Kosovo (media)

Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) leader Ramush Haradinaj took to Facebook today to say that “a great friend of Kosovo is ending her mandate. For 16 years as German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, stood by Kosovo with a high commitment to safeguard peace, promote democracy and strengthen Kosovo’s international standing. Deeply grateful to Chancellor Merkel. It was an honor working with you”.

Abazovic: If Open Balkans is alternative to EU, Montenegro disagrees (Telegrafi)

Montenegro’s Deputy Prime Minister, Dritan Abazovic, said that the European Union is a priority for Montenegro and the last page on the path for reforms in this country. “For us the European Union is the top priority and the final stop in our path for reforms. If we view the Open Balkan initiative as an alternative to the European Union, then we don’t support the initiative, but I am not sure that this initiative is against European integration. On the contrary, every deeper cooperation will result in faster reforms. The goal is to work on reconciliation and also to improve living standards. The two most important pillars of transformation in the region are the rule of law and the economy,” Abazovic said at the conference “Open Balkan or the European Union”.

COVID-19: 13 new cases, no deaths (media)

13 new cases with COVID-19 were confirmed in the last 24 hours in Kosovo. Nine persons recovered from the virus during this time. There are 324 active cases with COVID-19 in Kosovo.

 

 

Serbian Language Media

 

Serbian Government most strongly protested Pristina’s new ban for Petkovic (GoS website, media)

In a press communiqué published Thursday afternoon, Serbian Government in the strongest terms protested over the fifth ban to the Office for Kosovo and Metohija Director Petar Petkovic to enter Kosovo, media report.

“Government of the Republic of Serbia most strongly protests against the scandalous behaviour of the provisional institutions in Pristina, which today once again banned the director of the Office for Kosovo and Metohija, Petar Petkovic from entering the territory of Kosovo and Metohija”, the statement reads.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic underlined “this was the fifth time that Petkovic has been banned from entering the territory of our southern province”.

“The most bizarre thing in this situation is that this ban happens only a few days after the European Union explicitly called on Pristina to respect the agreements and allow Petkovic to visit Kosovo and Metohija”, Brnabic said.

She emphasized that “such arrogant and uncivilized behaviour of the provisional institutions in Pristina, which is repeated over and over again, no longer leads to anything”.

“I ask the European Union and the international community – how much longer will this go on? How much longer are you going to tolerate this behaviour? How much longer will the EU Rapporteur for Kosovo and Metohija be deaf and blind to the violations of the basic human rights of Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija in the 21st century while dealing with all sorts of things in central Serbia – from mining to ladybugs”, Brnabic said.

She also explained that Petar Petkovic duly announced the visit and that he intended to visit the Serbian people in Kosovo and Metohija, students of the seminary in Prizren and returnees in Novake village.

Serbian PM says support for EU membership highest in five years (N1)

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said Thursday that support for membership in the European Union is at the highest level in five years, N1 reports.

Speaking in parliament, Brnabic quoted the results of a poll which she claims showed that 57 percent of Serbians support the country’s membership in the EU.

According to her, support for accession to the EU was around 40 percent when European integration was just words because people did not understand the process nor did they see the benefits. Brnabic said that the latest European Commission report on Serbia’s progress towards EU membership is the first to include positive assessments about rule of law and progress on freedom of expression and the media since 2016.

Brnabic said that the European Commission recommended the opening of clusters 3 and 4 with 12 chapters but added that even if just one cluster is opened at this month’s inter-governmental conference it would be a good signal for Serbia and the Western Balkans.

Serbian media continue reacting to awards presented to language non-compliant institutions, seek public apology (KoSSev, Gracanica-online, Radio KIM)

Serbian media outlets based in Kosovo continue reacting to the awards “Best Practices in Implementing the Law on Use of Languages” being presented among other to two institutions in Kosovo, which Serbian media outlined as language non-compliant since they communicate with them in Albanian language exclusively and sometimes in English.

The Office of Kosovo Language Commissioner in cooperation with OSCE Mission in Kosovo presented the awards to the Central Election Commission, five municipalities including Prizren, Gracanica, Mitrovica North, Orahovac and Strpce, as well as to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Kosovo police. The awards to the last two institutions Serbian media consider disputable.  

Mitrovica North-based KoSSev portal under the headline “Institutions communicating with Serbian media in Albanian language awarded for respecting Law on Use of Languages” writes that Ministry of Internal Affairs and Kosovo police from their headquarters in Pristina communicate with Serbian language media outlets almost exclusively in Albanian and sometimes in English language.

Also, the portal added press statements distributed to the Serbian language media outlets, and daily incidents reports are delivered in the Albanian language exclusively.

It mentioned number of omissions one could notice by having a look at the website of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Serbian language, including the rule to write the names of officials in their original form, (using the symbols that do not exist in the Serbian language and running contrary to the rule to transcribe the names). There are parts of the website that are not translated, English capitalization is used, and also the name of the website is written in improper Serbian, starting from the Albanized term for Kosovo “Kosova” to the major grammar mistake in the name of the ministry itself.

The situation is similar when it comes to the website of the Kosovo police, so the biography of the police general director is written in improper Serbian language, containing numerous alphabetical and grammar mistakes. KoSSev said by a simple glance they noticed a hundred mistakes in the biography.

Kosovo police, on the other hand, regularly publishes the information on social media, such as Facebook, but the content is still in the Albanian language only.

However, unlike other Kosovo institutions, these two are more active when it comes to informing the citizens through updating and sending the information.

Gracanica-online: To revoke decision on awards and extend apology to journalists reporting in Serbian language

Redaction of Gracanica-online portal in an open letter voiced criticism on the account of Kosovo Language Commissioner Office and OSCE over the fact that the award “Best Practices in Implementing the Law on Use of Languages” was presented to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Kosovo police.

“Redaction of Gracanica-online portal in the strongest terms expresses the protest to those who made such decision and awarded institutions, which apart from not doing their job, also do not respect the laws concerning the rights of non-majority communities, and the Constitution of Kosovo”, the portal said in an open letter.

They also requested such decision be revoked, and that OSCE and Kosovo Language Commissioner Office extend public apology to the journalists reporting in the Serbian language, as well as to the citizens whose mother tongue is not Albanian, and who, as the portal said, even the reports of traffic violations receive in the language of majority.

The portal added that in the current year the Ministry of Internal Affairs sent to the media over 100 statements out of which “those in Serbian language can be counted on fingers of one hand”, although it is a second official language in Kosovo.

They added the situation with Kosovo police is the same, as it sends responses to the questions of journalists reporting in Serbian language in the Albanian language. The portal also noted that invitation to the award ceremony was not sent to all the media, by neither of those organizing it. 

Lawyer: Rada Trajkovic acquitted of charges for slander against BIA official (KoSSev)

KoSSev portal writes today that one TV appearance of European Serb Movement from Kosovo president and politician Rada Trajkovic served as a basis for filing two lawsuits, one for damaging the honor and reputation, and the other one for slander. The first one filed by M.R. was dismissed by the court in Belgrade in August this year, while the Basic Court in Belgrade has dismissed another one, filed by the Security-Informative Agency (BIA) official B.D.

Vladimir Gajic, defense lawyer of Rada Trajkovic confirmed to KoSSev portal that the court proceeding at the Second Basic Court in Belgrade on the lawsuit  B.D. filed against Trajkovic has been completed and she was acquitted of the charges.

B.D. pressed the charges against Trajkovic for allegedly carrying out a criminal act of slander during her guest appearance at “Utisak nedelje” (Impression of the Week) broadcast on June 2, 2019. Trajkovic during the broadcast spoke about the murder of Civic Intiative Freedom, Democracy, Justice (SDP) leader Oliver Ivanovic, threats against him that Ivanovic reported to the Serbian institutions, and TV spot part of the pre-election campaign in 2017, aired on TV Pink depicting Ivanovic as a traitor. She also alleged that “Serbian security services or mafia, if they were so sophisticated and had such technology must have done it”. She also said that this BIA official had close ties with Milan Radojicic, the portal added.     

Speaking about B.D. lawsuit, Trajkovic’s lawyer assessed that she linked him with Radojicic, and concluded that “it could be possible that the service, according to her belief, was involved in the murder of Oliver Ivanovic or covering up his murder”, however, she didn’t directly mentioned B.D. in a sense of him being involved into anything.

He added that “the court said Trajkovic was a public figure, had the right to ask public questions, and it was in the interest of democratic society (…)”. Gajic also said that almost three years have passed since the murder of Ivanovic and the case has not been resolve yet that is why “it is one of the topics that must be discussed, as it still remains an unknown fact”. 

Vucic grateful for EU financial gift for Nis-Merdare highway construction (N1)

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic expressed gratitude to the European Union on Thursday for the gift of EUR 40 million to start construction of a section of the E-80 highway from the southern city of Nis to Merdare crossing, N1 reports.

Vucic said that the first section of 37.2 kilometers will cost a total of EUR 226 million, adding that the highway between Nis and Beloljin will cost some EUR 650 million once it reaches the Merdare crossing.

Speaking at a ceremony to mark the start of construction, Vucic also thanked the European Investment Bank (EIB) and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) for granting the “most favorable conditions possible” for the financing of the project which he said would bring more investments to that part of Serbia.

He added that the project marks a huge step in European Union – Serbia relations.

According to Vucic, the highway will also be important for people in Gracanica, allowing them to get to central Serbia quickly. He said that Serbia will be able to build much better relations with the Albanians which requires new infrastructure. “We will have an excellent market for our products in Tirana and Pristina”, Vucic said.

See at: https://bit.ly/3IeouzP

Rakic: SOC pillar of support for Serbian people (Kosovo-online)

Serbian List President and Minister of Communities and Return Goran Raki visited Prizren yesterday and on that occasion also visited the Prizren Theological Seminary, legacy of Simo Andrijevic Igumanov and met Raska and Prizren Eparchy Bishop Teodosije, Kosovo-online portal reports.

In a post on his Facebook profile Rakic said that the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) is a pillar of survival of Serbian people, adding it will remain so in the future.

“I am glad to be in Prizren today and I am grateful for everything you are doing for our people. Together we will fight to have more of us in this area in the future. Our help to the church will not be lacking in the future”, he wrote.

Rakic added the visit to Prizren ended with a tour of the churches of St. George and the Church of the Virgin Mary of Leviska.

Vasic: Confirmation of verdict to Krstic a scandal that is no surprising (Radio KIM)

Decision of the Court of Appeals in Pristina to uphold the verdict of the Basic Court sentencing Zlatan Krstic to 14 years and a half in prison is a scandal that is not surprising, his defense lawyer Dejan A. Vasic said, Radio KIM reports.

“The practice of the Pristina courts thus far demonstrated it is sufficient that anyone points finger at a Serb in Kosovo, accuses him of committing war crime and the court would impose severe prison sentence”, Vasic said.

He recalled that in a first instance proceeding a large number of witnesses were interviewed and they claimed that they saw Zlatan among hundreds of police officers and soldiers.

“However, none of the witnesses said he saw Zlatan performing any of the acts (he is accused of). Since there is a world and the law, criminal act is a human action, only for the Kosovo judiciary one may get sentenced for criminal act, even though the act does not exist”, Vasic added. 

Tadic on Rio Tinto Company: “Negotiations started during time of Zoran Djindjic’s government” (B92)

Former President of Serbia and leader of Social Democratic Party (SDS) Boris Tadic said the initial negotiations with Rio Tinto Company started during the government of Zoran Djindjic, B92 reports.

He also said that, as he did back then, he still supports this project, because it is good for Serbia.

“So, Rio Tinto came to Serbia during Kostunica’s government, and the first negotiations started during Djindjic’s time. Of course, we did not interrupt that research project during our mandate, because it has huge potential for Serbia’s development and it was in Serbia’s interest to finish the research and then assess the justification of further steps compared to the results of that research. This, of course, means that the profit was not more important than the protection of the environment and the health of citizens”, Tadic explained to Danas.

He added that they hadn’t disrupted it because the project has huge potential.

Read more at: https://bit.ly/3xSCPxm

EC’s Pisonero: Rio Tinto ‘Jadar’ project can be good economic chance for Serbia (N1)

A European Commission (EC) spokesperson Ana Pisonero said on Friday the EU legislation envisaged a study on effects on the environment and that a candidate country was expected to adjust to those rules, N1 reports.

“The (Rio Tinto) ‘Jadar’ project can be a good economic opportunity for Serbia”, she added.

Pisonero said Serbian authorities were committed to the highest environmental standards and would present the project’s influence on the environment before deciding on it.

The statement is likely to help Belgrade in trying to persuade people potentially affected by the Rio Tinto lithium mining in western Serbia, despite the environmentalists, experts, NGO’s and local people saying it would have devastating effects not only on the mining but the wider area as well.

They announced the mass blockades across the country in the second in a row protest over two recently passed laws they saw favouring the Anglo-Australian multinational company’s plan to mine lithium in Serbia.

Godfrey: US support participation of other countries from region in “Open Balkan” initiative (Kosovo-online)

US Ambassador to Serbia, Anthony Godfrey said his country supports participation of other countries in the region to the “Open Balkan” initiative, Kosovo-online portal reports.

“The US supports all initiatives leading towards economic integration of the Western Balkans, removing barriers and encouraging economic development. “Open Balkan” is such an initiative, as it is the Berlin process and joint regional market”, Godfrey told journalists in Kladovo.

Godfrey along with Serbian Prime Minister Zorana Mihajlovic took part in activities relating to the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence in Kladovo. 

EU-W. Balkans Ministerial Forum: Importance of rule of law, judicial reforms (N1)

The European Union representatives and the Western Balkan partners discussed the rule of law, judicial reforms, enhancing judicial training and various initiatives and challenges in the field of digitalisation of justice, Slovenia reported on Friday ending its six-month EU Presidency.

The press release quoted Marjan Dikaucic, Slovenian Justice Minister saying his country’s Presidency stressed „the commitment of all the participants to strengthening the rule of law, in particular by continued efforts to ensure the independence, accountability, integrity, quality and efficiency of justice systems“.

The EU-Western Balkans Ministerial Forum on Justice and Home Affairs took place on 1–3 December 2021 at Brdo pri Kranju. Dikaucic and Interior Minister Ales Hojs, as representatives of the Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the EU, together with the European Commission, represented by European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson and European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders, met with their counterparts from the Western Balkans at the annual EU-Western Balkans Ministerial Forum on Justice and Home Affairs, the press release said.

Read more at: https://bit.ly/3lxFYxs

 

 

International 

 

Far-Right Exploiting Pandemic to Spread Hate, in the Balkans Too (BIRN)

The far-right is creating a ‘them against us’ narrative in the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to pick up followers and spread hate. And Balkan states are not immune, according to the findings of a BIRN investigation.

In early September, in and around the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, flyers appeared in post boxes and on windshields inviting people to visit the ‘Kaleidoskop’ channel on BitChute – a video hosting service known for accommodating extremists and conspiracy theorists – for “reliable and free information about COVID-19 vaccines.”

On the channel are a number of videos translated into Croatian and which make comparisons between the restrictions introduced around the world since 2020 to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and the policies of Nazi Germany during World War Two.

Created in Britain in 2017 as an alternative to YouTube, BitChute has become notorious for videos promoting racism, hate and Holocaust-denial and – according to research by the UK-based anti-racism organisation Hope not Hate – its administrators show little desire to take such content down.

When Hope not Hate conducted its research in the summer of 2020, the 20 most popular videos on the platform were a mix of extreme racist propaganda and harmful disinformation, mostly originating from QAnon and anti-vaxxer groups.

“BitChute refuses to implement even the minimal moderation standards they claim to adhere to, as their site is dependent on allowing the kind of hate speech and harmful misinformation that gets removed from mainstream video sharing platforms,” Hope not Hate researcher Gregory Davis told BIRN.

And its influence has reached Bosnia.

According to research by BIRN, individuals sharing content from BitChute, including translated videos that claim the COVID-19 pandemic is fake and the vaccines dangerous, have also taken part in protests against COVID-19 restrictions imposed by authorities in Bosnia and elsewhere in the Balkan region.

In Serbia and Croatia, they have joined protests against migrants and refugees and LGBT rights.

Experts in violent extremism say that such groups are trying to exploit the anti-vaxxer movement to as a means to disseminate hate. According to a report commissioned by the European Commission and published this year, extremist groups are using conspiracy theories as a tool to recruit followers and spread radical agendas, abusing the insecurity, fear, socioeconomic problems and mental health issues of vulnerable individuals.

“Extremist groups capitalised on the opportunity by offering simple solutions and answers to highly complex issues with the aim to advance their agendas and recruit followers,” the report said.

BIRN was unable to ascertain who distributed the flyers in Sarajevo.

Equating COVID restrictions with dictatorship

Shortly after the flyers appeared in Sarajevo, a Serbian man called Milos Dragicevic posted a photo of one on his Facebook profile along with a link to the Kaleidoskop channel that was created just over a year ago. The channel contains more than 90 videos with a total of more than 800,000 views.

Contacted by BIRN, Dragicevic said he did not know who distributed the flyers but they had his full support. His Facebook profile contains a number of posts against COVID-19 vaccination and denying the existing of COVID-19. Besides the Kaleidoskop link, Dragicevic has shared content from BitChute on two other occasions.

The videos, flagged as disinformation by Bosnian fact-checking page Raskrinkavanje, also made their way to Dokumentarac.hr, a portal created last year in Croatia to “document clear and true facts and information.” The portal has so far shared around half of all video content from the Kaleidoskop channel on BitChute.

BIRN contacted Dubravic and asked if he knows who edits the Kaleidoskop page and why he had posted in support of protests against COVID-19 restrictions. He replied: “I can only sincerely wish that you search for the truth and facts and be objective in these sensitive times.”

On his profile, Dubravic has shared photos from an event in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, under the banner, ‘How to be human and remain free when they are trying to take away our humanity and freedom?’, organised by the Rights and Freedom Initiative and which called a mass protest in the city.

The Initiative’s coordinator is Marina Cecura, who is listed as a translator of videos posted on Kaleidoskop. Cecura did not respond to requests for comment.

Dubravic’s profile also contains posts questioning calls for greater LGBT rights, while Cecura has compared so-called ‘COVID passes’, required in some countries for a person to use a range of businesses, to the ‘Aryan certificates’ required of all public sector employees in Nazi Germany. Similar claims have been made at protests against COVID-19 across Europe, some of which have turned violent.

Professor Matthew Feldman, director of the UK-based Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, CARR, said that radicals of various backgrounds took part in such protests – not just radical right extremists. Some participants, he said, carry the yellow star that Jews were required to wear in Nazi Germany as an expression of their opposition to vaccination, a gesture that critics say trivialises the Holocaust: “If you can choose whether or not to wear a yellow star in public – without fear of murder or enslavement, as in the Holocaust – then the comparison with antisemitic persecution isn’t just misleading, it’s imbecilic.”

“You can have different views of COVID, but to say it’s comparable to Nazism is idiotic,” Feldman told BIRN. “Especially countries that experienced occupation by the Third Reich, like the former Yugoslavia. People can have their own views but to compare it with totalitarianism is just historically ignorant and helping the far-right to launder their ideas.”

In Slovenia, like Bosnia a former Yugoslav republic, protests have also turned violent. Messages of support were sent from a group called Conscientious Slovenians against Corona Fascism, where content from BitChute has also been shared.

Far-right actors “have advocated co-opting the anti-vaccine movement to recruit and radicalise potential members,” the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, an Israeli-based research organisation, said in a report published in March 2021.

“Many far-right actors view the anti-vaccine movement as an ideal target population because of their ‘potential for extremism against the system’,” the report said.

A number of Serbian towns and cities have seen similar protests over the past month, with organisers using pictures of a Swastika with a line through it and captions that read, ‘No to COVID passport, no to dictatorship’.

Some rallies have been marred by violence, a turn of events Marija Srdic of the Antifascist Coalition of Serbia blamed on right-wing groups.

“Last year, during an ordinary civil rally, violence escalated and in the midst of all that chaos, ordinary citizens and journalists also got kicked in the head,” Srdic said.

Anti-vaccination protests in Serbia have been supported by the Anti-Globalists of Serbia and People’s Patrols, organisations whose members display far-right symbols. Both are hostile to the migrants and refugees trying to reach Western Europe via Serbia.

Besides calling on their supporters to take part in protests against COVID restrictions, both organisations also use their social media channels to publish the locations of migrant and refugee accommodation. Leviathan, another right-wing group that ran in Serbia’s last parliamentary election, has also taken a prominent role in the protests.

In both Belgarde and Sarajevo, protesters have been seen using the slogan “We won’t give you our children”, a variation on the phrase used by followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory in the United States.

Croatian media reports say that Marko Franciskovic, who was given a suspended prison sentence in January 2017 for the unauthorised possession of firearms, ammunition and explosive substances, addressed a recent protest in Zagreb, telling the crowd he saw a people “militarily ready for combat.”

‘I don’t go deeper’

In Bosnia, former journalist Merima Spahic has called on people to attend anti-vaccination protests in Sarajevo. Spahic regularly posts on Facebook content later marked by fact-checkers as false or partially false, including material from BitChute. The first time she shared content from BitChute was in October 2020.

Spahic told BIRN she knew nothing about the platform. “I just share a link to something I find interesting. I don’t go deeper into it.”

Sanin Musa, a former Salafi teacher and leader of the Faith People State political party, has also called for COVID protests, claiming that the pandemic is a conspiracy. Musa has twice before organised rallies against Sarajevo Pride, with supporters displaying messages of hate against the LGBT community in Bosnia.

BitChute did not respond to questions sent by BIRN concerning this story.

The platform says it does not tolerate incitement to violence, anti-Semitic or racist content or videos or comments glorifying police violence.

Feldman of CARR said the platform had joined the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, which helps companies moderate content and that has helped sites to contain less “problematic content” than a year ago.

But problematic content remains.

According to Feldman, two things can be seen in the way the COVID-19 pandemic has been exploited: attribution of the virus to Chinese people, i.e. ‘a Chinese virus’, and the claim that people have become guinea pigs for vaccines.

“Of those two, one is fear of foreigners and the other is a kind of conspiracy of elites to force people to vaccinate. All those things then play into the far-right narrative, ‘them versus us’,” he said.

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UNMIK Media Observer, Afternoon Edition, August 16, 2022

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