BELGRADE, 05.07.2018. – If the situation in Serbia is judged by the front page headlines of the most widely read newspapers, the country is almost daily exposed to evil plans concocted by the most powerful Western countries, while its neighbors, again and again, are about to launch war operations against it. Informer, one of the highest-circulation Serbian daily newspapers, in 302 issues in 2017 published on its front pages as many as 362 false news items. This was precisely calculated by researchers of the Novi Sad School of Journalism, whose Fakenews website was set up to incite the fight against propaganda and misinformation in the public sphere.
“This means that this paper – but also others similar to it – kept publishing unchecked information almost every single day. Such reports mostly announce imminent armed clashes, thereby actually instigating them. During 2017, Informer claimed that clashes were about to erupt with Kosovo Albanians, NATO, Macedonians, Bosniaks, Croats, although nothing of the sort ever happened. A year later we can well say these were pure fake news, false alarms and panic-mongering,” says one of the researchers, Stefan Janjic.
Such news is usually carried by tabloids, but the creators of the recently launched website Raskrinkavanje (Unmasking) have determined that the RTS and RTV public services (Serbian Broadcasting Corporation and Vojvodina Broadcasting Corporation) are also releasing false news. For this reason these broadcasters have been placed on the website’s “Red List” together with the Kurir daily newspaper and the state-run Tanjug news agency. “There are outlets proven to have been acting as an extended arm of the state and serving as a mouthpiece for official propaganda. They are neither harmless, nor naïve and innocent; I wouldn’t consider them not responsible for what they are doing. To the contrary, I would rather assume that they know quite well what purposes they serve,” says Marija Vucic, a journalist of the Raskrinkavanje website.
To “earn” its place on Raskrinkavanje’s Red List it suffices for an outlet to publish one false report within two months. The two public services were thus listed for broadcasting an untruthful piece produced by Tanjug. The state-run agency released a statement by Zorana Mihajlovic, the Serbian minister of construction, transport and infrastructure, before she even appeared at the site where the statement was supposed to be made. Marija Vucic also recalls another Tanjug’s false report, which led to the straining of relations between Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Namely, the agency incorrectly cited a statement by Bosnian Presidency member Bakir Izetbegovic concerning the recognition of Kosovo’s independence.
“Tanjug reported that Bosnia will recognize Kosovo as an independent state, and other media carried the report without checking it, although Izetbegovic’s interview with Deutsche Welle, during which the statement was made, was widely available. In it, responding to a question whether Bosnia and Herzegovina will recognize Kosovo, Izetbegovic said: ‘I hope it will.’ Several days later Informer ran a headline on its front page which said, ‘Izetbegovic gearing up for a killing spree.’ Such instances are like a snowball rolling downhill and, in the end, one has no idea where the information originally came from, how all that actually happened, relations between countries become dangerously strained, and all that came as a result of Tanjug’s dishonest reporting,” Marija Vucic says.
The devastating consequences of releasing unchecked information and statements were also quite obvious in reports concerning the epidemic of measles – an infectious disease that should have been eradicated, but which instead has affected 4,000 people in Serbia since last October. Individuals who have been publicly spreading misinformation concerning the negative effects of child immunization are currently under investigation, but no regulatory body has ever issued a warning to the outlets participating in this campaign.
“There is false news that can affect social processes, endanger national security or public health. And that is what happened recently when many public figures, mostly laypersons, and even astrologists, relying on unchecked studies and reports began publicly claiming that immunization of children is dangerous, thereby jeopardizing public health. This is a field where false news should be strictly suppressed because of its enormous potential danger,” says Janjic.
Statements and promises by politicians frequently make headlines, although they are rarely examined or checked by the media releasing them. In such circumstances, the citizens can but check their truthfulness by personally experiencing their consequences, and that may take quite some time. For nine years now the Istinomer (Truth-Measurer) website has been examining the credibility of statements given by politicians. Their 2017 study offers shattering results – of the 140 investigated statements only six turned out to be truthful.
“With the change of government, three politicians, then political leaders, came to the fore: Aleksandar Vucic, Ivica Dacic and Mladjan Dinkic. When Dinkic withdrew from politics, two remained, only to eventually have a single one left – Vucic. He is the one who gives most statements, and most of them were assessed negatively by us. Unfortunately, if such people are not punished in elections, they are encouraged to continue acting in the same manner as before,” says Sinisa Dedic, an Istinomer journalist.
This year’s study on media literacy in Europe shows that the Balkan countries are the least “resistant” to the spreading of false news and that in this regard Serbia takes 29th place on the list comprising 35 countries. Nedim Sejdinovic, president of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina, recalls that disseminating false news is prohibited by the Law on Information and the Media and the Code of Journalists of Serbia.
“At the time when politicians keep telling untruths and making false promises on a daily basis, the responsibility of journalists is even greater. In disregarding this, media and journalists are not only violating their code of ethics, not only misinforming the public and working against the public interest; they are doing much damage to society. And that is not the role they should be playing. They have not only to abide by their professional standards but also by ethical norms; they have to go a step further,” Sejdinovic added.
Except for the idea that journalists and citizens should “go a step further” and check the information they are offered, there is no precise answer as to how to fight false news that is spreading at lightning speed via the internet. The international organization Reporters without Frontiers has proposed the introduction of certificates for the media respecting professional and ethical standards, which should position them as reliable sources of information. Their proposal is to begin implementing the plan as of 2019.
Beta, Beograd, 05/07/2018