European Commission must take tougher line on Russian propaganda in Serbia
A law proposed by the government does nothing to address the problem of unreliable news media content in Serbia, which has become a fertile ground for pro-Kremlin media. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the European Commission to take a firmer stance on this issue in its negotiations with Serbia to join the European Union.
The influence of pro-Russian media content in Serbia is nothing new but the war in Ukraine has amplified the phenomenon. Although the government exercises a great deal of control over much of the Serbian media landscape, it seems to be doing nothing to resolve the problem of Russian propaganda through measures to encourage more reliable news and information.
Despite being a candidate to join the EU, which has banned Russian propaganda outlets, Serbia continues to drag its feet on the reform of media regulation that it has undertaken to carry out before the European Commission. The long-awaited Law on Public Information and Media, currently the subject of public consultation, does not in any way resolve the problem of the lack of journalistic ethics in Serbia's TV channels, and has been heavily criticised by local journalists' associations.
"It is shocking that the Serbian government, which officially says it wants to join the European Union, tolerates, and even encourages, the dissemination of Russian propaganda via pro-government media. We call on the European Commission to be firm and to ensure that measures to promote reliability of information in the Serbian media and to combat propaganda, especially Russian propaganda, form part of the accession negotiations. These two subjects must be included in the ‘enlargement’ package and in the Rule of Law report, now extended to candidates for EU membership.
In a March 2023 analysis, the Serbian think tank CRTA identified two pro-government channels, Pink TV and Happy TV, as particularly given to "manipulating information and spreading Russian war propaganda." In Happy TV's “Aktuelnosti,” one of Serbia's most watched news programmes, journalists comment on video footage from Russian or Western sources that is taken out of context and whose authenticity is never questioned. They even use the official Russian propaganda terminology of “special operation” and “forced mobilisation” to refer to the war in Ukraine. In April 2023, “Aktuelnosti” broadcast extracts from the video of a statement by a captured Ukrainian soldier.
Few recent setbacks to Russian propaganda in the pro-government media reflect the gravity of the problem rather than the beginning of a lasting solution. Pink TV, which was, until the two mass shootings that shook the country in May 2023, one of the leading broadcasters of pro-Russian views in Serbia, has staged an editorial U-turn and is now taking a pro-Western line that is openly backed by the owner. Imposed from the top, this sudden arbitrary change is symptomatic of the way journalists are denied editorial independence and are forced to serve business and political interests.
Since 2022, RSF has been urging the Serbian government to do everything possible to strengthen media independence and reliability. RSF's recommendations are based above all on safeguards for media independence against any political interference, and the adoption of such mechanisms as the Journalism Trust Initiative, which RSF launched in 2021.