In a text written for the FNF East and Southeast Europe Regional Office, Serbian economist Mihailo Gajic analyzes the danger of disinformation spread by governments based on the case of Serbia. He closely observes the causes of the presidents strong control over Serbian media and suggests several measures that may help to overcome this control.
The case of Serbia
When we talk about disinformation, we often think of foreign influence and its impact on the media scene, or the use of social media by local non-mainstream political groups. In the first case scenario, media outlets owned or financed by external governments come to mind, since they pursue a narrative that is in line with their official international policy. In the second case, radical political groups utilize their social media presence to advance their domestic political goals, mostly measured by their election results. But both types of actors in this field distort or misinterpret the facts in order to reach their political goals: making people believe that nothing is true and everything is possible.
However, there is another potential source of disinformation, which is often overlooked: your own government. This problem is present all over the world; politicians in office tend to manipulate public opinion for their political gain, and they have more resources to impact it through their political leverage and influence as government officials. Although this problem is more relevant in countries with authoritarian governments, where media freedoms are curbed by direct or indirect media control and the lack of independent media; we can see cases of this behavior even in great liberal democracies such as the US or the UK, such as the fabricated notion that Iraq under Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
“One ring to rule them all”
In weak democracies or hybrid regimes, this situation is more of a modus operandi than an exception to the rule. This is clearly the case in Serbia, where media freedoms and pluralism have been under attack for many years, with the situation becoming alarming with the new regime centered around the strongman Aleksandar Vucic, who is at the same time both president of the country and the leader of the SNS party which is the largest party in Serbia and an associate member of the European People’s Party (EPP). Open fabrications, or at a least creative understanding of reality, have become frequent in statements by the current president Vucic and members of his administration, but these cannot be exposed due to the tight government grip over the media. This control has been achieved through several means:
1) Direct government financing – in order to promote various social goals (such as independent media program production, having local new outlets, and, in the case of ethnic minorities, informing citizens about topics of public importance in their minority language) the government has open bids for media financing. But through open political control over the decision-making process, this money always lines the pockets of media supporting the government.
2) Indirect government financing – numerous state owned enterprises (SOEs) and other government entities pay a lot of money for advertising and associated services such as PR or marketing research, and if a media outlet is critical of the government, it can expect a sudden change in the advertising habits of its public sector clients.
3) Media buying agencies – these operate by buying time slots or print space in bulk from the media and then selling them to advertising agencies or directly to companies. These agencies are often owned directly by politicians or people close to them, and their turnover varies with the regime in power. According to research by the Anticorruption Council, an independent state body, there was a tectonic change in these media buying agencies’ turnover after 2012 when the SNS came to power. Companies close to the previous ruling party, DS (associated with the Party of European Socialists) suddenly lost their market share, which was then miraculously filled in by companies close to the SNS. If you are critical of the government, you know that these media buying agencies are going to pretend that you do not exist.
4) Political control over the public broadcaster – by both sheer political influence and control over the Parliament, and partly through the way the public funding scheme is organized, the ruling party can get the public broadcaster agency RTS to report to the tune of the government. The most illuminating example of this was the violent mass protests in central Belgrade on 7th July, during which RTS viewers enjoyed a Jackie Chan movie without a clue that something was amiss, for example that police and protestors were clashing violently right in front of the RTS building.
5) Open political control over regulatory agencies – total control over the Parliament means total control over the so-called independent regulatory bodies whose members are elected by the said Parliament, such as the regulatory body for electronic media (REM), whose task is to uphold the media laws. With this government’s concentration of power, REM is independent only in the sense that you cannot depend on it to perform its duties.
6) Direct ownership control through money of SOEs – the state owned telecommunications operator, Telekom Srbija, recently acquired several small cable operators across the country, but paid a price several times over their value, according to a financial analysis of their public financial statements. The owner of one of these operators (Kopernikus), Srđan Milovanovic, is closely connected to the SNS ruling party since his brother Zvezdan Milovanovic is the president of the city board of the SNS party in Nis, the third largest city in Serbian and the largest city in the southern half of the country. With this money, he then bought ownership of the two TV stations whose international owners had previously decided to exit the Serbian market, TV Prva and O2 TV. Through money gained from overpriced Telekom Srbija contracts (38 million euros for development of a web portal), another person of interest Igor Žeželj, for whom there is gossip that he has close ties to the current government, was able to acquire a popular tabloid Kurir. Furthermore, Telekom Srbija does not include in its list of cable TVs two television stations (N1 and Nova S) which have become vocal critics of the government. This may be a legitimate business operation, since these two TV networks are owned by Telekom Srbija’s main competitor, SBB, but when foul rhetoric of prominent politicians and civil servants used publicly against these two networks is taken into account, there is little doubt that only business considerations are involved in this business strategy.
If you play with fire, you can get burned
In recent years, ‘stabilocracy’, or supporting an authoritarian government just for the sake of regional stability, has been on the rise in South and East Europe And for some time in Serbia it seemed that this policy paid off: the SNS regime had shown more flexibility towards Kosovo independence compared to the previous Serbian government. In turn, this made the EU look the other way when the SNS started dismantling rule of law and taking control over state institutions. Unfortunately, this policy bore the heavy price of making Serbia a captured state.
The negative view of the West in general, and the European Union in particular, has been on the rise in the recent decade, supported by mass tabloid propaganda that, if not instigated by, is then at least tolerated and indirectly financed by the government in Serbia. This has also been followed by the overly pro-Russian media narrative and increasingly present pro-Chinese narrative in government-controlled media. If you used these media to keep yourself informed, you would soon start finding yourself in a parallel universe, in which the EU is ready to fall apart, Russia is stronger than NATO, and the US president is prepared to hand Serbia back control over Kosovo. Recently, this became obvious during the Covid19 pandemic, when the Serbian government praised China for its help in tackling the crisis, organizing events to praise China for its donations, while at the same time ignoring the EU’s contribution, which was significantly higher. This triggered a reaction on Twitter by Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister and currently co-chairperson of the European Council on Foreign Relations, after which the Serbian government started to provide information on EU assistance.
What to do?
Since disinformation can have a real influence on the quality of political debate and on decisions made, it can have a detrimental effect on the quality of democratic governance itself. Therefore, many actors – including political parties, political foundations, and even governments have stepped up with some plans on how to counteract them, at least to a certain degree. We are still not sure what would be the best policy regarding the control of disinformation: stricter rules regarding social media platforms, especially Facebook (hindering its direct dissemination), direct control over access to media content produced abroad (stopping foreign propaganda) or media literacy campaigns (raising the ability of people to discern what is real and what is fake). Many of these proposed remedies could also prove poisonous, since some of these rules and restrictions can lead to open censorship and affect freedom of speech. We must remember that rules should be written as if the worst among us, and not the best ones, will be those implementing them.
However, what to do when the main disseminator of disinformation is not a foreign, but your own government? That creates a completely different situation and calls for different remedies. And how to break this vicious circle that enables state capture is a question that social sciences have not yet clearly answered. Media independence from government control is a prerequisite for any successful anti disinformation campaign, but this condition is clearly lacking or is seriously flawed among many nations in the CEE region, including, but not confined to, Serbia, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Hungary, and Albania. After all, basics come first.