For a couple of days last month, uninformed tourists visiting Serbia could easily have believed that the country is a Russian outpost. With large photos of Vladimir Putin on their covers, Serbian tabloids--by far the biggest source of print information in the country--were engaged in a discussion over whether the Russian President would defend Serbia and its contested part of Kosovo, or trade it for recognition of Crimea. Added to that were front-page headlines evoking Cold War rhetoric, including the government-controlled Informer's September 20 edition, "Putin: I Can Destroy the States in Half an Hour."
Historical, cultural, and political ties between the two countries, the steady influence of the Christian-Orthodox Church, and a negative image of the West over the NATO bombing in 1999, have provided a welcome ground for the world view coming out of Moscow. Due to a financially weak press almost completely influenced by the government, and the influx of content sponsored by Russia--often available to be republished for free--Serbia is increasingly perceived as a battleground between East and West.
At the time when Serbians are trying to decide what direction to move as the country applies for EU membership, a media market saturated with a press that spins rather than reports independently is a concern. With only a modest number of independent Serbia papers with limited reach such as Vreme, Novi Magazin, and Danas available, those wanting news from a source separate of interest groups are increasingly turning to the investigative and opinion-oriented multimedia platforms such as KRIK, Insajder, and Pescanik, leaving many Serbians ill-informed about some of the country's most relevant issues.
The extent of Russian influence is illustrated by a May 2016 study by the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies, a policy think tank with ties to the West. It found 110 registered non-governmental organizations, associations, and media outlets are directly connected with the Russian lobby in Serbia today.
At the same time, the English-language TV channel Russia Today (RT) is available on cable and, for over a year, a Moscow-sponsored radio program and magazine content have been readily accessible in the Serbian language. The widely-read Serbian weekly Nedeljnik carries the monthly supplement, R Magazin, which is funded by the Russian government and prepared by Russia Beyond the Headlines, a multilingual resource on Russian politics and culture sponsored by Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russia's state newspaper. To give an example of the magazine's coverage, a March issue included analysis about why Russia is the winner in the Syrian war and a memoir by a Russian war correspondent on the 1999 NATO bombing campaign that hit civilian targets in Serbia. All material, including articles in the Serbian language and the photographs, are delivered from Moscow and, according to the journalists from the paper with whom I spoke, Nedeljnik's management has no influence over the supplement's content.
Veljko Lalic, editor-in-chief of Nedeljnik, which also publishes content from Le Monde and The New York Times, said that the talk about Russian expansion in Serbia's media sphere is "inflated" and he cannot understand "why all of a sudden everyone speaks about it." "There were rumors that Russians will buy this and that big Serbian media, but they only have Sputnik portal and radio," Lalic said. "[Sputnik] is popular; you can't ban them for being good."
Djordje Vukadinovic, a political analyst and editor-in-chief of Nova Srpska Politicka Misao (NSPM), a magazine and portal dedicated to Serbian politics and perceived by some as close to Russia, says that Russian influence on Serbian media is increasing, but added, "This is a far cry from the way Moscow would probably like." Vukadinovic said some people in Serbia are afraid of any Russian influence. At the same time, according to him, there are non-governmental organizations that benefit financially if they are perceived to counter Russians. Vukadinovic pointed out that Western views are presented through the various American and Western-owned media that are available. He put Putin's regular appearance on the front covers of the Serbian press down to the "general popularity of Russia among Serbian people" and "current Serbian government politics that are anti-Western."
One of the most significant changes to Serbia's media landscape was the arrival, over a year ago, of Sputnik. Under the slogan "Sputnik Tells the Untold," Moscow launched the news portal and a radio program in Serbian that can be heard on local radio stations throughout the country. Sputnik's journalists met with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, an honor usually reserved for dignitaries and a move perceived by many as a clear signal about the president's political preferences.
According to the portal's anniversary promotional video, its app was downloaded over 100,000 times. In addition to news, Sputnik features analysis, opinion, political cartoons, public polls, and columns. Leads are nearly always suggestive. For instance, a July 6 headline read, "[Tony] Blair should be held accountable for both Iraq and Yugoslavia," and another article argued that economic sanctions imposed on Russia are actually good for the country and bad for the West.
It is hard to measure the influence or consequences of Russian media expansion on the Serbian market, except to say that it contributes to a fragmented world picture tailored to favor Russian political interests. Due to a lack of funds--a reflection of the general economic situation in the country--many Serbian news outlets use articles and analysis provided by Sputnik, thus increasing the reach of the Moscow-sponsored content. On September 14 for instance, the German and Swiss-owned Serbian daily Blic republished Sputnik's article "Fox News: Obama has Bowed Down to Russians." The article quotes an unnamed anchor at Fox News who said he was surprised the U.S. needed to ask for Russian help in organizing Syrian peace negotiations and that "Washington had to bow down to Moscow to get the support for the Middle East." According to the same source--named only as a "Fox News anchor"--this action proved "Russia has a considerable influence in the Middle East...while the U.S.' role is rather small." The Serbian national newswire agency TANJUG also at times distributes Sputnik's content.
Milos Teodorovic, editor-in-chief of the Serbian service of the U.S.-government funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said Serbian media should pay better attention to sources and said Sputnik's journalists are often introduced as "analysts" when they speak on national television. "This is unusual and unprofessional," said Teodorovic, adding, "[They] cannot be treated as independent because they openly advocate Russia's [official] point of view."
Part of Sputnik's appeal is its slick design, use of social media, and accessibility. Many Serbian media outlets cannot afford to pay for content from agencies such as Reuters or The Associated Press, and Russian sources are usually free of charge. Under Sputnik's terms and policies, anyone can republish its content for free as long as Sputnik is credited.
It is still early to tell if the Russian-sponsored news outlets will bring any change to the Serbian media discourse. According to Zoran Stanojevic, an editor at the national broadcaster Radio Television of Serbia, "because of the Communist past, many people in Serbia know to tell the difference between the propaganda and the news, but only if that doesn't concern them directly." Like many others I spoke with, he said that Serbian media space is saturated with "half-truths" and reporting that is friendly to the ruling elite. In that kind of the environment, the only solution, Stanojevic said, is "basic media literacy training" aimed not only at consumers of media in Serbia but at the reporters as well.
Vukasin Obradovic, the president of the Serbian Independent Media Association, said that it should be irrelevant if a media outlet is "pro-Russian" or "pro-West." "What Serbia needs, before anything else is professional and responsible media, and when we have that kind of reporting people will be able to tell the difference between propaganda and truth," he said. According to Obradovic "until that time, the only beneficiary of the current media environment is the political regime, as it can easily manipulate public opinion."
[EDITOR'S NOTE: The sixth paragraph of this blog has been modified to clarify Lalic's comments.]