1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Press FreedomSerbia

Column: Serbia's pro-government media block reform

Thomas Brey
Thomas Brey
November 4, 2022

Brussels and Belgrade have been negotiating Serbia's accession to the European Union since 2012. But state-controlled media are demonizing the EU and talking up the country's ties to Russia and China.

Serbian tabloid newspapers on a newsstand in Belgrade, August 2022
"Serbia will win" reads the headline on the "Informer" newspaper, which has the highest circulation in the country and is run by the president's favourite journalistImage: Rüdiger Rossig/DW

If government-controlled media in Serbia are to be believed, the West takes every opportunity to humiliate and demean Serbia, and the only effective remedy for this is the country's fraternal friendship with Russia and close ties with China.

These same media also claim that the EU and the US secret services want to assassinate Serbia's all-controlling political leader, Aleksandar Vucic.

They also assert that the enfeebled countries of Western Europe, which they say have abandoned Christian values and replaced them with the LGBTQ community, are destined to fall. In stark contrast to this, they paint an image of impeccable economic and social conditions in Russia. They are particularly favorable towards Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is portrayed as a loving father caring for the Russian nation.

President Vladimir Putin (left) and Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic shake hands in Belgrade, January 17, 2019
Serbia's President Aleksander Vucic (right) prides himself on his close ties with Russian President Vladimir PutinImage: picture-alliance/TASS/M. Metzel

Serbia's President Vucic prides himself on his close ties with Putin, which pro-government media applauds. Recently, he had the widespread support of almost all Serbian press for his efforts to create a "Serbian block" in the style of the pro-Putin United Russia party.

Political elite directly influence broadcast media

The people of Serbia are exposed to a constant stream of such "information" daily as all five television channels that broadcast nationwide (by far the most important source of information for Serbs) are under the direct influence of the country's political elite.

Except for Serbia's public broadcaster RTS, these channels are run by ever-loyal oligarchs that belong to the tight-knit circle of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and President Vucic himself.

Ruling party's sway in the print media

The situation regarding print media is similar. When the Serbian state withdrew as the owner of newspapers such as Politika and Novosti following pressure from the European Union, these media outlets were taken over by people close to the president.

President Aleksandar Vucic's image is seen on four screens
With the exception of Serbia's public broadcaster RTS, the television channels that broadcast nationwide in Serbia are run by oligarchs close to the president, says Thomas BreyImage: N. Rujevic/DW

Informer, the newspaper with the highest circulation in the country, is run by Dragan Vucicevic, whom Vucic has repeatedly described as his favorite journalist.

The EU is turning a blind eye

But the EU is ignoring all this because it still considers Vucic the right negotiating partner. In the EU's most recent progress report on Serbia, published on October 12, 2022, the media and press freedom issue is only addressed towards the end of the document. And even then, there is no mention of how the media are used to shore up power and blacken the reputation of anyone who does not toe the government line. The statements are all of a general nature and offend no one.

The drafting of the report was coordinated by the Hungarian EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Oliver Varhelyi, who is considered pro-Vucic and seen as Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban's man in Brussels.

Vucic has repeatedly said that reforms will have to wait until the alleged threats to the country from Kosovo, Croatiaor the Muslim Bosniaks have been dealt with. Media close to the government dutifully repeat this "reason" for delaying reforms on regularly.

State-funded advertising for loyal media outlets

According to the University of Belgrade, there are 2,500 media outlets in Serbia — a huge number for a country of this size. Revenues for the entire media sector before the COVID-19 pandemic were estimated to be only €210 million ($207 million).

EU Commissionner Oliver Varhelyi addressing the European Parliament, May 18, 2022
Orban's man in Brussels? Oliver Varhelyi, Hungarian EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and EnlargementImage: Dwi Anoraganingrum/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

Serbian media suffer from a chronic lack of cash. Practically all media rely on advertising revenues. State and state-run organizations are by far the largest advertisers in Serbia, and these advertisers only place ads in politically compliant media. The tax authorities also defer the huge tax liabilities of acceptable TV broadcasters such as Pink, the largest television channel in the country.

Russian news agency helping cash-strapped Serbian media

Sputnik, the Russian state-owned news agency, makes the most of the chronic lack of funding in Serbia's media sector. It opened a large editorial office in Belgrade eight years ago and now makes comprehensive material available to all media free of charge. Naturally, this material — in Serbian, is used unaltered by dozens of media outlets in Serbia — highlights the Russian worldview, namely that the West is ailing while Russia flourishes.

All Sputnik's reports "prove" that a partnership with Moscow is more advantageous for Serbia than a partnership with Brussels and Washington.

Distraction from scandals

Serbia's conformist media outlets do what they can to divert attention away from the many scandals and cases of corruption that have dogged Vucic's ten years in power. These scandals — which involve accusations of arms deals, drug cultivation, leading politicians' fake dissertations, murder, money laundering, vote-buying, and embezzlement — were only reported by a handful of independent media outlets.

Pro-Russian demonstrators in Belgrade, March 4, 2022, with a large Russian flag and placards with pictures of Vladimir Putin and the letter Z
Most Serbs now see Russia and China as the country's most important donors and trading partners and are against Serbia joining the EUImage: Stefan Stojanovic/REUTERS

Understandably, surveys conducted outside Serbia's two main cities, Belgrade and Novi Sad, show that even though people in rural areas consider themselves well-informed, most know nothing about these scandals.

A distorted view of reality

Serbia's media reflect a made-up world that has nothing to do with reality. Vucic speaks of the dawn of a "Golden Age," while more and more people sink into poverty.

As a result of such media propaganda, most Serbs now see Russia and China as the country's most important donors and trading partners and are against Serbia joining the EU. But the reality is that about two-thirds of Serbia's foreign trade has been with the West for decades. Moreover, the most money coming into Serbia in terms of investment comes from the West.

According to surveys conducted in June 2022, the majority of young people support Vucic as their national leader and are against the West and in favor of stronger links to Moscow.

Nevertheless, about half of those surveyed want to emigrate because they are unhappy with the situation in Serbia. Interestingly, hardly anyone wants to go to Russia. Instead, almost all of them want to go to Germany.

This article was originally written in German.