The media scene in the Western Balkans is a very important factor which will influence whether the people in our region perceive each other as enemies and threats, or whether we will leave this discourse behind.
Although the Western Balkans are often referred to as a unique space, the reality is our awareness of belonging to a region is not sufficiently developed. The countries in the region do belong to a common cultural space, share problems and common challenges, but the Western Balkans is still a political concept built on the foundation of the EU enlargement process rather than identity, geography, or demography. Moreover, within the dominant nationalist discourses in the Western Balkan countries, other peoples in the region are often portrayed as enemies and perceived more as a threat than as friendly neighbours with whom we must build a better future.
At this point in time we can say that nationalist narratives prevail in the Western Balkans. Political elites benefit from these narratives, which shift the focus of their dissatisfied citizens from the issues related to living standards, rule of law and democracy, to national issues, historical injustices, and existing ethnic disputes. They are closely followed by the media, who are more or less under political control and often spread hate speech and encourage national and ethnic intolerance.
The media is a very powerful weapon for nation building, establishing dominant discourses within a society and creating perceptions of identities and belonging. It can, therefore, be a powerful tool for strengthening nationalist narratives, but also for helping us over come them by creating a consciousness of a single geographical, cultural and political space. The media scene in the Western Balkans is a very important factor which will influence whether the people in our region perceive each other as enemies and threats, or whether we will leave this discourse behind.
It’s clear that we currently don’t have a shared unique media space in the Western Balkans, and there are very few mediums we can truly call regional. News from the region are, of course, shared in a number of national mediums, but in addition to the prevailing nationalist narrative, we can also see that the focus is mainly on topics of importance to ethnic compatriots. Linguistic differences are certainly one of the obstacles to the creation of regional media. Although most citizens in the Western Balkans understand Serbo-Croatian, this is not the case among Albanians in Albania and Kosovo who, on the other hand, share a language between them. Therefore, there is no single common language for the entire region, and English as today’s lingua franca is still not accessible to most citizens, and content in English cannot reach a large readership audience.
Keeping citizens of Western Balkan countries informed about each other will present a substantial challenge. There is no easy and simple solution, but we can think of potential directions to take in order to improve the situation. One of the more logical solutions is to create and strengthen regional media, as well as media content with a regional focus. These projects do exist, and it seems that they have had a lot of success in recent years. The second solution is, of course, a systematic fight against misinformation and hate speech in media which often result in ethnic distance and nationalist narratives. Finally and most importantly, the region needs democratic states and political elites who, instead of promoting hatred, work to their citizens’ real problems. This scenario would almost naturally lead to an awareness of common problems within the region, but also would present us with a great opportunity to join forces to solve them; however, we are very far from it today.
Nikola Burazer, Executive Editor at European Western Balkans, online portal which tackles topics of Western Balkans countries’ EU integration processes