Smartphone with Twitter logo © Sattalat Phukkum/Shutterstock

© Sattalat Phukkum/Shutterstock

Twitter recently flagged some Serbian outlets as "government-affiliated news media". Instead of opening a debate on the decision, the government and President Vucic have embarked on yet another smear campaign against non-aligned media

30/08/2021 -  Vukašin Obradović Belgrade

On August 17, Twitter decided to flag some Serbian outlets as "government-affiliated", including Serbian Radio and Television (RTS), some national coverage stations (Pink, Prva, B92, Hepi), the Tanjug news agency, and newspapers Kurir, Informer, Politika, and Srpski telegraf. A decision that aroused strong reactions from the outlets in question and the government.

Marko Albunovic, interim director of Politika, said  that the newspaper "is not ashamed of its collaboration with the Serbian government", stating that "Politika has collaborated with the state for 117 years now, and will continue to do so in the future, just like it collaborates with all institutions, the non-governmental sector, opposition parties, representatives of the diplomatic corps, religious communities”.

Twitter's decision prompted Serbia's Radio and Television — as stated on the broadcaster's portal  — to "rethink its presence on this social media, but also to invite the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and other organisations of which RTS is part of to express themselves on the matter. [...] Regardless of RTS's decision to stop using all of its Twitter accounts, having been labelled and subjected to political pressure, we believe it is necessary for the EBU to react to prevent its members from being subjected to any kind of pressure from large companies". The RTS website also states that it is unacceptable for Twitter to allow RTS tweets to be accompanied by any report or label without prior authorisation from the broadcaster.

Regime tabloids have reacted with even harsher words. According to Informer , by labelling some media as collaborators of the government, Twitter seeks to reduce the visibility of the news they publish, thus giving priority to outlets (presumably) linked to the opposition, in particular Dragan Dilas. “It is obvious that the great powers do not like anyone who is not against the Serbian authorities, Serbia and the Serbian president, which is why they are striving to minimise the visibility of news about Serbia's progress and power. It is yet more proof that the media close to Dilas are supported and financed by world powers who do not love Serbia", reads the portal.

Milan Ladevic, editor-in-chief of Srpski telegraf, said  that Twitter is publicly branding Serbian media that are not funded by Western countries, and therefore follow an editorial policy immune to Western interference. “Many of the so-called independent media have been receiving money for years from the US government, but also from countries like Great Britain, Norway, Germany. Why are these media not singled out? Why do not they report on those who are supported by CNN or a media such as Radio Slobodna Evropa?”, Ladevic asked polemically.

Responding to allegations made by the Belgrade leadership that Twitter's decision to flag some Serbian outlets as government-affiliated would be an attempt at censorship, Twitter representatives stated  that it is important that users know which media are controlled by the government, not only financially, but also via interference in editorial choices. Twitter further explained that its main goal is to "flag media that are not immune from political interference and government pressure", adding that it undertook this campaign after consulting "various stakeholders, including academics and researchers, civil society, governments, various organisations, and Twitter users”.

Snjezana Milivojevic, a professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade, described the reactions of the Serbian government as "absurd" , stating that it is not a conspiracy against Serbia, but an international campaign launched a year and a half ago.

"This is not an operation against Serbia, nor an international conspiracy, much less the long American hand. This campaign started a year and a half ago and currently involves twenty countries. The basic idea is to identify people and media who express positions close to those of the government of their country", explained Snjezana Milivojevic.

Milivojevic recalled that the first to come under the lens of Twitter were the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, then the initiative was extended to other developed countries, including Canada, Italy, and Japan, and eventually to countries whose governments are suspected of conducting social media propaganda campaigns.

"I suppose Serbia was included in this list because about a year and a half ago a network of so-called bots linked to the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), or the government, created chaos on Twitter which then decided to delete these accounts", said Snjezana Milivojevic, warning that "Serbia has ended up on the list of countries where coordinated disinformation campaigns are used to fuel distrust in the public debate and, ultimately, to destroy democracy".

However, these remarks have remained in the background, overshadowed by the media campaign launched by the government that used the whole affair as a pretext to attack independent media.

Responding to questions from journalists, President Vucic said  that the label given by Twitter to the media collaborating with the Serbian government is "a compliment". "The only thing I don't understand is why you were shocked. Who should they collaborate with? With tycoons, thieves, and criminals? It is perfectly normal for them to collaborate with the government. The term 'collaborate' is used, and indeed we do not finance most of these outlets”, said Vucic. The president then complimented all the media "flagged" by Twitter, adding that these newspapers promote "libertarian aspirations and ideas".

Instead of opening a discussion on Twitter's decision to flag some Serbian media as affiliated with the government and clarifying whether and how the government influences the work of these outlets – particularly the taxpayer-funded public service – the government has embarked on yet another smear campaign against "mercenaries in the pay of foreigners and internal enemies", lashing out at media that have not ended up on Twitter's blacklist.

Thus the Serbian president, setting his propaganda machine in motion, used Twitter's decision to attack independent and professional media for the umpteenth time. By doing so, Vucic has probably strengthened his image in the eyes of his traditional electorate. As for the media defined by Twitter as "collaborators of the Serbian government", their reaction to this definition speaks volumes about why they ended up on the infamous list of media controlled by power.

 

This publication was produced within the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR - link), co-funded by the European Commission. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa and its partners and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.

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