Serbian Media: Covering the Church Crisis, Missing the Other Side

By: Jelena Jorgačević Kisić

A month and a half after the Religious Freedom Law in Montenegro was passed, the Church-led protests have not shown any signs of stopping. At times, tens of thousands of people have taken to the public squares, churches and streets, staging demonstrations protesting the law which states that religious communities need to prove property ownership from before 1918 in order to stay in their homes, a law that is seen as promoting the Montenegrin Orthodox Church at the expense of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

At first, most Serbian media outlets ignored the protests. Once the numbers of those taking to the streets surged, Serbian media started covering it exhaustively, sometimes exceeding one hundred media reports on the daily base.

“Besides the daily Danas, most Serbian reporting about the protests in Montenegro is subject to the current interests of the ruling party,” Vreme Editor Filip Švarm tells Media Diversity Institute. According to him, Serbian daily papers wanted to find the right reporting angle, when it became impossible to ignore the protests.

“As soon as the president of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić took a definite stance and supported the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) – or at least, part of it – these media have begun in complete unison to attack the Montenegro government, echoing the attitudes heard from officials in Belgrade.”

To illustrate this claim, Švarm explains how the majority of the media support the SOC Patriarch and some of the bishops, but on the other side, the SOC metropolitan (of Montenegro and the Littoral) Amfilohije, the most influential religious leader in Montenegro and one of the lauder critic of Vučić’s politics, is regularly targeted by the pro-regime tabloids.

During the first week of February, all the national daily press in Serbia, except independent, liberally-oriented Danas and tabloid Kurir, and all the dailies in Montenegro had the protests on the front pages almost every day, with one or two exceptions. The front page is particularly important as it represents the outlet’s editorial policy, and priorities in its reporting.

Due to the huge quantity of reports and rapidly changing news, an analysis of the front pages of daily newspapers during that week lends shows both how the protests are being covered, and illustrates the broader media environment in Serbia.

First, it was obvious from the start that the Serbian pro-government tabloids were putting fake news and unscrupulous incitement of hatred and panic on display. Some of the particularly egregious titles were: “Dangerous Evil in Montenegro: Milo’s Terror” (Informer), “Villain Milo Arrests the Old Ladies” (Srpski Telegraf), “Milo Ordered: Arrest Mothers of Serbs / Đukanović loses his mind” (Alo) and “Milo’s Craziness Took Hold” (Srpski Telegraf). Words like “terror”, “dictator” and “brutality” were repeated day after day. Over the course of three days, four tabloid newspapers reported that Milo ordered that everyone at the front of the demonstrations would be arrested—something that turned out not to be true. One even went as far as to accuse , Đukanović of harnessing the Coronavirus to forbid processions and save his position.

It is however important to stress that this is not a single solitary case, but rather the normal press environment. According to the FakeNews tragač research titled, “The war is the cheapest word of the Serbians tabloids,” two tabloids in one year announced 265 wars and conflicts, while  another research, conducted by Raskrinkavanje team, showed that in 2019, four main tabloids published at least 945 fake or unfounded claims on their front pages.

Needless to say, there were not 265 wars during that year.

It isn’t only announcing fake wars. Most of the newspapers only interviewed political figures from Serbia’s ruling party or the Montenegrin opposition. In some cases, they interviewed Church representatives—but rarely someone who would give an opposing perspective. The reports themselves focussed on the actual events, stressing the number of the people on the streets, an enjoyable atmosphere, and the critics of the current Montenegro government. According to the selected topics, Blic occasionally tried to provide some other angle. Alternatively, Danas did not have the topic on any of its front pages during this period of time.

In Montenegro, pro-government daily press were also more hostile toward “the other side”. Pobjeda continuously published texts that claimed to uncover “the dark face of protests processions.” The actors who appeared on the front pages of Pobjeda and Dnevne novine are ruling authorities, the signatories of so-called Appeal 88 and other Serbian public figures who unquestionably support Milo Đukanović’s government. The headlines focused on statements regarding the law, reiterating that it will not be withdrawn, and warning about “Serbian imperial ambitions.” In the opposition-aligned outlets Vijesti and Dan, the selection of words, as in Serbian Politika and Blic was not as extreme. Typically, they interviewed Church representatives and law professionals who broke down and analyzed the law.

However, even with these healthy nuances, one can notice similar tendencies in both countries’ media. The biggest theme is putting the rules of basic journalism aside.

“There is no clear difference between genres, no one checks anything, no one calls both sides and deals with facts,” points out Montenegro journalist and BIRN Balkan Insight’s managing editor Dušica Tomović, emphasizing the low professional journalism standards across the board. According to her, the way the current crisis has been covered, has just brought these problems on the surface.

“Facebook and other social networks have become the main source for Montenegro media. So, these huge number of fake news, according to my opinion, are not created as deliberate lies but they are more products of bad journalism, journalism that does not pose questions, but rather accept  unverified social media posts as fact.”

The best way for the media to proceed in Montenegro is to constantly require editors and journalists to grasp the context, bring in a variety of different sources, and most importantly, not to ignite tensions. It is important to remain impartial, and carry on doing responsible journalism, in order to cultivate media freedom and political stability in both countries.