Self-Censorship Via Separation in Serbian Media

When I started this post I intended to write a a straightforward criticism of B92, known for years as a bastion of independent journalism in Serbia, for meekly succumbing to the pressures of Serbia’s increasingly inhospitable media environment and engaging in blatant abdication of its critical responsibilities. On Thursday this week the news outlet published a longish article titled “Vučić: Vodi se kampanja protiv VS” (Vučić: a campaign is being led against the Serbian Armed Forces), which contained little actual reporting on, you know, whether or not anyone actually is leading a campaign against the Serbian Armed Forces. After all, if this were really true you’d think it would be worth uncovering. I was even going to allow for the possibility that B92, knowing it would be too risky to publish outright contradictions to Vučić’s claims (e.g. “We interviewed three national security experts who all say this is nonsense”), had instead chosen to let the absurdity of the quoted statements speak for themselves with the understanding that any right-thinking person would recognize them for the nonsense they are. And I was going to be especially upset at the fact that, in the second half of the article, B92 had presented an NGO’s claim that the Serbian Armed Forces’ Chief-of-staff, Ljubiša Diković, is guilty of war crimes committed in Kosovo in April and May of 1999, in typical he said/she said fashion, with no attempt made to actually engage with the content of the accusation.

But it turns out the reality is more interesting than the straightforward narrative of self-censorship via omission. Rather, it seems B92 has pursued something akin to self-censorship via separation. For it turns out they published, on the same day, a long article quoting the NGO (Fond za humanitarno pravo) at length and detailing its investigation into Diković’s alleged war crimes. And to their credit, this second article was linked to in the text of the first. But problematically, this means to read it you had to proactively click on it; you had to choose to learn more about the alleged guilt of a Serbian general, rather than encountering it as part of the broader narrative. And if you use comments as a rough proxy, it looks like meaningfully fewer people made this choice – there are only 77 on the article addressing war crimes and 190 on the article discussing the existence of a concerted effort to destroy “all that is good in Serbia” (Vučić’s words, not mine).

By separating the two articles, B92 allows its readership to self-select, and if you’re a Serb who doesn’t want to know anything bad about your generals, you don’t have to. It’s sort of the “see no evil, hear no evil” approach to journalism. It seems like a small editorial choice, to give each bit of the story its own article, but the end result, and especially if it’s done with enough frequency, is to create two alternative informational spheres into which readership can sort itself. It is, in miniature, what’s happened to Russian media writ large; Putin doesn’t need to shut down independent journalists on the web because he knows the vast majority of Russians aren’t getting their news there anyway. Perhaps Vučić’s government will tolerate (still fairly) independent media outlets like B92 as long as they continue to publish in such a way as to allow most people to avoid the critical bits.*

*I suppose it’s worth acknowledging the possibility that, if this really is just a rehash of old allegations, as the Ministry of Defense claims, the real story is the official response to them and not their content. On the other hand, my sense is that most serious Western media would at least include a stock paragraph to the effect of, “these allegations were first made in x year and independent experts at the time thought they were credible/full of shit/something else entirely.” Regardless, it’s a bit of a joke that the first half of the article reporting Vučić’s claims of a campaign against the Serbian military is literally just that claim repeatedly quoted and paraphrased