Serbian mainstream media outlets erupted in a wave of solidarity following Prime Minister Ana Brnabic’s appearance on DW political interview show Conflict Zone on Wednesday.
Journalist Tim Sebastian was slammed for his on air-manner with Brnabic: "The rude and uneducated journalist went out of his way provoke the prime minister! But was left to hang his head in shame by her answers," read the headline of tabloid Alo!
"Serbia's head of government showed unprecedented bravery," wrote the traditionally pro-state newspaper Politika, also chiming in with support for Brnabic.
"Ana blew the German journalist away," was the victorious claim from media outlet Republika about Brnabic’s appearance on the show. Sebastian, who is world-famous for his hard-hitting interviews, was branded by the online portal as "rude and poorly educated."
In the typically inflammatory tabloid Informer, the Brit was reported as having worked for CNN an apparent confusion with the BBC, for which Sebastian worked as a journalist for many years. But for government-loyal journalists in Serbia, these are just trivial details: The general tenor is that DW, CNN, and BBC all are just provocateurs.
'Failed on all questions'
The interview, a transcript of which DW Serbian published in its entirety, made waves in public and on the internet, not only because Brnabic delivered quote-ready statements, but because hard-hitting interviews like the one carried out by Sebastian are such a rare occurrence in the largely pro-government Serbian media.
"That is your red line, is it? You’re never going to do it," said Sebastian, when it became clear that Brnabic was still not prepared to use the term "genocide" in regards to the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995.
The Serbian prime minister described it as a "heinous" and "terrible, terrible crime," but stated she does "not think it was a genocide," continuing to toe the line of all previous governments in Serbia regarding the massacre that claimed over 8,000 lives of Muslim men and boys during the Bosnian War.
Brnabic even went as far to claim that Serbia is "by far is the best-case example in the region," when it comes to dealing with war crimes — an assessment that few could comprehend. "Almost half of the interview was devoted to war crimes, because that is an important issue for Serbia and the region. Ana Brnabic failed every question," Serbian human rights activist Anita Mitic posted on Twitter.
Brnabic — who was educated in the US and UK, worked for several US companies and USAID projects, is a political independent and openly gay — was viewed by many as a sign of political hope when elected prime minister in June 2017. But she quickly adapted to the style of government of the all-powerful Progressive Party and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
Vucic, a staunch nationalist who only revealed a predilection for the EU in the past few years, has ruled the Balkan state with an iron fist for six years and is regarded as a symbol of a "stabilocracy." The term has been used to describe ruling styles of Balkan regimes that prioritize stability over democracy.
Read more: Serbia balances between Russia and the West
'Could I say something?'
Sebastian then asked about freedoms of speech and the press in Serbia: "One of the most glaring failures of your government is your refusal to protect freedom of speech. He cited the former Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks, who said in February that "the atmosphere in which journalists work in seems to have deteriorated quite seriously ... with some politicians calling them traitors, foreign agents, and mercenaries."
Questions like these, posed in Sebastian’s typically unrelenting style, made him a new focus for pro-government media in Serbia.
At one point in the heated exchange, Brnabic interrupted the journalist: "Could just say something, or do you want to have this interview with yourself?" The question garnered plaudits from the media back in her homeland.
Praise for the moderator's hard-hitting questioning flowed in from opposition politicians and online. But in Serbia, besides a few fringe newspapers and a cable television station, social media is one of the only remaining spaces for political criticism.
Dragan Dilas, the former mayor of Belgrade, who leads the strongest opposition alliance, commented that the DW interview was evidence of the fact that "there can be no democracy without free media and the professionalism of journalists. We need that here in Serbia as well." The televised dialogue demonstrated that the government has no political perspective, the ex-mayor added.
Savior from state bankruptcy?
Follow-up research by DW Serbian has raised doubts on the truth of some of the statements made by the Serbian prime minister, such as her praise for her government and the Progressive Party of having saved the country from bankruptcy. Brnabic claimed that Serbia is now the world champion in attracting foreign investors — a claim that circulates almost daily in Serbia but is largely imaginary.
Fact checking reveals an entirely different picture: in 2012 the country was still in debt with €17.6 billion ($20 billion) — today it is six billion euros more. The World Bank lists over 50 countries that attracted more foreign investment last year than Serbia including Ghana, Ethiopia, and Peru.
Among critical political observers in Serbia, the twisting of facts is considered the crowning discipline of a strongman president. However, on Conflict Zone, Brnabic earned a silver medal in political spin, according to one critic on Twitter: "She is no longer just a tagalong, but a perpetrator as well."