Analysis of the Narrative: “Showdown with the media in Serbia: Attack on journalists, the opposition and the West”

March 2024.

As part of the program Regional Initiative to Combat Disinformation “Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub: Exposing Malign Influences through Watchdog Journalism”, we present you a new monthly analyses of fake news and disinformation narratives.

Showdown with the media in Serbia: Attack on journalists, the opposition and the West

The state of the media in Serbia has been problematic for a long time. In recent years, the country has been experiencing a steady decline in the list regarding media freedom. According to NUNS data, attacks on the media and journalists became more frequent in 2023, while the political will to prevent or prosecute them is questionable.

March 2024 was marked by a series of incidents against media representatives, anonymous and open threats to journalists, and the organization of campaigns by pro-government media promoting anti-Western narratives.

These events only added to the bad news for the media in Serbia from the beginning of this year. At the beginning of February, a sharp reaction from part of the public was caused by the controversial verdict of the Court off the Appeal in Belgrade, which acquitted four members of the former State Security Service of the murder of journalist Slavko Ćuruvija in 1999. The verdict by which these persons were originally found guilty and sentenced to 100 years in prison was hereby changed.

Ćuruvija was one of the harshest critics of Slobodan Milošević’s regime, whose numerous high-ranking officials are now part of the government again. The public saw his murder for a long time as a symbol of the confrontation between the state structures and the media.

Pro-government media relativized the reactions and protests of part of the public to the verdict and placed them in the daily political context of attacks on the opposition. The text of the largest pro-regime tabloid, Informer, is illustrative, in which it is pointed out that the previous government did not solve this case and that “the case of Ćuruvija once again showed all the misery and hypocrisy of the opposition…they are even able to accuse Vučić of their own wrongdoings”.

Attacks on local media journalists

In the following weeks, several incidents took place – threats, attacks or targeting of journalists – with which officials of the ruling majority are directly or indirectly connected. Journalist Gordana Momčilović Ilić from Stara Pazova, who was investigating the illegal setting up of catering facilities in the city park, received open threats after the articles were published, to which the competent institutions did not respond.

Footage from the neighbouring Vojvodina town of Inđija was circulated to the public at the beginning of March, and it shows members of the municipal security physically attacking the local journalist from the IN media portal Verica Marinčić and throwing her out of the municipal building, not allowing her to attend the press conference of the municipal president. Journalists’ associations and certain political parties condemned the attack and the inadequate reaction of government representatives.

At the same time, the president of the temporary body of the city of Belgrade and former mayor Aleksandar Šapić continuously targets and insults representatives of the critical media, primarily within the United Media Group, at his press conferences. During March, tightening the government’s relationship with these media, he publicly refused to answer any question posed by their journalists.

Simultaneously, the pro-government media promoted the narrative that Šapić “broke” or “disrupted” the “tycoon,” “Đilas’s,” (leader of the opposition in Serbia) and “pro-Western” media. The Informer wrote about Šapić’s accusations that critical media lie, misuse, and falsify information about him and the ruling party’s activities, conveying the statement that “they are becoming one anti-Serbian television, one anti-Serbian media.”

The polarizing and challenging circumstances in which journalists in Serbia work, often under open pressure from the ruling structures, also influence the fact that attacks come from circles close to the authorities and the broader social milieu. An example is the campaign against N1 journalist Ksenija Pavkov, which started on the Telegram social network and then spread to other social networks on the occasion of her reporting in front of the Center for Social Work in Novi Sad at a protest about child abduction.

Cenzolovka emphasizes that “the anger from the institutions was redirected to the media and that their normal work was prevented.” Ksenia Pavkov was also targeted by certain pro-Russian media, who baselessly accused her of reporting from the protest in front of the Faculty of Philosophy in Novi Sad, defending a journalist and Professor Dinko Gruhonjić, suggesting that it was about protecting personal interests and privileges.

The cases of Lalić and Gruhonjić: Peak of tension

During March, the pro-government media encouraged a campaign against certain journalists, linking their actions with the Serbian opposition and Western countries. The president of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina, Ana Lalić, was targeted by tabloids such as Alo and Informer because of her statements at the festival in Dubrovnik about the “Serbization” of Vojvodina and the activities of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Vojvodina.

The Informer accused Lalić of “continuing with anti-Serb hysteria” and of being a “journalist of a tycoon’s newspaper” who participates in anti-Serb festivals and of blaming Serbia for all the events of the 1990s, linking her views with those of the Serbian opposition without any basis.

Alo emphasized that “Ana Lalić sows anti-Serb hatred” and that she demanded the introduction of sanctions on Serbia, adding that “the main culprit for everything is (President of Serbia) Aleksandar Vučić for united Serb haters.” Although some statements of Ana Lalić are controversial and have divided opinions, pro-government tabloids misused them for campaigning against the opposition and independent journalists.

By far, the harshest reactions from the public were caused by the statements of the professor of the Faculty of Philosophy in Novi Sad and the former president of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina, Dinko Gruhonjić, given at the same festival a year earlier. Parts of the video were selectively chosen and published in March, almost a year after the 2023 Dubrovnik festival. On them, Gruhonjić ironically comments on the identity of his name with the name of the Ustashe commander from the Second World War period, positively determining Vojvodina’s independence and criticizing the Serbian Orthodox Church, which led to strong criticism from the public.

Soon, the pro-government and pro-Russian media used this case to launch a campaign against Gruhonjić, promoting, to varying degrees, anti-opposition and anti-Western narratives. Several days of tension culminated when a group of young men, with whom the mayor of Novi Sad was in solidarity, blocked the Faculty of Philosophy in Novi Sad for several days, demanding the dismissal of Gruhonjić.

In the media, the interlocutors of Informer indicated that “Dinko Gruhonjić is carrying out mental terrorism” and that the prosecution is obliged to initiate proceedings for causing racial and religious intolerance “because this behavior (otherwise) will start a chain of violence.” The Informer used this case for attacks on the opposition and independent media, claiming that “NGO media do not choose the means and try to deceive the public” by conducting a “wretched, miserable and terrible campaign of defense of Dinko Gruhonjić.”

In the same key, the targeting text entitled “Anatomy of fascism – Dinko Šakić Gruhonjić and his citizen neo-fascists”, written for Informer by a representative of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, highlights the alleged ideological connection between the Serbian pro-European opposition and Gruhonjić.

Pro-Russian media, such as the Balkan service of the Russian state RT, also wrote about the case of Dinko Gruhonjić, but from a slightly different angle. They emphasized the connections between Serbian liberal journalists and Western countries, allegedly promoting an agenda that opposed Serbia’s national interests. RT thus questions whether Gruhonjić is a victim of media attacks, with suggestions that Western embassies and organizations finance his projects and that his position is privileged. In the author’s text on RT, it is emphasized that “Serbian nationalism is the safest and most profitable to attack” and that (Gruhonjić’s) “criticism of Serbian nationalism also opens the door to success, so financial, social, and even academic achievements will be achieved with much less effort than which is usual.”

This media suggests that Serbia is a (semi)colony with a prevailing culture of auto-chauvinism, based on which it is further claimed that Dinko Gruhonjić as a journalist and professor is not endangered, i.e. objective threats sent from certain circles are relativized. Sputnik also wrote in this way, whose articles emphasize that “Dinko Gruhonjić and others like him are a direct product of American interference and interference of the collective West in our society and social relations, and they feel protected like polar bears.”

Author: Igor Mirosavljević