TUE, 23 JUL 1996 14:41:43 GMT
Media Images of Balkan Neighbours
AIM Belgrade, July 18, 1996
Is the Balkan peninsula entering a phase of stability, now that the war in Bosnia is over, or will the name of this region remain a synonym for ethnic tensions, sultan-like governance, cultural backwardness, or inexhaustible ideas of Greater Serbia, Greater Albania, Greater Bulgaria, Greater...?
At the close of the 20th century, much like at its outset, neighbouring peoples in the Balkans are divided by walls of suspicion. The Bulgarians, for example, are reported to find the Greeks hypocritical, insidious, crafty, deceitful and scheming. On the other hand, the Bulgarians are still a "traditional enemy" of their southern neighbour. Enlisted men in Greece still march to lyrics saying "No Bulgarian will ever set foot" on their land, while the newspapers are full of texts about hunger and poverty in Bulgaria, a country dominated by crime. In the perception of their eastern neighbours, the Serbs are intolerant, aggressive, insincere, inclined to chauvinism and disinclined to democracy. The Turks and the Greeks evaluate each other very negatively. No better are the relations between the Greeks and the Macedonians. The "Balkan pot", as demonstrated by the research on ethnic and national prejudices in the region, is full of contradictions; they firmly incorporate the images of the neigbours inherited from the past and popular ethnic stereotypes.
Reviving the past
One of the main creators of negative images of Balkan peoples today are found to be their national media. The analysis of newspapers (1994-1996) in Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey, done within the Cross-Border Information Exchange on Balkan Ethnic and National Prejudices Project (funded by the Open Society Institute, Budapest) demonstrates that negative evaluations of neighbours prevail by a wide margin over positive ones in media labels, clich‚s and stereotypes which they routinely produce in their everyday functioning. The absence of texts on a neighbour in the Balkans is a positive sign; researchers point that silence indicates development of good state relations.
The main source of negative images of neigbours is discovered in the orientation towards the past. The images of the surroundings in the media are strongly influenced by the historical experience of the nation as a whole. In their everyday work, Balkan journalists are guided by a dominant historical memory of their respective ethnic groups: a piece of news is shaped as to fit the "traditional", "historically proved" and "long known" role of the neighbour. In this way, the analysis shows, the Balkan present, which is given sense by the media, is deeply rooted in the past. Journalists often interpret current developments as the latest confirmation of what happened 50, 100 or more years ago. Owing to their power to imbue even the simplest description of historical events with negative implications for the present day, researches conclude, the media have turned history into a means for antagonizing people otherwise having much in common.
A two-year survey of Balkan newspapers disclosed a clear tendency of using the neighbour as a scapegoat, a culprit for all domestic troubles. This attitude hardly allows any objectivity in presenting the surroundings. Furthermore, the media follow a behaviour pattern that prompts them to seek friends on the basis of hostility, according to the motto "our enemy's enemy is our friend". In this system of values, a neigbour is perceived as a potential enemy rather than as a potential partner. The media of all Balkan nations, the analysis demonstrates, have shown an excellent historical memory for all kinds of conflicts with neigbours and a rather short memory for cases of cooperation, tolerance and understanding.
Between love and hate
Positive images of Balkan peoples prevail only in the Serb and the Greek press, when speaking of each other's nation. According to recent surveys of public opinion in Greece, reflected but also reproduced by the country's media, Serbia is more popular than any other country in the world. The Greeks are divided about Bulgaria as well as about some Western countries, while they nearly unanimously hate all their neighbours -Albania, Macedonia and Turkey. Greek newspapers give favourable coverage only to the Serbs and the Kurds.
In Greek interpretations, the Serbs are a heroic nation, fighting "to defend lands historically belonging to them", " a people with a sense of a mission", "fighters for justice". They resist to "cultural corruption" and teach (the Greeks) "semiotics of human dignity and the Orthodox way of life". However, after the victory of the Yugoslav basketball team over the Greek national team in the European Championship in Athens, and after the readiness of Serbia to officially recognize Macedonia, Greek media quickly changed their usual vocabulary. The Serbs also became "anti-Hellenic", "hooligans", "racists"; in short, they did not "cease to be Slavs".
The anti-Serbian euphoria, however, did not last long. On its turn, the Serbian press, which was cultivating an extremely affirmative portrait of the Greeks all the time during the international embargo, even at the time of these incidents tried to preserve the myth of an old and strong Serbian-Greek friendship. The state-controlled media simply passed over in silence over harsh letters exchanged by the Greek and the Yugoslav foreign ministers regarding the issue of recognition of Macedonia. However, in a Greek-Turkish conflict over an islet in the Aegean Sea, which might led to a war, the Serbian newspapers did not indulge in an anti-Turkish (pro-Greek) campaign, as one might have expected.
While the strongest of friendships is cultivated between the two leading Orthodox countries, which are not even immediate neighbours, utmost hostility is grown at the place of direct encounter of the Orthodox and Islamic world. In the Greek press, the Turks are the main target of hate speech. They are "the only Muslim race which has never contributed to progress and civilization and which has never created anything that the world would like to keep". The Greek newspapers qualify the Turks as "international champions of slaughtering and persecuting peoples", "an incorrigible Asian people which for some 500 years gave the worst example of a conqueror in the Balkans", "the most hateful people in the world". They are ruthless barbarians, cowards and opium smokers, crooks and "butchers in our region". Turkey is presented as a country with a racist, colonial regime and a fascist constitution, as "a threat and a huge burden not only for us and its neighbours, but for the whole mankind".
However, Balkan (short-lived) loves and (long-lasting) hatreds are not to be reduced to a religious element. Bulgarian socialist press, as demonstrated in the Project, portrayed the Serbs as hardworking, thrifty, and hospitable people ("The Serb traditionally welcomes every guest as if he is the most important person in the world"), having faith in the future. Their toughness was interpreted as a will to survive rather than defiance, and it was attempted to explain the war misdeeds in Bosnia by differentiating between the rulers and the populace.
The right-wing oriented press, on the other hand, with an outstanding anti-Russian and pro-American inclination, was characterized by strong anti-Serb attitudes. It pictured the historical role of Serbia in the Balkans in an extremely negative light: "Over the past 150 years the Serbs have provided numerous examples of violent chauvinism and armed aggressiveness, shooting and killing in three wars". They are "chauvinists", "assimilators", "predators", "blackmailers" and "traitors" who breach agreements whenever they please ("Those who know the Serbian character are well aware that the Serbs always offer one thing while they have something else in mind"). Only when the Serbs realize that "they cannot dominate the Slavs in the Balkans", writes a Bulgarian paper, will it become possible to "overcome the remnants of the past and the confrontation between the two countries and the two peoples" ("us and brethren Serbs, who have never called us brethren Bulgarians").
The analysis of ethnic prejudices shows that Balkan neighbours lay blame for nationalism and chauvinism on each other. The Bulgarians accuse the Serbs and the Greeks. The Greeks blame the Macedonians and the Turks, the Macedonians - the Bulgarians and the Albanians...
The Greeks are presented as Danaans, that no present should be taken from, since they always play tricks, and defend their interests behind someone else's back. Greece is the "only country in the world where Turkish coffee is called Greek", a Bulgarian paper wrote. True chauvinists, from the Greek aspect, are the Macedonians, or "Skopjans", i.e. "Slav Gypsies", as labeled by the Greek press. They are "ruthless falsifiers and forgers of glorious Greek history", "usurpers of name", "anti-Hellenes". Their state is an unstable, wretched country, "with a thousand cultural, social and political problems", a product of "artificial insemination of Marxist Slavism with Titoist anti-Serbianism", a country of heroin smugglers and criminals.
In particular in the relations between Bulgaria, Greece and Macedonia, history - the time of the Ottoman Empire, period of the Byzantine Empire and even the time of Alexander the Great - was used as the background for reporting on current events. Searching for the source of accusations and insults in ancient rulers, cultural heritage, language, and flags, acquired such proportions that even the Serbian press felt a need to call its neighbours to its senses by publishing the following headline "Less on Alexander of Macedonia, More on Balkan Cooperation".
As the example of Yugoslavia showed, the Balkans proved to be too narrow for so much history and so many histories. In order to avoid a tendency to confrontation, researchers of Cross-Border Information Exchange on Balkan Ethnic and National Prejudices Project conclude, Balkan peoples must get to know each other better through development of cultural, economic and other types of connections. But the vicious circle of intensifying the negative national stereotypes must be broken not only by the public, but by the media themselves as well; first and foremost, they must be more open to alternative - meaning positive - views and attitudes on Balkan neighbours.