The entire region was taken aback at the beginning of May, when two mass murders took place in Serbia, in which 17 people, including children, lost their lives. As if the shock was not enough, the media rubbed salt into the wound, as well as users of social networks, who resorted to sensationalism, bad journalistic practices, and even conspiracy theories.
Among the first disinformation that appeared was that the history teacher from the “Vladislav Ribnikar” school had passed away, which was reported by almost all regional media: Nova, Novi glas, Srbin info, Direktno, Mondo, Serbian tajms, Prijedor 24h, Bosna info, Hayat, Press media and Srpska info. The same news was also reported in the daily TV Pink, which was followed by a denial (Srbija Danas, Alo, Lajk, Danasnje, Republika). The teacher was wounded in the shooting and according to the latest information, she was moved to a “less intensive care” unit. Then there was a showdown among the Serbian media, and some went so far as to write that one media house called for the release of the suspect for the murders at the school. The weekend edition of “Informer” featured a text with a sensational headline on the front page. This newspaper attributed to N1 television the words of Aleksandar Fatic from the Institute of Practical Humanities, who was a guest on the show on this television. Informer was even harsher on the web portal. The web portals Republika, Vojvodina uzivo and NSuzivo wrote: “SCANDALOUS REQUEST FROM SOLAK’S N1: They are asking that the MONSTER who killed the students at school be released and returned to his parents”, while Pink reported: “THE N1 DEMAND: The killer boy should be released, he just needs to change school!”
As everything was known about the suspect for mass murder within half an hour, which is absolutely not according to the journalistic code, information also appeared that the 13-year-old was under the influence of opiates. However, he was subjected to a toxicology test, which was negative.
Then they moved on to the identity of the suspect. As if automatically, a large number of media and social media users shared a photo of the boy who was claimed to be the shooter. The fact-checking community from the region very quickly found out that it was another young man who lives in Ireland, and that the public was once again misled. The photos show Edwin Hotea, a powerlifting junior who competes for the club A.B.S. Powerlifting from Ireland. On May 4, 2023, Hotea posted a video on his TikTok in which he explains that he is in the photo shared in the media in the region and also shows that he has had the photo in his gallery since January 2020.
The stories, created on the edge of fantasy, just kept coming: from the one that the boy committed a crime because he was vaccinated, under the influence of narcotics, all the way to the fact that the school was to blame for the saddest event in recent Serbian history because it celebrated “Halloween”. We should also add the fact that many have doubts – about who is hiding under the jacket, accompanied by policemen.
The race for readership ahead of professionalism
Regional fact-checking newsrooms analyzed the reporting, mostly by Serbian media, who had reported on the tragedy.
Journalist Jovana Gligorijevic says for Raskrikavanje: “We all talk about what the media should not do, and then the chief of police, the minister of education and the president of Serbia do everything that we say in the media that it should not be done, which is publishing identity, confidential information, and information from the health record”. The Serbian Code of Journalists stipulates that even in situations where state authorities publish information that violates privacy, journalists should not publish it.
Raskrinkavanja.ba’s analysis showed that by treating the tragic event as a morbid spectacle, numerous media from the region resorted to inappropriate and unethical practices. They conveyed shocking and disturbing details that were not in the interest of the public, trivialized the extreme violence that occurred and violated all imaginable guidelines and recommendations for ethical and socially responsible reporting on crisis situations. The fact that minors were especially affected by these tragedies is even more disturbing.
When the line is drawn, a large number of media wrote about this horrible act, as well as the one from Mladenovac that followed, unprofessionally and obviously – in a hurry while fighting for readership/viewers. That would be the conclusion of the regional fact-checking newsrooms, each of which processed the above-mentioned narratives and phenomena in their own way.