What Influences the Perception of Hate Speech in Serbian Media?

By Irena Poštić & Stevan Marković

Direct and indirect hate speech

“Words that […] ambush, terrorize, wound, humiliate, and degrade”[1] – in this way Lawrence et al. define hate speech: an international topic of concern. Its negative effects on both individuals and society have been proven by numerous studies [2],[3],[4]. Maximal harm is achieved when hateful content and direct calls to violence are spread on a massive scale – through media. The most illustrative outcome of direct hate speech is the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when calls to mass murders were broadcasted daily. Less explicit is indirect hate speech. Unlike its direct form, it does not contain calls to physical harm and may sometimes even lack derogatory terms aimed at victims [5]. However these features do not make it less dangerous.


The Serbian case

Indirect hate speech is prevalent in Serbia. This Balkan country has been in a socio-economic crisis since 2012 when the Serbian Progressive Party took power. It now uses its influence and power to destroy political opponents. Local mainstream media have become its main tool, as Serbian journalists’ working conditions (such as constant pressure and extreme underpayment: see study by Milivojevic, 2011: http://www.rrppwesternbalkans.net/en/research/CompletedProjects/2012/Profession-at-the-Crossroads—Journalism-at-the-Threshold-ofInformationSociety/mainColumnParagraphs/0/text_files/file5/Profesija-naRaskršću.pdf) leave them little chance for independence [6]. Moreover, despite being highly democratic, Serbian media laws are not implemented in practice [7],[8]. Opposition politicians, NGOs and civic activists have no access to media. Instead they become victims of public defamation, presented as non-professionals, “anti-Serbian” or even “foreign spies” [9],[10] in mainstream media.


The problem of hate speech against opposition politicians, NGOs and civic activists in Serbia is of great importance. Without freedom of speech, pluralism of opinions and fair media access, it is not possible to create a democratic society. Moreover, with political opposition and the civil sector de-facto thrown out of the Serbian public scene, this largest ex-Yugoslavian republic and an EU candidate is at high risk of becoming a single-party authoritarian regime.


Results of the research

The aim of our research was to find out how Serbians perceive hate speech in the local online media aimed at these three victim groups. We assumed that their perception depends on three factors: education level, political views, gender. To test our hypothesis, we created an online survey in which we provided the respondents six articles with hateful content (two articles per victim group) and asked them to share their opinion on each text’s content. Respondents were then asked about their political views. However, Serbians being extremely reluctant to answer this question put directly, we listed eight statements about the Serbian political situation with which the respondents were asked to rate their level of agreement. At the end, questions on age, gender and education were asked. The following two diagrams represent the distribution of the respondents regarding their gender, political preference and education level.

Cross examination of hate speech perception with variables for education, political preference and gender was conducted, and the results proved the first two hypotheses: The people with higher education levels and democratic political views indeed identified attacks on all three victim groups as hate speech. The factor of gender played a less significant, yet not negligible role. Therefore, hate speech present in Serbian media appears to be much more tolerated by a majority that supports the government and lack education. This creates fertile ground for negative language that could shape public discourse in a negative way.

Despite the limitations, our study demonstrates the importance of education and media freedom in the process of building a democratic society.



[1] Lawrence, C. R. III, Matsuda, M. J., Delgado, R., & Crenshaw, K. W. (1993). Introduction. In: M. J. Matsuda, C. R. Lawrence III, R. Delgado, & K. W. Crenshaw (Eds.) Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment (pp. 1-13). Boulder, CO: Westview.

[2] Cowan, G., & Hodge, C. (1996). Judgments of Hate Speech: The Effects of Target Group, Publicness, and Behavioral Responses of the Target. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 26(4), 355-374.

[3]  Calvert, C. (1997). Hate Speech and Its Harms: A Communication Theory Perspective. Journal of Communication, 47(1), 4-19.

[4] Stakic, I. (2011). Homophobia and Hate Speech in Serbian Public Discourse: How Nationalist Myths and Stereotypes Influence Prejudices Against the LGBT Minority (Master’s thesis, Universitetet i Tromsø)

[5] Gajin, S. (2010). “Pojam, Oblici i Slučajevi Diskriminacije”. In: Gajin, S. [Ed.] Antidiskriminacioni Zakoni. Vodič. Belgrade: Centar za Unapređivanje Pravnih Studija. Retrieved from http://www.mc.rs/upload/documents/Dokumenti/Antidiskriminacionizakoni-vodic.pd

[6] Milivojević, S. (2011) Profesija na Raskršću – Novinarstvo na Pragu Informacionog Društva. Belgrade: Centar za medije i medijska istraživanja Fakulteta političkih nauka. Retrieved from http://www.rrppwesternbalkans.net/en/research/CompletedProjects/2012/Profession-at-the-Crossroads—Journalism-at-the-Threshold-ofInformationSociety/mainColumnParagraphs/0/text_files/file5/Profesija-naRaskršću.pdf

[7] Vukasović, M. (2016) Indikatori za Nivo Slobode Medija i Bezbednosti Novinara (Srbija) – Saţetak Zaključaka. Belgrade: Nezavisno Udruženje Novinara Srbije. Retrieved From Http://Www.Nuns.Rs/Sw4i/Download/Files/Box/_Id_534/Sloboda%20medija%20i%20bezbednost%20novinara%20sa%C5%Beetak%20Srbija.Pdf

[8] Vukasović, M. (2016) Serbia. In: Indicators on the Level of Media Freedom and Journalists’ Safety in the Western Balkans – Summary of Findings. Independent Journalists‟ Association of Serbia, 28–34. Retrieved from http://www.nuns.rs/sw4i/download/files/box/_id_533/WB%20freedom%20of%20media%20and%20journalists%20safety%20Comparative%20report.pdf

[9] Helsinški Odbor za Ljudska Prava u Srbiji (2016, November) Gušenje sloboda – kampanja protiv evropske Srbije. Helsinški bilten, 129.

[10] Helsinški Odbor za Ljudska Prava u Srbiji (2016) Ljudska prava u Srbiji: 2015. Demokratski deficit – osnova autoritarnosti. Retrieved from http://www.helsinki.org.rs/serbian/doc/izvestaj2015.pdf

[11] Some of these people, despite being informed about the anonymity of the survey and its purely scientific aims, refused to participate because they did not want “to take part in sharing [their] personal information with the Teutons” [direct quote, translated from Serbian].


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