Analysis of 4,000 domestic media articles on the war in Ukraine: The dominance of the pro-Russian narrative
17.11.2022. Marija Vucic, Milica Ljubicic, Vesna Radojevic, Jovana Stefanovic Photo: Raskrikavanje/ Miodrag Cakic
Raskrikavanje analysed more than 4,000 articles about the war in Ukraine that were published in Vecernje novosti, Informer, Srpski telegraf, Blic and the newspaper Danas from the beginning of February to the end of July. Of that number, about 1,600 texts (40 per cent) were assessed as biased towards one of the actors – Russia, Ukraine or the West. This sample is dominated by texts positively intoned towards Russia and negatively intoned towards the West.
The war in Ukraine changed the lives of millions of people around the world overnight. Especially in Europe, on whose soil the war is taking place, the public was mostly united in condemning the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, Serbia, traditionally very sympathetic to Russia, but at the same time, a candidate country for EU membership, found itself in a specific situation. From the very beginning of the war, President Aleksandar Vucic and the Serbian leadership have refused to make a clear decision on the issue, but it is increasingly difficult for them to maintain such a position since, as Vucic claims, the pressures from the West are intensifying.
Unlike them, the media have mostly decided whose side they are on. Some cheered for Putin, a minority sided with Ukraine, but one pro-government tabloid, like the country itself, remained undecided between two fires.
Raskrikavanje’s journalists analyzed more than four thousand texts about the war in Ukraine, which were published by Vecernje novosti, Informer, Blic, Srpski telegraf and Danas during six months, from February to July. The goal was to determine what kind of narratives these media were building in relation to the war, in relation to four key actors: Russia and its president Vladimir Putin, Ukraine, Western countries and NATO, as well as Aleksandar Vucic.
In many cases, these media shared short agency news or published texts in which the journalists did not take sides. However, about 40 per cent of the analyzed texts, slightly more than 1,600, were offensive, as assessed by Raskrikavanje’s journalists.
Among those texts, by far the most were those that supported Russia and Putin – almost 800. These were often texts in which Ukraine or the West were attacked at the same time. In building the narrative about Putin and Russia as positive, Informer and Vecernje novosti are absolutely leading the way, which, among other things, announced in September that “ours repel attacks” referring to the Russian army. On the other hand, the West is absolutely evil for these tabloids.
Unlike them, the tabloid Srpski telegraf was in a dilemma about how to write about the Russian president: in some articles they wrote positively about him, stating that he would “crush” his opponents, but then harshly announced that he was “filling his pockets while people die”.
Milan Ladjevic, the editor-in-chief of this tabloid until recently, “thanked” Raskrikavanje for the research because, according to his interpretation, it showed that Srpski telegraf is “a pro-Serbian media that has no boss in the east or the west”.
Although he did not support Putin that much, this tabloid, like Informer and Vecernje novosti, ran anti-Western propaganda all the time. For six months, these three newspapers published around 700 articles that had a negative attitude towards the West, in which, among other things, it was claimed that (American President) “Biden has taken advantage” of Putin, that there is “madness” and “anti-Russian hysteria” in the West, and that Western countries are warmongers.
Out of about 1,600 articles that leaned towards one side, a quarter had a negative attitude towards Russia, and these were almost exclusively articles in Blic and Danas. In ten per cent of the texts, the view towards Ukraine is positive, mostly in Danas.
Read below how these media reported on the war and what views they tried to impose on the domestic audience. The tabloids (in which the largest number of texts were observed), the analysis shows, competed in an attempt to present Putin as a “righteous man” who was only provoked to aggression, the West as the real culprit for 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, this war still brought the biggest challenges to President Aleksandar Vucic.
“Ours are advancing, the enemy lost two tanks”
Branko Vlahovic and Dmitry Medvedev, photo: government.ru
At the beginning of April, when the public saw photos of massacred civilians on the streets of the Ukrainian city of Bucha, the correspondent of Vecernje novosti from Moscow, Branko Vlahovic, wrote: “The whole case was directed by the authorities in Kyiv”.
He is one of the local journalists who contributed the most to relativising this crime in Serbia.
The corpses on the street, as it will soon become clear, were recorded by satellites back in mid-March while the Russians held the city. Vlahovic, however, made 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 moved freely, and used the mobile connection, says the Russian side. Now the Ukrainian authorities and some Western media are spreading information about the massacre, showing corpses lined up on the street”, Vlahovic wrote on April 5.
His texts coincide with the Russian state rhetoric, which is not so unusual – Branko Vlahovic has lived in Moscow for more than 30 years, from where he has been reporting for Vecernje novosti for just as long. He believes that with Putin’s rise to power in Russia, everything got better, so 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”, writes Vlahovic 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 Vlahovic’s commitment and openly shows it. Over the years, he got the opportunity to interview the very top of the Russian government, including Putin.
“I am looking forward to the opportunity to address the readers of Vecernje novosti, one of the most popular and influential Serbian newspapers, to answer your questions and to share my assessments with you”, Putin said in his answers to Vlahovic.
A month after the start of the war in Ukraine, Vlahovic interviewed the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Sergey Lavrov, together with journalists from Tanjug, RTS and Politika. In previous years, he also interviewed the former president and prime minister of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, who awarded him the “Pushkin” medal for his “significant contribution to the development of Russian-Serbian friendship”. In July of this year, he received the award from the Russian Patriarch Kirill.
Since the start of the war, Vlahovic’s articles about what is happening at the front are almost, as a rule, “main” in the foreign policy section of this newspaper, they are the longest and most comprehensive, and they often get front pages. The texts are a compilation of official announcements and statements from several different parties – both Russian and Ukrainian, and Western – but the variety of sources is not a 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 they have the “last say” or because the main information in the text originates from the Russians, after which the statements of the Ukrainian side are made, 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 composition of the sentences – he always describes Russian missiles as having “high precision” to suggest that they only hit what they are intended for, namely military (and not civilian) targets. Vlahovic presents the Russian army as competent and fair – they are focused only on the military infrastructure, they help wounded Ukrainians, protect the border, treat prisoners adequately, while on the other hand, according to Vlahovic, Ukrainians are corrupt, shell themselves, and are also cowards and liars – or are surrendering or in captivity they do not want to admit that they are soldiers but lie that they are cooks and drivers.
Vlahovic also treats the sources unequally – when information comes from the Russian side, even though it is unconfirmed or even disputed, it is taken as fact. As time passed, Vecernje novosti, despite its texts, increasingly aligned itself with the Kremlin’s rhetoric, and in some cases, there was no editing of the news when it came from the Russians. “Ours are repelling attacks, the enemy lost two tanks”, stated a text from September, when the Ukrainian army broke through a part of the front in the vicinity of Kharkiv with armoured vehicles, so the Russians retaliated in order to “squeeze” them back.
The bias of Vecernje novosti and their correspondent is well reflected in the narrative about Nazism.
The morning after Putin’s famous address on February 21, when he practically announced war, Vlahovic, for the first time, mentions the “nationalism” of the Ukrainian authorities in the text, quoting the Russian president. In the next few days, “nationalism” turns into “Nazism”, first by citing Russian sources, and soon this term begins to be used without any restrictions.
At the same time, Vecernje novosti, in the texts of other journalists, started to use this term more and more frequently, which was not even mentioned in the newspapers before this speech by Putin. On Monday, March 7, they published a special eight-page addition, “Grandchildren of the Nazis in the Ukrainian Trenches”. Vlahović made the greatest contribution to the addition with his text “Two Decades of Condescension to the Nazis”, which spans four pages. Even by that moment, Venernje Novosti started to report like the PR service of the Kremlin – in the texts, it is difficult to distinguish facts from the opinions of journalists, and the story about the Nazis – which basically justifies Russian aggression – is adopted and distributed without questioning.
Branko Vlahovic did not answer Raskrikavanje’s questions.
In order to convince readers of the story of “denazification”, Vecernje novosti also used heavy manipulations. One example is the March 27 interview with German MP Gregor Gysi, which was signed by journalist Ivana Stanojevic. His answer was quoted, stating that “in 2019, Ukrainians elected Nazi and right-wing extremist parties, which then entered the parliament and government”.
A month and a half later, a denial was published in one column in the margin of the page. It turns out that Gysi said the exact opposite.
“Ultimately, this is a task that Ukrainians need to solve. In a sense, they did that when in 2019 (…) they voted against the Nazi and right-wing extremist parties and thus expelled them from the parliament and the government”, stated the correct answer. In a denial, the interlocutor said that the quotes in the interview, “Neo-Nazis throughout Europe are spreading their wings in institutions”, do not faithfully reflect his views. Vecernje novosti called their move an “unintentional mistake” and this manipulation an “inaccuracy” that “sneaked up”.
Of the texts analyzed, Vecernje novosti, led by Vlahovic’s texts, apart from the tabloid Informer, was the headquarters of propaganda about the Nazis. Even Srpski telegraf was generally more “moderate” in its reporting – the Nazis were mentioned only through quoting Russian sources, and the tabloid often used words like “allegedly”.
Blic used the terms “Nazism” and “denazification” occasionally, mostly in situations where they quoted someone’s words, clearly dissociating themselves from them.
Branded by PutinEven for Dragan J. Vucicevic, the editor of Informer, there was never a dilemma as to whose side he was on.
He has been openly showing his enthusiasm for Putin in public for years. He published selfies wearing a T-shirt with Putin’s image, his phone cover is embellished with the face of the Russian president, and on Twitter, he also boasted about the wristwatch he received as a gift from then president Tomislav Nikolic in 2016 and which also features Putin. His tabloid Informer even paid for Belgrade to be decorated with billboards with the image of the President of Russia and the inscription “Spasibo Putin” (Thank you Putin).
However, his personal adoration of the Russian president also determined the newspaper’s editorial policy. For years, through Informer, he has been building a personality cult of Vladimir Putin – portraying him as the greatest protector of the Serbian people, next to Vucic, of course. “Putin defends Kosovo as if it were Serbian”, “THANK YOU, BROTHER Putin: Keep your fingers away from Serbia”, “Putin is really the emperor”… In 2019, Raskrikavanje also noted that Informer wrote about Putin’s magical effect on the health of the people of Belgrade.
“Putin, come to us more often! Putin’s arrival in Belgrade will be remembered for the far lower number of calls received by the emergency services. (…) Thanks to him, citizens felt much better”.
Putin’s face in the newspaper is apparently also a profitable business move. As Vucicevic himself once told the American magazine Politico, Putin’s appearance in Informer can even double the printing. In six months this year, from February to the end of July, 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, he went to the defense of the Russian president and immediately at the start of the war, his Informer “became famous” by completely distorting reality – on the front page, it was announced: “Ukraine attacked Russia”.
In the following, Informer tried to present the Russian incursion as a logical step of self-defence. 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-defence 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 can be seen, among other things, through the following choice of words: “Ukraine begs for mercy”, “Putin’s lightning strike”, and “Putin will trample Kyiv”. The cult of personality, apart from using superlatives, was also built using photographs – which present him as brave and determined. Even when he used the recognition of Kosovo as an argument for Russia’s recognition of the independence of Donbas, Vucicevic did not change his opinion about Putin. The tabloid “lukewarmly” stated that “Putin is playing the Kosovo card” and that “the conflict of world powers is taking place behind our backs”, but blamed it all on the representative of the opposition, Vuk Jeremic. However, the Russian president remained “untouched” by this 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 movie.
Dragan J. Vucicevic did not answer the questions of Raskrikavanje either.
Vecernje novosti is almost equally unsubtle in celebrating the character and actions of Vladimir Putin. From the beginning, he was given the role of a peacemaker and a righteous man in this newspaper. During February, before the start of the war, Branko Vlahovic presented Putin as a statesman who absolutely does not want war but is being pushed into war by the West and “hotheads in Kyiv”. When the war began, Vlahovic portrayed him in the same way as Vucicevic’s Informer – as an unwavering and principled leader, and in some reports on the events at the front, he himself praised the moves of the Russian president:
“President Putin’s decision not to attack Azovstal (a steel plant in Mariupol surrounded by the Russians) is completely understandable and rational”, writes Vlahovic.
Unlike Informer and Vecernje novosti, which had positively intoned articles about Russia and Putin, the newspapers Srpski telegraf, Blic and Danas have articles criticising Putin. In particular, Blic and Danas take a harsh stance against Putin in many reports, relying mainly on Western media. Dabas tried to “separate” Russia and Putin through the author’s texts of the columnists, and it was stated several times that Putin and Russia are not the same, and that there are many people in Russia who rebel against the war. Unlike the tabloids featuring Putin on the front pages, Danas’ front pages were dominated by victims and destroyed Ukrainian cities.
The dilemma of Srpski telegraf: Pro-Putin and anti-PutinFor Milan Ladjevic, until recently the editor-in-chief of Srpski telegraf, choosing a side in the war was not as simple as for Vucicevic or Vlahovic.
For years, Srpski telegraf has been strongly sympathetic to Putin, who in this tabloid is often given the role of a protector and friend of the Serbian people: “Putin protects Serbs in the Republic of Srpska and Kosmet”, “Putin’s offensive to save the Serbs”, “Putin personally saved the Serbs: he gave us gas before the bombing – if that gas hadn’t been there, we wouldn’t have lasted even two days under the bombs of the Alliance”.
Given such rhetoric about Putin as a protector and friend, it was expected that Ladjevic, like his colleagues from Vecernje novosti and Informer, would stand behind the Russian president with all his might.
In the first weeks of the war, on March 1, Ladjevic, however, wrote something on Twitter that surprised many domestic users of this network.
He shared Putin’s interview from 1999 and wrote a comment that no one expected from him:
“They did not want to help Serbia because that was Russia’s national interest. Serbia should be guided by its national interests, so that we are no longer cannon fodder”, wrote Ladjevic.
By then, his tabloid had already “turned the tables”, so in the first twenty days of February, the tabloid claimed the following: Putin is so powerful that “in four days he will destroy Ukraine”, Ukraine is completely powerless unless the West helps it, but even then, no one can break Russia. Basically, the articles about the escalating conflict had a positive tone towards Putin.
The matter, however, breaks during the session of the National Security Council on February 25, where it was decided what position official Serbia will take in this conflict – we do not impose sanctions on Russia, but we respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine and international law.
In the following days, Srpski telegraf opened a new “era” of relations with Russia – “special military operation” slowly became “war” and “aggression”. Ladjevic’s journalists begin with texts about who is against the war in Russia, and the capacities of the Russian army for this undertaking are also questioned. By mid-March, they wrote that “Putin’s aggression is not going according to plan”, and published an interview with the ambassador of Ukraine in Belgrade with the title “Real neo-Nazis sit in the Kremlin”. They are starting to refer to the Western media more often, and the column “War in Ukraine” is called “Russian aggression in Ukraine”.
Closely following the messages from Andric’s wreath, Ladjevic’s newspaper quickly adapted to the circumstances.
At the end of May, Vucic announced that a new gas agreement had been signed with Putin, according to which Serbia will receive gas at “the most favourable price in Europe” for the next three years. In several articles published by Srpski telegraf, Putin is again presented as a positivist who “cracks Ukrainian weapons like a nut” and can “turn off the electricity in America with one click”.
In the coming period, neutral and positive texts about Putin are “interspersed” with some negative ones, depending on the events. So, for example, in mid-June, they wrote that “Moscow is hitting below the belt” after Russian ambassador Aleksandar Bocan Harchenko said on N1, among other things, that Russia was “disappointed” that Serbia supported the UN resolution and condemned Russian aggression. He also said that Russia still understands this due to the pressures from the West to which Serbia is exposed, but his diplomatic language was interpreted harshly by Srpski telegraf:
“He practically said that Serbia is not a sovereign state and does not lead an independent policy, but is being blackmailed by the West”, writes the tabloid angrily.
The editorial policy “from love to hate” towards Russia continued in the following weeks and months. Until July 31, there were several articles celebrating the power of Putin’s weapon, which evokes “fear”, also claiming that the army is unstoppably conquering city by city, that it has “terrible tactics that destroy the defence of Ukraine”. Then again came the period when negative articles were appearing – for example, in September and October they wrote that Putin’s “pockets are being filled while people are dying”, and that Putin was cornered “like a rat”.
Milan Ladjevic, however, does not agree with the fact that there has been a turning point in the editorial policy.
“There is no turning back, the aggression against Ukraine has already happened, and from the first day of the war, we had the attitude that Russia attacked Ukraine, but we are not blind not to see what the other side is doing. First of all, NATO”, he stated and added that “he knows that Raskrikavanje would prefer the West to be praised”, but that it is difficult because “NATO did to Serbia what Russia did to Ukraine”.
“The fact that there are both positive and negative articles (about Putin) speaks of the fact that our editorial policy is not fan-based, but balanced, not taking sides. (…) We try to convey only accurate information, regardless of whose side it comes from”, said Ladjevic.
“Of course we will praise the gas agreement because it is good news for the country’s energy stability, as well as the fact that citizens will not have high bills for heating, electricity…”, Ladjevic responded to Raskrikavanje, and you can read his complete answer in Serbian here.
What has remained constant in Srpski telegraf, as well as in Vecernje 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. Journalists often call them hypocrites and provocateurs who led to this war, and Srpski telegraf focused particularly on American President Biden. One could read a lot of mocking descriptions about him, such as that he is “senile” and that he is “stuck”. Reading this newspaper, one can get the impression that Russia is at war with the West, while Ukraine is just collateral damage.
People are dying in Ukraine, but Vucic is having the hardest timeBlic also has its fair share of “state-building” editorial policy.
In the first days of March, the Russians destroyed Mariupol and the east of Ukraine, approaching Kyiv, people died and were left without electricity, food and water, and by then, more than 1.5 million Ukrainians had fled into exile. However, according to 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?” asked Blic on the front page on March 3, but there was an immediate answer – a photo of Vucic with an encouraging message – that Serbia “will withstand everything and maintain stability”.
The cover was published a day after Serbia supported the UN resolution condemning Russian aggression. It was necessary to “wash out” this controversial move in front of Vucic’s voters.
“A wise decision”, Blic wrote below Vucic’s photo. The readers were greeted by another photo of the president with a serious face, staring at the papers on the table. We learn that he had a series of conversations with European officials late into the night. The president looks tired but says: “We are fighting as hard as we can. It is our mission to protect our Serbia”.
Blic’s relationship with the president and his associates has been very close for many years.
When Blic celebrated its 26th birthday on September 17 of this year, Aleksandar Vucic was in New York at a session of the United Nations Assembly. His wife, Tamara Vucic, appeared at the big celebration that evening, and there were also the president’s closest associates – Ana Brnabic, Ivica Dacic, and Bratislav Gasic. Other officials were among the guests: former Belgrade manager Goran Vesic, director of the Post Office Zoran Djordjevic, director of Telekom Vladimir Lucic, and people from the world of business and entertainment. In the article about the celebration, Blic boasted of numerous photos, but also of the kind words addressed to the newsroom by ruling politicians.
“The stories you published opened up important topics we hadn’t talked about before and helped make us a better country. I want to thank you for everything you do and how you do it!”, said Ana Brnabic to the editorial staff of Blic.
Ivica Dacic was also satisfied with the reporting of this paper, and he is convinced that Blic will “respond to the challenging times ahead” and advised them to remain the same.
The respect is apparently mutual. Blic had critically intoned texts about the West – primarily due to the pressure on Serbia regarding the introduction of sanctions against Russia – but also about Russia, which is presented as the aggressor. Only Vucic was presented as the good guy. The president was practically always spared any criticism, and in one text, it was stated that he “sticks to his proven foreign policy and sends conciliatory and neutral statements”.
Blic’s narrative suggests that the pressures on the state are heavy and come from all sides and that Vucic is making a great sacrifice. Like Branko Vlahovic from Vecernje novosti, who in his texts “interpreted” and praised Putin’s war moves, subjective interpretations and praise of Vucic’s moves could be found in Blic. When Serbia supported the resolution condemning Russian aggression in the UN, Blic explained to the readers how they should interpret this move:
“If we had said “no” to the United Nations, 40,000 people would have ended up on the streets in one day. (…) That is why the president’s decision to join the resolution was the only correct one”, writes Blic.
In the meantime, the editorial staff of this newspaper took a very open political stance on the war – on the front page of the September 23 edition, they published: “Blic’s position: The Russian master of war must be stopped, Serbian sanctions on Putin immediately!”
In addition to Blic, Vecernje novosti, Srpski telegraf and Informer also had a “gentle” approach to the president. Srpski telegraf changed the way it reported on the war and Russia, but not on Vucic. They defended him from everyone – they called the West hypocrites, they wrote about Putin that he “stabbed us in the back, and that Vucic was “cornered” from all sides.
Informer also wrote about Vucic as a victim of heavy pressure, but this tabloid had a slightly more difficult task. Unlike Srpski telegraf, which presented Putin negatively in one period, Informer had to reconcile its two great “loves” – for the Serbian and Russian presidents – even in periods when Putin used Kosovo as an argument for violating international law.
Vecernje novosti built Vucic’s popularity primarily in articles about domestic politics and the economy. For example, one could find more articles about price increases in Europe and the region, especially in Croatia, while nothing was written about price increases in Serbia for weeks. They reported how expensive fuel and bread had become in Croatia, how the neighbours were in big trouble, and how “prices are going wild, companies are on the verge of bankruptcy”. On the other hand, they were either silent about the same problems in Serbia or they presented the matter optimistically – their narrative in such texts is that the situation is stable thanks to Vucic, commodity reserves are full, everything is under control and “we have more flour than silos”.
They even managed to present fuel price increases as becoming cheaper. For example, at the end of March, the price of diesel jumped by 11 dinars (from the original 187 to 198 dinars, which was limited by the state as the maximum price), which took up a small column in the margin in Vecernje novosti – a larger space on the same page was given to the 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 they found that some gas stations were selling diesel for 193 dinars, so the increase in price was presented as a reduction.
The newspaper Danas is the only one of the analysed samples in which it was possible to find criticism of the work of the government and Vucic, that is, their decisions regarding sanctions or remediation of the economic consequences of the war. Moreover, while Blic writes about Serbia’s position in the war and the “pressures” from the West to make a decision, it criticises the West and defends Vucic. Meanwhile, Danas has a completely different narrative – they criticise Vucic for the policy of neutrality, reporting on the West mostly neutrally.
In these texts, Danas often relied on the statements of experts. So, for example, in mid-March, they analysed why Serbia is at the top of Europe in terms of the inflation rate, and official Belgrade was called “stubborn” because of its policy of neutrality. Also, when Serbia voted to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council in April, Vucic said that it had to because Serbia was threatened with sanctions that would call 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 a vote against Russia” and that salaries and pensions would not be threatened.