In 2020, up to 1,200 fake and unfounded news on the front pages of five newspapers

Original article (in Serbian) was published on 07/04/2021

Last year alone, five daily newspapers – Kurir, Alo, Informer, Srpski telegraf (Serbian telegraph) and Vecernje novosti published a total of 1,172 false, unfounded and manipulative news on their front pages. At the same time, millions of dinars from the budget continue to flow into these media. The publishers of these newspapers received at least 29 million dinars from municipalities in Serbia last year.

According to Raskrikavanje’s analysis, the most dominant in the production of lies is Srpski telegraf, with 403 news headlines that were either completely fabricated or had no evidence for the featured claims.

The tabloid Alo had 225 such news on the front pages, and the Informer slightly less – 212.

On the front pages of Vecernje novosti, Raskrikavanje discovered 169 false, unfounded and manipulative news, while in Kurir the number was lower by six (163).

The daily newspapers whose front pages Raskrikavanje analyzed were extremely sympathetic to the president of Serbia and the Serbian Progressive Party, Aleksandar Vucic. He was presented almost without exception, always in a positive context, and he appeared on the covers of Kurir at least 143 times, Vecernje novosti 111 times, Alo 101, Srpski telegraf 92, and Informer 86 times.

As expected, the main villain of the newspaper was Dragan Djilas, the president of the Party of Freedom and Justice. It is interesting that Djilas appeared on Informer’s front page more times than Vucic – as many as 89. Almost always presented in a negative context, Djilas found himself on the front page of Kurir at least 56 times, Srpski telegraf 54, Alo 53, and Vecernje novosti 8 times.

The analysis included all the news that we discovered to be either a pure lie or unfounded, i.e. without any arguments for claims, biased or otherwise manipulative. We did not analyze sports and show business news.

You can find our detailed methodology here.

Srpski telegraf: Champions of disinformation

Last year, Srpski telegraf – one of the champions of manipulative news in Serbia – had as many as 403 fake, unfounded and manipulative news on its front pages.

This means that, given the fact that the newspapers were not published every day, on average there was not a newspaper issue without at least one manipulation on its front page. Moreover – there were days when the journalists of Raskrikavanje noticed that every headline on the front page of this tabloid was inaccurate or manipulative.

Most of the headlines are rated “unfounded”, which means that there was not enough, or more often – no evidence for the claim. These were most often texts that relied entirely on anonymous sources, headlines that represented the conclusions of journalists without sufficient grounds, and it also happened that there was not a single source of information in the text.

The front pages of this tabloid also contained biased headlines, misinformation, manipulation of facts, conspiracy theories, but also false news – that “Putin’s vaccine protects against the coronavirus for a lifetime” – even though the Russians themselves expect immunity to last for two years – or that the EU blackmailed us with the words: “Die from the coronavirus but don’t buy the Russian and Chinese vaccines”. They also wrote that “world leaders knew about the coronavirus”, that “5G network causes the coronavirus”, and that the Chinese brought Serbia a mistletoe-based cure against the coronavirus.

They falsely accused KRIK journalists of “spying on Danilo Vucic”, and that “Trump made a list of terrorists in Serbia”, that the “Simpsons predicted the coronavirus”, and that the coronavirus was a “fraud of the century”.

One of these “gems” is the interview with the then director of the office for Kosovo and Metohija, Marko Djurić, which was announced on the front page with the following headline: “Djurić revealed what Trump really said to Vucic”. In the text, however, the reader does not find anything  – Djuric’s answer was that he could not reveal what was discussed in a closed meeting.

One of the favorite topics of Srpski telegraf was domestic politics, which essentially came down to praising Vucic and attacking the opposition, primarily Dragan Djilas. While Vucic appeared on their front pages at least 92 times in 2020 and each time in a positive context, Djilas appeared at least 54 times, but each time in a negative context.

Vucic was often portrayed as the victim, and “Djilas as an arrogant tycoon or villain”, who, as they wrote, “wanted a vaccine for Serbs that turns people into zombies”. In the headlines, he was also called a liar, a gravedigger, a hypocrite, and even a “running bird” and a “runaway”.

Informer: Monstrous Djilas and Vucic whom everyone wants to kill

According to Raskrikavanje’s analysis, in 2020, there were as many as 212 false, manipulative and unfounded news on the front pages of the tabloid Informer. 

A particularly inspiring topic for the Informer was the coronavirus pandemic. Before the official declaration of the state of emergency, Informer reported in accordance with the state policy: and that is that the coronavirus is ridiculous. Thus, the first news about the virus in February last year was that “the corona is nothing more than the common flu”, that “there are better chances of dying in traffic than getting infected”, and that the “coronavirus is ridiculous and that there is no need to wear masks”.

Informer had also published false news such as that “the sun will kill corona” and that soup and ginger will save you from infection. In accordance with certain statements of state officials that guest workers are to blame for the increase in newly infected, Informer, without providing evidence or arguments, announced that in the first days of the state of emergency, in March last year, “200,000 guest workers entered Serbia, of which 6,000 were infected”.

Vucic appeared on the front cover of this tabloid 86 times, and he was featured exclusively in a positive sense. The same situation is with the Russian president Vladimir Putin, who appeared on the cover 33 times.

As expected, Dragan Djilas, the president of the Freedom and Justice Party, was presented as the main villain in this newspaper.

Informer thus announced that “Djilas is calling for a coup d’etat”, that “Djilas’ SZO is like JSO”, that “Djilas’ people want Vucic to die from corona”, and that Djilas’ monstrous and dirty campaign is being carried out because they are attacking Danilo to kill Vucic”. 

Last year, Vucic appeared 101 times on the front pages of Alo

The tabloid Alo published at least 225 unfounded, manipulative or false news on its front pages last year.

The number one enemy on the front pages of Alo was Milo Djukanovic, about whom they published more than 30 controversial headlines. This tabloid presented Milo as a hater of Serbs, so in the first days of January it announced that “Taci is sending Milo to beat Serbs on Christmas Day”. The same day, the government of Montenegro denied this claim on Twitter. Alo also wrote that Milo was using the epidemic to save power, and when he lost the elections, they wrote that he was preparing for bloodshed, which also turned out to be false news.

The enemy number two was Dragan Djilas, and the term “đilasovci” was often used as a synonym for the entire opposition. On several occasions, Alo found itself in a dispute with neighboring Croatia regarding the unfounded claims that a new wave of the corona is coming from Croatia, and that this country is “dangerous to health”.

The coronavirus pandemic was a fertile ground for false news for Alo as well. Thus, they conveyed the claims made by doctor Branimir Nestorovic that Serbs have “lion genes” that protect them from the coronavirus, unlike Italians who have “weaker genes”. However, Nestorovic denied for Raskrikavanje that he mentioned “lion’s genes” to Alo’s journalist, but told her instead that Serbs have a different genetic structure.

The president of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic appeared on the front pages of Alo 101 times, and according to our analyses, he had been involved in at least 45 unfounded, manipulative or false news.

On several occasions, Alo also wrote that Vucic is in danger, that is, he is the target of the drug mafia bosses, tycoons, as well as the “đilasovci”.

According to Alo, his family was also the target on several occasions. After KRIK published a photo in June, featuring the president’s son Danilo Vucic in company with Aleksandar Vidojevic, who is known in the police base as a member of the Kavac clan, this tabloid claimed without any evidence that Vucic was under attack by the secret service.

However, they did not mention then that the KRIK journalist who photographed Danilo Vucic sitting with Vidojevic in a Belgrade cafe had her phone stolen in the presence of at least one police officer. The whole event was placed in the context of last year’s elections, with claims that a dirty campaign is being conducted against Vucic.

Vecernje novosti: A little bit of Russians, a little bit of coronavirus

Last year, we discovered 169 unfounded, biased or false news on the front pages of Vecernje novosti. In most cases, such news dealt with reports on our neighbors – primarily on Montenegro, where last year was marked by protests led by the Serbian Orthodox Church against the controversial Law on Freedom of Religion.

Traditionally, on the front pages of Vecernje novosti there was room for nationalist rhetoric and “disputes” with other neighbors, who were told that “Muslims provoked an attack on Srebrenica”, that “Montenegrins sing Ustasha songs, and Macedonians celebrate the NDH” and that Croats are setting us up.

On the other hand, there were also positively intoned headlines, but they were reserved for the regime. Thus, the president of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic found himself 111 times during 2020, almost exclusively in a positive context, and in several cases in a neutral context. No negative or critical report has been written about him, nor about Milorad Dodik.

The president of Russia Vladimir Putin was also represented in a positive context. The truth is, he was not featured very often on the front pages (less than 10 times in the first half of the year), but there was other content that celebrated the power of Russia.

For example, this was the case with the texts about the coronavirus, which was the subject of at least 15 false or unfounded headlines such as “Corona will be beaten by the Russians with 16 machines” and “Russian machines are killing corona”.

There were some other manipulations related to the coronavirus – Vecernje novosti was among the first (in January) to place a conspiracy theory that someone with this virus wants to “bring China to its knees”, about which Raskrikavanje wrote at the time. They also conveyed unfounded claims of various interlocutors that the coronavirus was made in a laboratory, that it would disappear by June, and that it was “a cover up for Albanians to occupy the north of Kosovo”, which did not happen. The whole time, they “mitigated” the danger posed by the coronavirus, so in the spring they “sent” it away with the texts “Serbia defeats corona – life has returned, fewer and fewer patients”, “Retirees breathe”, and claimed that the epidemic would end before the vaccine arrives. And as it soon turned out to be the case, none of this was true.

It is interesting that in October, Vecernje novosti wrote about Veljko Belivuk’s gang as a “new clan”, although for years KRIK has been publishing texts about Belivuk’s connection with state authorities and criminal acts for which he was accused.

Kurir: Vucic is the main good guy, Djilas and Djukanovic are the bad guys

At least 163 unfounded, manipulative or false news were published on the front pages of Kurir last year.

This tabloid has a similar “scheme” – on their front pages, they negatively represented Dragan Djilas and Milo Djukanovic, while Vucic and Putin were represented as the good guys.

On average, Djilas found himself on the covers of Kurir once a week, of which at least 22 times his name was mentioned in a negative context, often accompanied with insults and malicious photomontages like the one when they presented him as a clown.

A similar, negative narrative dominated the texts about Milo Djukanovic.

On the other hand, as expected, the most positively represented politician last year in Kurir is Aleksandar Vucic. The front pages of Kurir had over 140 positive news related to the Serbian president, and more than a third of that was unfounded, and is considered propaganda or false.

Vucic’s successful policy has been portrayed through collaboration with Putin, from whom Serbia is buying tanks and strengthening its army. The president also has a strong friendship with “brother Xi”, who sent medical equipment, ventilators and experts for Serbian hospitals from China. Kurir did not fail to announce that as many as 500 million Chinese saw the moment when Vucic announced a state of emergency in Serbia and asked for help from the “Chinese brothers”. Vucic also achieved a “diplomatic victory” with Trump during his visit to the White House in September.

In an equally positive manner, Kurir reported on the president’s visits to institutions, construction sites and important events. Kurir did not avoid using president’s public notices and announcements to the citizens, during which Serbia’s progress was mostly emphasized.

On its front pages, this tabloid also published false and unfounded news about the coronavirus.

Even before the first case of this virus was recorded in Serbia, they announced that “an American writer predicted coronavirus 39 years ago”, and announced that epidemic will happen in 2020. Raskrikavanje has explained that this was just a conspiracy theory. Also, like most media, Kurir conveyed the “dramatic” warning of cardiac surgeon Miljko Ristic that “young and healthy people die in two days”. As Raskrikavanje wrote, it turned out that the doctor “picked up” the information from an expert online lecture, during which it was said that the autopsied patients had not been proven to be positive.

Budget financing of fake news

According to the publicly available documentation gathered by Raskrikavanje, during the last year, these five media and their publishers received more than 29 million dinars from the budgets of local self-governments in competitions for project co-financing.

Thus, the “champion of disinformation”, Srpski telegraf received a total of one million dinars from four municipalities – Sombor, Novi Sad, Kikinda and Pancevo. Informer collected a bit less – around 800 thousand dinars, but its publishers – “Insajder tim” and “Info It Media” received another 5.9 million dinars from Belgrade alone.

Last year, several local governments awarded Alo at least 900 thousand dinars, but its publisher “Alo Media System” was awarded with another 8.6 million dinars for other projects. Most of the money Alo received from the City of Belgrade – 5.7 million dinars.

“Vecernje novosti” received over five million dinars for their projects, and the newspaper Kurir received at least 700 thousand dinars. However, the publisher of Kurir – “Adria Media” did not remain “empty-handed”, so last year it was awarded at least another 6.9 million dinars for other media in their ownership, and again most of financing came from Belgrade – four million dinars.

Connections with the authorities

The publisher of the tabloid Informer is the company “Insajder tim” from Belgrade, and 100% ownership of the company belongs to Dragan J. Vucicevic. Vucicevic never hid his close relationship with the regime. On the contrary – in public appearances, he often points out that he is Vucic’s supporter.

The owner of Alo newspaper and the portal of the same name is Sasa Blagojevic, from the company called Alo Media System. He bought this tabloid in 2017 from Ringier Axel Springer, and the following year, through his other company, Global Media Technology, he became the 100% owner of the pro-regime television Studio B. Blagojevic is, as the Pištaljka website wrote, a longtime friend of finance minister Sinisa Mali, with whom he went to the same class in high school.

Srpski telegraf, which is also openly pro-regime, was founded in 2016. It is a tabloid owned by the company called Media Network, led by Ljubomir Dabovic as a majority shareholder (55 percent), while Lazar Simic, Milan Ladjevic and Sasa Milovanovic each have 15 percent ownership. According to the data from the Impressum, Milovanovic is also the director of the newspaper, and Ladjevic is the editor-in-chief. The two of them, like Vucicevic, are known for their frequent public appearances on pro-regime televisions such as TV Pink, in which they “disputed” with the opposition and the media that criticize the government. According to data from KRIK’s database of politicians’ property, Lazar Simic is a lawyer who worked in the office of Igor Isailović, a business partner of prime minister Ana Brnabic, and a trusted man of the former mayor of Belgrade, and now minister of finance Sinisa Mali.

As of January 2019, Kurir is owned by Igor Zezelj. The publisher of Kurir is the company Adria Media Group, which once belonged to Aleksandar Rodic. The value of this transaction is not known, but in August 2020, opposition politician Marinika Tepic revealed a contract from October 2018, according to which the state Telekom invested 38 million euros in Zezelj’s company called Wireless media, which is now the indirect owner of Kurir. Tepic claimed that Zezelj bought Kurir with this money, while Telekom never denied the existence of the contract or that it invested millions in Igor Zezelj’s company.

Since 2019, Vecernje novosti has been owned by at the time unknown businessman Bojan Rajic. His company Media 026 from Vucko in the suburbs of Smederevo bought the newspaper for about 2.5 million euros from the owner of the printing house Borba. As Raskrikavanje wrote at the time, it is interesting that Igor Isailović, a lawyer known for his connections with people in power, such as Sinisa Mali, for whom he managed businesses with offshore companies, submitted the registration application for the establishment of Media 026 to the Business Registers Agency.