Analysis of 4,000 domestic media articles on the war in Ukraine: The dominance of the pro-Russian narrative
Raskrikavanje (Disclosure) analysed more than 4,000 texts on the war in Ukraine published in Večernji novosti, Informer, Srpski telegraf, Blic and Danas from the beginning of February to the end of July. Of this number, around 1,600 texts (40%) are considered to be biased towards one of the actors – Russia, Ukraine or the West. This sample is dominated by texts that are positively intoned towards Russia and negatively intoned towards the West.
The war in Ukraine has changed the lives of millions of people around the world overnight. Especially in Europe, where the war is taking place, the public has been largely united in condemning the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Serbia, a country traditionally very sympathetic to Russia but also a candidate country for EU membership, is in a specific situation. President Aleksandar Vucic and the Serbian state leadership have refused to take a clear decision on this issue since the beginning of the war, but this position is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain as, according to Vucic, pressure from the West is intensifying.
Unlike them, the media have largely decided whose side they are on. Some have cheered Putin, a minority have sided with Ukraine, and one pro-government tabloid, like the country itself, has remained undecided between the two fires.
Raskrikavanje (Disclosure) journalists analysed more than 4,000 texts on the war in Ukraine published in Večernje novosti, Informer, Blic, Srpskom telegraf and Danas over a six-month period from February to July. The aim was to find out what narratives these media outlets were constructing about the war, in relation to four key actors: Russia and its President Vladimir Putin, Ukraine, Western countries and NATO, and Aleksandar Vucic.
These media have largely carried short agency news or published articles in which the journalists did not identify themselves. However, according to the journalists of Raskrikavanje (Disclosure), around 40% of the texts analysed, just over 1600, were offensive.
Among the outraged texts, there were by far the most supporters of Russia and Putin – almost 800. Often these were texts that attacked Ukraine or the West at the same time. Informer and Vecernje Novosti, which in September published, among other things, that “our people are repelling attacks”, referring to the Russian army, were absolutely ahead of the curve in constructing the narrative of Putin and Russia as positive. The West, on the other hand, is absolutely evil for these tabloids.
In contrast, the tabloid Srpski telegraf was in a dilemma about how to write about the Russian President: in some articles they wrote positively about him, saying that he would “crush” his opponents, and then they pointedly reported that he was “fills pockets while people were dying.”
Milan Ladjevic, the former editor-in-chief of the tabloid, “thanked” Raskrinkavanje for the research because, according to his interpretation, it showed that the Serbian Telegraph is “a pro-Serb media outlet that has no boss in the East or the West.”
Although it did not support Putin that much, this tabloid, like Informer and Večernje Novosti, had been constantly conducting anti-Western propaganda. These three newspapers published around 700 texts in six months which were negative towards the West, claiming, among other things, that (US President) ‘Biden got scared of Putin, that there is ‘madness’ and ‘anti-Russian hysteria’ in the West, and that Western countries are warmongers.
Of the 1,600 or so articles that leaned to one side, a quarter had a negative attitude towards Russia, almost exclusively in Blic and Danas. Ten per cent of the texts had a positive attitude towards Ukraine, most of them in Danas.
Read on to find out how these media covered the war and what views they tried to impose on their domestic audiences. According to the analysis, the tabloids (where most of the texts were published) competed in presenting Putin as a “righteous man” who was only provoked to aggression, the West as the real culprit of this conflict and Ukraine as a puppet state. You will also learn that, regardless of the numerous victims, refugees and destroyed cities, according to the Serbian media, in this war, it is still the most difficult for President Aleksandar Vučić.
At the beginning of April, when photographs of civilians killed in the streets of the Ukrainian town of Bucha became public, Vecernje Novosti’s Moscow correspondent Branko Vlahovic wrote: “The whole case was orchestrated by the authorities in Kiev.”
He is one of the local journalists who has contributed most to the relativisation of this crime in Serbia.
The corpses in the street, as will soon be clear, was filmed by satellites in mid-March, while the Russians held the city. Vlahovic, however, gave his journalistic verdict as soon as a statement came from the Kremlin denying that they had anything to do with the crime.
“While the Russian forces were in Bucha, the residents were moving freely, using mobile phones, the Russian side says.” “Now the Ukrainian authorities and some Western media are spreading information about the massacre, showing bodies strewn in the streets,” Vlahovic wrote on 5 April.
His texts coincide with Russian state rhetoric, which is not so unusual – Branko Vlahovic has lived in Moscow for more than 30 years and has been reporting for Vecernje Novosti for the same period. He believes that with Putin’s rise to power, things have started to improve in Russia, which is why he wrote a book about him in 2014, “Putin – The Power of Russia”.
“In the new history of post-Soviet Russia, the name of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin will be written in golden letters,” Vlahović writes at the beginning of his laudatory book, which is described on the publisher’s website as a “portrait of Vladimir Putin”, a ruler characterized by “wisdom, persistence, consistency and vision.”
The Russian state, by all accounts, appreciates Vlahović’s commitment and openly demonstrates it. Over the years, he has been given the opportunity to interview the very top of the Russian authorities, including Putin.
“I look forward to the opportunity to address the readers of Večernje Novosti, one of the most popular and influential Serbian newspapers, to answer your questions and share my assessments with you,” Putin said in his replies to Vlahovic.
One month after the start of the war in Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke to him together with journalists from Tanjug, RTS and Politika. Over the years, he has also interviewed former Russian President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who awarded him the Pushkin Medal for his “significant contribution to the development of Russian-Serbian friendship”. In July this year, he received the medal from Patriarch Kirill of Russia.
Since the beginning of the war, Vlahović’s articles on the events on the front have almost as a rule been “carried” in the foreign policy section of this newspaper, they are the longest and most extensive, and often make the front pages. The texts are a collection of official publications and statements from several different sides – Russian, Ukrainian and Western – but the diversity of sources is no guarantee of impartiality. Vlahovic’s bias is reflected in the way he combines and clashes these sources – for example, the Russian side often dominates the text, either because of the space given to it, or because it is their “last” or because the main information in the text comes from the Russians, after which the statements of the Ukrainian side are given, for the sake of form, about something unrelated to the topic.
The bias is also reflected in the headlines, the choice of words and the structure of sentences – he always describes Russian missiles as “highly accurate” to imply that they hit only what they are intended to hit, namely military (not civilian) targets. Vlahovic presents the Russian army as competent and correct – they are only focused on military infrastructure, they are helping the Ukrainian wounded, they are guarding the border, they are treating prisoners properly, but on the other hand, according to Vlahovic, the Ukrainians are corrupt, they grenade themselves, and they are also cowards and liars – they either surrender or, in captivity, they do not want to admit that they are soldiers, but they lie that they are cooks and chauffeurs.
Vlahovic treats the sources themselves unequally – information coming from the Russian side, even if unconfirmed or even disputed, is taken as fact. Over time, despite its texts, Večernje Novosti has become increasingly associated with Kremlin rhetoric, and in some cases there has been no editing of the news when it has come from the Russian side. “Our attacks are repelled, the enemy has lost two tanks”, read one text from September, when the Ukrainian army broke through part of the front line near Kharkov with armoured vehicles, and the Russians retaliated to “squeeze” them back.
The bias of Vecernje novosti and its correspondent is well reflected in the narrative about Nazism.
The morning after Putin’s famous address on 21 February, when he virtually declared war, Vlahovich mentioned for the first time in the text the ‘nationalism’ of the Ukrainian authorities and quoted the Russian President. In the following days, ‘nationalism’ turns into ‘Nazism’, first by citing Russian sources, but soon the term is used without restriction.
At the same time, Vecernje Novosti and other journalists are beginning to use this term more and more frequently, which had not even been mentioned in the newspapers before Putin’s speech. On Monday, 7 March, they are publishing a special supplement of eight pages entitled ‘Nazi grandchildren in Ukrainian firing trenches’. Vlahovic was the main contributor to the supplement, with his four-page text ‘Two decades of submission to the Nazis’. Even at that moment, Vecernje Novosti started reporting like a PR service of the Kremlin – it is difficult to separate facts from journalists’ opinions in the texts, and the story about the Nazis – which essentially justifies Russian aggression – is adopted and distributed without question.
Branko Vlahovic did not reply to Raskrikavanje questions.
In order to convince readers of the “denazification” story, Večernje novosti also resorted to heavy manipulation. One example is the interview with German MP Gregor Gizi on 27 March, signed by journalist Ivana Stanojevic, in which he was quoted as saying that “in 2019, Ukrainians elected Nazi and right-wing extremist parties, which then entered parliament and government”.
A month and a half later, a demanti was published, in a single column in the margin of the page. It turned out that Gizi had said the opposite.
“After all, this is a task that should be solved by Ukrainians.” In a sense, they did, when in 2019 (…) they voted against the Nazi and right-wing extremist parties, thus excluding them from parliament and government,” was the correct answer. In rebuttal, the interviewee said that the quotes in the interview Neo-Nazis across Europe spreading their wings in institutions do not faithfully reflect his views. Večernje novosti called the move an “unintentional mistake” and the manipulation an “inaccuracy” that “slipped by”.
Among the texts analysed, it was Večernje Novosti, led by Vlahović’s texts, alongside the tabloid Informer, that were the carriers of propaganda about the Nazis, while the Serbian Telegraf was also generally more “moderate” in its reporting – mentioning mainly the Nazis, only quoting Russian sources, often surrounded by words such as “allegedly”.
Blic used the terms “Nazism” and “denazification” occasionally, mainly in situations where they quoted someone’s words and clearly distanced themselves from them.
The Putin brand
Even for Dragan J. Vučićević, editor of Informer, there was never any dilemma about whose side he was on.
He has been openly showing his enthusiasm for Putin in public for years. He has posted selfies wearing a Putin T-shirt, his phone cover is adorned with the Russian President’s face, and on Twitter he also showed off the wristwatch he received as a gift from then-President Tomislav Nikolic in 2016, which is worn by – Putin. His tabloid Informer even paid for Belgrade to be decorated with billboards featuring the Russian President’s image and the words Spasibo Putin (Thank you Putin). His personal admiration for the Russian President also determined the newspaper’s editorial policy. For years, through Informer, he has been building a cult of personality for Vladimir Putin – portraying him as the greatest protector of the Serbian people, alongside Vucic, of course. “Putin defends Kosovo as if it were Serbian”, “THANK YOU, BROTHER PUTIN: Fingers off Serbia”, “Putin really is the Tsar” … Raskrikavanje in 2019 also noted that Informer wrote about Putin’s magical influence on the health of citizens of Belgrade.
“Putin, come to us more often!” Putin’s arrival in Belgrade will be remembered for the much lower number of calls received by the emergency services. (…) He made citizens feel much better”.
Putin’s face in the newspapers is obviously also a lucrative business move. As Vucicevic himself once told the US magazine Politico, his appearance in Informer can even double its circulation. In the six months from February to the end of July this year, Vladimir Putin was on the front pages more than 50 times – that is, every third day.
When the war started, Vucicevic knew what he had to do. “Armed” with T-shirts, calendars and phone covers with Putin’s motifs, he went to the defence of the Russian President, and his Informer, right at the start of the war, “became famous” for its complete distortion of reality – on its front page it read: “Ukraine invades Russia”.
In the following, Informer tried to present the Russian incursion as a logical step of self-defense. The story soon “evolved” into a narrative about the Nazis that Informer published without any restrictions. Thus, the very goal of the war, as Informer presents it, “evolved” from self-defense to the liberation of Ukrainians.
Putin is almost without exception portrayed as the protector of the Russian people in Ukraine and as a dominant and powerful figure. This is evident, among other things, in the choice of words: ‘Ukraine begs for mercy’, ‘Putin’s lightning strike’, ‘Putin will trample Kiev’. In addition to superlatives, he has built a cult of personality with photographs – he looks brave and determined. Even when he used the recognition of Kosovo as an argument for Russian recognition of the independence of Donbas, Vucicevic did not change his opinion of Putin. The tabloid “lukewarmly” noted that “Putin is playing on Kosovo” and that “a clash of world powers is going on behind our backs”, but blamed opposition representative Vuk Jeremic for everything. But the Russian President remained “untouched” by the text, and a representative photo was chosen for the cover, in which Putin, with sunglasses and a serious expression, looks almost like a hero from an action film.
Dragan J. Vučićević also did not reply to questions from Raskrinkavanje.
The Vecernje novosti is almost equally unsubtle in its glorification of Vladimir Putin’s character and actions. From the very beginning, he was given the role of peacemaker and righteous man in this paper. In February, before the outbreak of the war, Branko Vlahovic presented Putin as a statesman who has no desire for war, but who is being pushed into war by the West and the ‘hotheads in Kiev’. When the war started, Vlahovic portrayed him as Vucicevic’s Informer did – as an unwavering and principled leader, and in some of his reports on events on the front, he praised the Russian President’s moves:
“President Putin’s decision not to attack Azovstal (the Marijupol steel plant surrounded by Russians, ed.) is quite understandable and rational,” Vlahovic writes.
Unlike Informer and Večernji novosti, which had positive articles about Russia and Putin, Srpski telegraf, Blic and Danas have articles criticising Putin. Blic and Danas, in particular, take a harsh stance towards Putin in a large number of their reports, relying mainly on Western media. Today, through the columnists’ own texts, it has attempted to ‘separate’ Russia and Putin, and it has been written several times that Putin and Russia are not the same and that there are many people in Russia who are opposed to the war. Unlike in the tabloids, where Putin was often on the front pages, in Danas the front pages were dominated by the victims and the destroyed Ukrainian cities.
The dilemma of the Serbian Telegraph: Little Putin, little anti-Putin
For Milan Ladjevic, until recently editor-in-chief of the Serbian Telegraph, choosing sides in the war was not as easy as it was for Vucicevic or Vlahovic.
For years, the Serbian Telegraph has been strongly in favour of Putin, who most often appears in the tabloid in the role of protector and friend of the Serbian people: ‘Putin protects the Serbs in Republika Srpska and Kosmet’, ‘Putin’s offensive to save the Serbs’, ‘Putin personally saved the Serbs: he gave us gas before the bombing – if it had not been for this gas, we would not have lasted two days under the Allied bombs’.
Given such rhetoric about Putin as a protector and friend, it was to be expected that Lađević, like his colleagues from Večernje novosti and Informer, would stand behind the Russian President with all his might.
However, in the first weeks of the war, on 1 March, Lađević did tweet something that surprised many domestic users of the network.
He shared Putin’s 1999 interview and wrote a comment that no one expected him to make:
“They didn’t want to help Serbia because it was in Russia’s national interest.” “Let Serbia be guided by its national interests so that we are no longer cannon fodder”, Ladjevic wrote.
By then, his tabloid had already “turned the record straight”. That “slab” in the first twenty days of February in the newspaper read as follows: Putin is so strong that he will “destroy Ukraine in four days”, Ukraine is completely helpless if the West does not help it, but even then no one can break Russia. In fact, the articles on the escalation of the conflict have had a positive tone towards Putin.
However, the matter broke at the National Security Council meeting on 25 February, where it was decided what position official Serbia would take in this conflict – we are not imposing sanctions on Russia, but we respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and international law.
In the next few days, the Serbian Telegraph opens a new “era” of relations with Russia – “special military operation” is slowly becoming “war” and “aggression”. Ladjevic’s journalists start with texts about who is against the war in Russia, and the capabilities of the Russian army for this venture are also called into question. By mid-March, they write that “Putin’s aggression is not going according to plan” and publish an interview with the Ukrainian ambassador in Belgrade entitled “Real neo-Nazis are sitting in the Kremlin”. They start referring more frequently to the Western media and rename the section ‘The war in Ukraine’ to ‘Russian aggression in Ukraine’.
Closely following the messages, Ladjevic’s newspaper quickly adapted to the situation.
At the end of May, Vucic announced that a new gas agreement had been signed with Putin, under which Serbia will receive gas for the next three years at “the most favourable price in Europe”. In several articles in the Serbian Telegraph, Putin is once again presented as a positive who “shoots Ukrainian weapons like a walnut” and knows how to “switch off America’s electricity at the click of a button”.
Neutral and positive texts about Putin are also “interspersed” with some negative ones in the following period, depending on what happens. For example, in mid-June it was written that “Moscow is hitting below the belt” after Russian Ambassador Aleksandar Bochan Harchenko said on N1, among other things, that Russia was “disappointed” that Serbia had supported the UN resolution and condemned Russian aggression, but his diplomatic language was interpreted harshly by the Serbian Telegraph, which said that Russia still understands this because of the Western pressure to which Serbia is exposed:
“He practically said that Serbia is not a sovereign state and does not pursue an independent policy, but is being blackmailed by the West,” the tabloid angrily writes.
In the following weeks and months, the editorial policy of “love-hate” towards Russia continued. By 31 July, there were several articles praising the power of Putin’s weapons, saying that they were “fear and trembling”, that the army was unstoppably conquering city after city, that it had “terrible tactics to destroy the defences of Ukraine”, and so on. Then, again, there was a period when negative texts became more and more frequent – in September and October, for example, it was written that Putin’s pockets were being ‘filled while people are dying’, and that Putin was being cornered ‘like a rat’.
Milan Ladjevic disagrees that there has been a reversal in editorial policy.
“There is no going back, the aggression against Ukraine has already happened and since the first day of the war we have had the position that Russia attacked Ukraine, but we are not blind not to see what the other side is doing. NATO first”, he stated, adding that he “knows that the West would prefer to praise the Russians”, but that it is difficult because “NATO has done to Serbia what Russia did to Ukraine”.
“The fact that there are both positive and negative articles (about Putin) shows that our editorial policy is not cheerleading, but balanced and does not take sides. (…) We try to provide only accurate information, regardless of whose side it comes from,” Lađević said.
“Of course, we will praise the gas agreement because it is good news for the energy stability of the country, but also for the fact that citizens will not have high heating bills, electricity bills…”, Ladjevic told Raskrikavanje.
What has remained a constant in the Serbian Telegraph, as well as in Večernje novosti and Informer, is the negative attitude towards the West. The blade of this newspaper is not so much focused on Ukraine as it is focused on Western countries, diplomats and structures such as NATO, which are often called hypocrites and provocateurs by journalists who have led to this war, and the Serbian Telegraph has taken US President Biden in particular to task. Many derisive qualifications could be read about him, such as that he is ‘senile’ and that he is ‘stuck-up’. Reading this newspaper, one gets the impression that Russia is at war with the West and Ukraine is just collateral damage.
People are dying in Ukraine, but Vucic has it the hardest
Blic also boasts a “state-building” editorial policy.
In the first days of March, the Russians destroyed Mariupol and the east of Ukraine, approaching Kiev, people died and were left without electricity, food and water, and by then more than 1.5 million Ukrainians had fled into exile. However, for Blic, the victim of the war is Serbia, which is personified in this newspaper by President Aleksandar Vucic.
Can Serbia survive the war in Ukraine?” Blic asked on its front page on 3 March, but the immediate answer – a photograph of Vucic with an encouraging message – was that Serbia “will withstand everything and maintain stability”.
This cover was published the day after Serbia supported a UN resolution condemning Russian aggression. This controversial move was clearly necessary to “wash” a little before Vucic’s voters.
“A wise decision”, Blic wrote under Vucic’s photo. In the newspaper, readers were greeted by another photo of the President with a serious face, staring at the papers on his desk. We learn that he had a series of late-night talks with European officials. The President looks tired, but says: “We are fighting as hard as we can.” It is up to us to preserve our Serbia.”
Blic’s relationship with the President and his colleagues has been very close for many years.
On 17 September this year, when Blic celebrated his 26th birthday, Aleksandar Vucic was in New York for the United Nations Assembly. Nevertheless, his wife, Tamara Vučić, was present at the big celebration that evening, and the President’s closest associates – Ana Brnabic, Ivica Dacic, Bratislav Gasic – were also there. Other guests included former Belgrade managers Goran Vesic, Zoran Djordjevic, the director of the post office, Vladimir Lucic, the director of Telekom, as well as people from the world of business and entertainment. Blic’s article on the celebrations boasted many photographs, but also kind words addressed to the editorial board by ruling politicians.
“The stories you have published have raised important issues that we hadn’t talked about before, and have helped us make a better country.” I want to thank you for everything you do and how you work!”, Ana Brnabic told Blic’s editorial team.
Ivica Dacic was also satisfied with the coverage of this newspaper and is confident that Blic will “respond to the challenging times ahead” and advise them to stay the way they are.
The respect seems to be mutual. Blic has had critical texts about the West – especially because of the pressure on Serbia to impose sanctions against Russia – but also about Russia, which is presented as the aggressor. Only Vucic was positive. The President has virtually always been spared any criticism, and one article said that ‘he is sticking to his tried and tested foreign policy and sending out conciliatory and neutral statements’.
The narrative of the Blic is that the pressures on the country are great and come from all sides, and that Vucic is sacrificing a lot. Like Branko Vlahovic of Večernje novosti, whose articles “interpreted” and praised Putin’s war moves, Blic also offered subjective interpretations and praise of Vucic’s moves. When Serbia supported a resolution at the UN condemning Russian aggression, Blic explained to its readers how they should interpret this move:
“If we had said ‘no’ to the United Nations, 40,000 people would have been left on the streets in one day. (…) That is why the President’s decision to join the resolution was the only right one,” writes Blic.
Meanwhile, the editors of this newspaper have taken a very outspoken political stance on the war – on the front page of 23 September they published: “Blic’s position: the Russian warlord must be stopped, Putin must be immediately sanctioned by Serbia!”.
In addition to Blic, Vecernje novosti, Srpski telegraf and Informer also took a “soft” approach towards the President. Serbian Telegraph changed the way it reported on the war and Russia, but not on Vucic. He was defended against everyone – the West was branded hypocrites, Putin was described as having “stabbed us in the back”, and Vucic was “squeezed like a frog by a snake” from all sides.
Informer also wrote about Vučić as a victim of severe pressure, but this tabloid had a slightly more difficult task. Unlike the Serbian Telegraph, which presented Putin in a negative light during one period, Informer had to reconcile two great “loves” – the Serbian and the Russian President – even during periods when Putin used Kosovo as an argument for breaking international law.
Večernje novosti built up Vucic’s popularity mainly through articles on domestic politics and the economy. For example, several articles could be found on the price rises in Europe and the region, especially in Croatia, but nothing was written for weeks on the price rises in Serbia. There were reports on how much fuel and bread had gone up in Croatia, how neighbours were in big trouble, how ‘prices are raging, companies are about to go bankrupt’. On the other hand, the same problems in Serbia were either glossed over or presented optimistically – their narrative in such texts is that, thanks to Vucic, the situation is stable, commodity reserves are full, everything is under control and “we have more flour than silo”.
They even managed to present fuel price increases as a cheapening. At the end of March, for example, the price of diesel jumped by 11 dinars (from the original 187 to 198 dinars, capped by the state as the maximum price), which took up a small column in the margin of Večernje novosti – a larger space on the same page was devoted to a story about the price of bread in Croatia. A few days later, the text Diesel cheaper at the pumps up to 4.7 dinars was published, because it was found that some pumps were selling diesel for 193 dinars, so the price increase was presented as a cheapening with word stunts by Novosti.
Danas is the only newspaper in the sample analysed in which it was possible to read criticism of the work of the government and Vučić, i.e. their decisions on sanctions or on the recovery from the economic consequences of the war. Moreover, while Blic, in its articles on Serbia’s position in the war and the “pressures” from the West to make decisions, writes in a way that criticises the West and defends Vucic, Danas has a completely different narrative at this time – Vucic is criticised for having a policy of neutrality, reporting on the West in a mostly neutral way .
Danas, in these texts, often relies on the statements of experts. For example, in mid-March, Serbia was analysed as being at the top of Europe in terms of inflation, while official Belgrade was labelled “stubborn” because of its policy of neutrality. Even when Serbia voted to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council in April, Vucic said that he had to because Serbia was threatened with sanctions that would put into question the payment of salaries and pensions. At the time, Danas wrote that Vucic was only “scaring the people with sanctions in order to justify his vote against Russia” and that salaries and pensions would not be jeopardised./raskrikavanje.rs/