Unethical Reporting on Migrants in Serbia

Published: 8 February 2017

Country: Serbia

Serbia_Migrants_ObrenovacBy claiming that a group of migrants tried to kidnap a baby as her mother was walking down the street, some Serbian tabloids misinformed the public, thereby causing panic and fear amongst citizens in Obrenovac, a small town near Belgrade. The information about the alleged attack first appeared on Facebook as a post by the baby’s uncle. It was used as a fact and basis for the sensationalist and discriminatory reports on migrants published in the Serbian tabloids Blic, Kurir and Telegraf.

The negative stereotypes and generalisations of migrants as ‘ungrateful and unpleasent’ quickly appeared in many Serbian media outlets.

According to the Cenzolovka website, the media reports stirred up hatred and fear. “Also”, adds the author of the article in Cenzolovka, “there was nothing certain and factually correct in those media reports.” She reminded journalists to follow the Journalistic Code of Ethics and to report professionally and responsibly in order to avoid spreading hate based on race, religion or ethnicity.

The irresponsible statements by the mayor of Obrenovac, who tweeted about “the anger that he feels as a parent”, did not help. On the contrary, they contributed to the atmosphere of intolerance and suspicion. Eventually, the Serbian authorities imposed restrictions on the movements of migrants, as well as tighter security measures around the migrant camp.

“Hate speech and rhetoric against refugees has been on the rise in various parts of the world. Serbia is no exception. Unfortunately, recent history has taught us that in Serbia and the rest the Balkans, there is a thin line between words and armed actions. Refugees belong to a vulnerable minority that can quickly become scapegoats for the ills of any society. Instead of countering this threat and helping the public to better understand the complex refugee story, some very popular Serbian media are using crude stereotypes, ‘alternative facts’, and hate speech. We at the Media Diversity Institute hope that regulatory bodies, media organisations as well journalists associations will wake up and push for the application of ethical principles, avoidance of hate speech or stereotypes, development of good newsroom practice and engagement with the audience. Refugee groups, activists and NGOs can provide vital information to media so that they can do this important job differently than 25 years ago, “said MDI Executive Director Milica Pesic.

The story about the alleged attack on the mother with her baby reached the British tabloids too. Although the CCTV footage published on the Express’ website showed no evidence of ‘the gang of migrant men trying to snatch a baby from a pram’, the Express speaks about a ‘horror near the refugee camp in Serbia’.

The so-called Balkan route to Western Europe was shut last year, but migrants continue to move through Serbia to its northern border with Hungary, reports Reuters. Over 7,000 migrants, mainly from Afghanistan, remain in the country, which is culturally and financially ill-equipped to care for them. About 500 of the migrants live in Obrenovac. They were moved there from makeshift shelters in warehouses in Belgrade as temperatures dropped below freezing.