Mrs. Mersiha Smailovikj is from NGO Legis in Skopje. Mersiha is a human rights activist and lawyer, and the author of “Islamophobiain Macedonia: National Report “. She has been a vocal advocate for national and religious minorities in North Macedonia and the Western Balkans, and took part in human rights campaign tackling hate speech directed at immigrants passing through the Balkan Route.
“Thank you CIVIL for this very important conference and very important topic. Hate speech is actually happening on the Balkans. Like in the previous session, several of the speakers mentioned the Balkans and the countries in the Balkan region that are more fragile to this fake news and this hate speech, which affects everyone, affects the society, affects the human rights approach, but also makes our democracy fragile, because we see in the era of the fake news, in the era of the hate speech, how the principles of human rights are being put aside”, said Mersiha Smailovikj on the Regional conference organized by CIVIL and Balkan Forum on attacks against democracy held in Skopje on 28th of June 2021.
She pointed out her personal case as a humanitarian worker associated with fake news and hate speech campaign during the migrant crisis while helping refugees passing through the Balkan route.
“As you mentioned, my personal case, but also groups that are my focus of protection, is a perfect example, it’s basically a case study that we can work, that we can speak in the university, for the professors to do a research. I will just mention an interesting moment about the refugee crisis and the migration issue. In 2015, Macedonia was part of this huge way, the so-called Balkan route, two refugee camps were made on our land, one on the border with Greece, one on the border with Serbia, and we had previously two refugee camps as center of foreigners.
So, that was 2015, when the previous government was in power. So, millions of refugees and migrants crossed our Balkan route. We changed the law, which made it more respectful for the human rights and dignity of the refugees and migrants. But in 2017, when the same political party was in opposition, it started a huge campaign with hate speech and fake news against the refugees and migrants saying that if this government at the local elections wins, it will build refugee camps in Macedonia. What we tried in this case was to have a solution for the fake news, to have counter argument. Countering the arguments is the solution. But what happened in 2017 – we felt speechless, we thought that we were in some hall and we speak like no the camps are finished, they were built in 2015, that government at that time built these refugee camps, so it’s finished. But nobody wanted to listen.”, pointed Smailovikj.
“It was a huge campaign, it was not only on the social media, it was collecting signatures on the street, in one session in the Assembly of the Macedonian Parliament where people are paid from our money, 87 times the word migrant was mentioned in one session. So it was not only fake news on the social media, like we mentioned the two, it was huge, organized, massive propaganda against the refugees and migrants. So, what that meant? It meant dehumanization of the refugees and migrants.
After the local elections in 2017, everything went downward. So for us to raise empathy, towards refugees and migrants, now it’s very hard because everyone sees them as they will come in our country, they will build. So, every new building that is built in our country is taken by the political parties and said this will be the new refugee camp, this is a migration camp and etc. So they are preventing normal functioning. So, what is happening is we have center for foreigners, in all the European Commission reports its mentioned that we have to have better conditions in the center for foreigners. It means foreigners, like everyone, not Macedonian citizen, it’s a foreigner. But it’s preventing to do so, to build new building because this one is in very crowded Municipality of Cair, very crowded area in close Gazi Baba, you cannot pass, so it should be built outside the city. But its prevented, because even this political government is political. They are scared about the influence, hate speech.
So, they are preventing this building and new place to be more humane and better for the foreigners who will be in this detention center, because they are afraid of the narrative that you will build a camp. And we have a huge aspect of the human rights of the refugees, but also as a civil society it affects the empathy and solidarity. So, if you want to do hate speech towards one group, you have to first dehumanize them. When you remove the human aspect of them, you treat them as a group, as a collective movement, they will enter, they will enter your country, then it’s very easy to attack them with hate speech.”
Smailovikj stressed about the hate speech against the refugees, and about islamophobic attacks against her because of being a Muslim women, and her visible representation of the faith ( wearing scarf).
“Also me being vocal in this area of hate speech towards refugees, also the Islamophobia, which is rising on the Balkans, which is very interesting to have Islamophobia today in the 21 century when we are here as a Balkan, as a such diverse place, where many ethnicities work and function, we have mosques for six centuries in Macedonia. To have rising of Islamophobia now, when you have in New Zealand the attack, the terrorist attack on the Christian Church community, then you become more scared because the attack that happened on me, there are several characteristics. It’s because of my local speaking about the refugees and migrants, because of my visible representation of the faith, they also attack because of my gender, I was attacked because women with head scarf cannot be politically active, then I was attacked because of my ethnicity, when there was Srebrenica, because I am Bosniak nationality.
There was some political party that said if you attack me because of me do you want again Srebrenica to happen. So yes I started several initiatives. I went to the public prosecution, I went to the Ministry of Interior, I also have my personal lawsuit against not social media, but newspapers. from several cases that I mentioned, I have only one finished. It’s my personal lawsuit against two publishing houses that apologized to court. It was the case when I was accused at the time of being anti-Sematic, so the editor of the newspaper said that he deliberately had said that I am anti-Sematic and started all these campaigns for anti-Semitism. Also I am a trainer for anti-Semitism, so I really know what is anti-Semitism, So, he apologized and I am expecting the verdict, to have it in my hands so that I can publically announce it. But not only this newspaper, also a political party, which has a lot of followers, organized two separate press conferences against me. Why is that important? Because I am a member of civil society.
If a political member, some member of the Assembly attacked a member of civil society, that is a very huge attack, because they also send a message, make you fragile and you are scared to go outside because of 300, I don’t know how many followers the highest political opposition in our country has. So, the fake news and hate speech, personally, affect you, send you some message that you have to be quiet, you’re scared to enter the social media, you’re scared to write your own opinion on the social media because you’re afraid they will use it, misuse it, and they will attack you because of your freedom of speech. I am a civil society member, I work in the private sector, I am not a governmental institution, I am not a politician, so that is very important, that is something that is happening maybe six years for me now.”, pointed Smailovikj.
She referred to her battle with the legal institutions, ie the prosecution, regarding the attacks on her ethnic and religious identity.
“When I started the procedure through the governmental bodies, the ministry, because it’s an article in the Criminal Code, it has to go through the Criminal Code and Criminal Court, I wanted to say publically to the people – don’t go, don’t try this, because it’s very hard, it’s very painful to go to the public prosecutor office, to have at your home police coming, also bringing you invitation to come to their office, you know for us as a family this was very disturbing to have a police car coming to say you are Mersiha, you are invited tomorrow to the police station, and you are the victim! You go to the public prosecution office, they were not trained how to deal with the victims. And she was attacking me. At the end of my interview she told me like, “come on Mersiha, leave social media behind you, you have kids, take care of your kids, take care of your home, be a housewife.”… Like that. She said that to me literally. And that passed, one year and a half, nothing happens. So I was in the public prosecutor’s office, I went to the Ministry of Interior, and nothing happens. Even the attacker, who did a personal attack on me, by name and surname, by my ethnicity, my religion, pointing my family, he still has his Facebook page, Facebook profile, he still receives salary from our budget that we give, and there is still no process that has started against him. And yesterday again ha also had hate speech, this rhetoric of Islamophobia on his social media, and you report to the Ministry of Interior and nothing happens. Nothing happens. So this institution has the biggest point to show them that they have to do more. Also we as a civil society have to do more, with empathy, with solidarity, with countering argument, but institutions are very silent in Macedonia when we speak about hate speech and fake news. This is very disturbing.”, said Smailovikj.
Kamera: Dehran Muratov
video editing: Arian Mehmeti
photography: Ognen Boshnjakovski