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Disinformation reigns in Serbia

Photo: Jean Balthazar Le Devoir A Belgrade newsstand

Jasmine Legendre In Serbia

February 3, 2024

  • Europe

In Serbia, disinformation dominates on all media platforms. In a study published in 2023, which analyzed 15 local media outlets over a 28-day period, 550 fake news stories were identified in 494 publications. Le Devoirtraveled to this Balkan country to understand the extent of the phenomenon.

In Novi Sad, a municipality of 300,000 inhabitants, a team affiliated with the School of Journalism is working to debunk fake news on its website, FakeNews Tragač. “There was a Facebook page that we were analyzing [and spreading misinformation], called Stop the Migrants. She had more subscribers than our city has inhabitants,” says editor-in-chief Stefan Janjić. In Serbia, fake news has its roots not only in these anonymous sites, but also in established and state-funded media.

The Serbian Progressive Party and its president—also at the head of the country—, Aleksandar Vučič, are over-represented, occupying 93% of media coverage, again according to the study Mapping disinformation in Serbian media, whose data was collected between September and December 2021. A phenomenon that we observe when walking through the streets of Belgrade, the capital, where the majority tabloids sold on newsstands display the president's face. “They are encouraged to publish lies and  are paid for it. So there are a lot of people who are deeply biased, who watch these media outlets and who support the ruling party. They don’t have places to find other opinions, other points of view,” adds Mr. Janjić.

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This text is published via our Perspectives section.

A plurality of affected subjects

Relations between the government and its opposition are just the tip of the disinformation iceberg. Other current issues are no exception, such as the war in Ukraine, where the Russian position is favored, environmental protests or even the situation in Kosovo. And citizens believe what they read. “Two-thirds of Serbs blame the West for the war in Ukraine, while only a quarter blame Russia,” says Dimitrije Milić, program director of New Third Way, an organization that conducted a study on particularly on Serbian public opinion regarding Russia.

The media also like to demean Westerners in order to promote themselves. “Their narrative is: 'Yes, we have some problems, but it's even worse in Europe.' They use photos of empty supermarkets. In reality, these photos were taken during the pandemic, and they present them as if this is the current state of supermarkets in Western countries. So in Serbia we are portrayed as being rich and stable,” says Stefan Janjić, pointing to the cover of a tabloid.

Training new journalists

The editor-in-chief of the FakeNews Tragač site, which tracks disinformation in Serbia, admits straight away: “Our influence is minimal. » Their audience is mainly made up of people who already have a fairly high level of media literacy and who already know right from wrong.

“We are simply an additional source when they verify information. But I would say that many people in Serbia have these questions about us: “Who pays these fact-checkers ? What interests are they working for ?” They see the whole fact-checking system as something coming from the West and who wants to spread Western propaganda. » It is on this skepticism that the majority of Serbian media play. Most fake news is biased information and manipulation of facts.

Meet at his home, the former professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences at the University of Belgrade and expert on the Serbian media world Rade Veljanovski is unequivocal: only 30% of the population has the possibility of 'be well informed in Serbia.

But does this have to do with the training that young journalists receive at school ? “There are 1000 to 1500 students in Serbia who enroll every year years to study journalism, which is far too many for a small people like ours [6.8 million inhabitants],” he maintains. According to him, students learn the basics of impartiality and journalistic ethics, but when they enter the job market, they must comply with the demands of the media for which they work, sometimes putting aside their ethics. “When I ask my former students why they work like this, they tell me that it’s the only way to keep their job,” laments Mr. Veljanovski.

Global disinformation in the Western Balkans

To understand the influence of fake news on the rest of the region, we need to go back a little in history, to the conflicts in former Yugoslavia. After the death of President Josip Broz Tito in 1980, different ethnic groups lived in the territory of Yugoslavia. In 1989, Slobodan Milošević of the Socialist Party of Serbia was elected president and promoted the concept of “Greater Serbia”, according to which all Serbs spread across the territory should be ruled by the same government. This nationalist position led to bloody conflicts.

To this day, this concept remains, and news produced in Serbia resonates in countries where Serbian communities live, such as in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. “The concept of the Serbian world means that President Aleksandar Vučić is responsible for all Serbs, regardless of the territory in which they live,” explains professor of philosophy at the University of Belgrade Milivoj Bešlin.

Even public figures, such as  Novak Djokovic and members of his family, appear to buy into elements of disinformation propagated by Serbian media. The tennis star made headlines last May after recording “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia” on camera. Many Serbs do not recognize the independence of Kosovo. He also caused controversy by refusing to be vaccinated during the COVID-19 pandemic, and his father was recently seen in a pro-Russian demonstration.

Disinformation that is part of pro-government propaganda is difficult for most people to understand. A local regulatory authority — in Quebec, there is the Press Council — has the mandate to blame media that produce fake news, but it is contested by experts. “There is nothing independent about it, because even if its members are not appointed by the government, they behave like representatives of the government,” says Professor Veljanovski.

The Center for Research, Transparency and Individual Accountability, behind the study Mapping disinformation in Serbian media, makes some recommendations, including media independence, fact-checking supported by media authorities and media literacy programs to inform the population about disinformation. “I don't know if I will live it, but I sincerely hope that the younger generations will be entitled to a completely free, professional and objective media, who will be uncomfortable publishing fake news and who will be sanctioned s 'they do it,' concludes Mr. Veljanovski.

With Milica Čubrilo Filipović

This report was financed with the support of the Transat-Le Devoir.< International Journalism Fund /i>

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116