Balkan Media Scene and Russian Influence

  • Prague Security Studies Institute
  • 30.1.2019 08:40

Regardless of the post-war Western investments into the democratisation of the media, much of the media scene has remained ethnically and politically divided and biased. Despite the absence of a language barrier between Serbs, Bosniaks, Croats and Montenegrins, the consumption of media content is divided largely along ethnic lines.

In multinational democracies such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, the ethnic segmentation of the media space is a source of instability, internal tensions, and weakening of internal cohesion. For example, Bosnian Serbs are more likely to follow Serbian television than the Bosnian state one. Furthermore, the recently enhanced political crisis has brought on another wave of radicalisation of the local media. Also, the phenomenon of fake news and disinformation, which often capitalizes on existing cleavages, has come to light.

The ethnic and political tensions increase the potential for external influence, which is mostly achieved indirectly, and at minimal cost. Local mainstream media often use content provided by foreign news agencies and political elites effectively spread positive images of their Russian, Turkish, or Chinese counterparts, and praise non-Western investments. Russia and Turkey, in particular, have exploited the internal social, and ethnic, divisions to increase their influence over the media and elections. Their activities stand out when compared to other non-Western external actors, whose influence remain limited or non-existent. One notable exception is the Qatari government-owned Al Jazeera Balkans, which entered the region in 2011 and became a well-established media house in the Western Balkans.



Russia has the most effective influence on the local media



Among all the analysed Western Balkan countries, Russia has the most effective influence on the local media. As a result of the specificity of the Balkan media scene, which is often ethnically and politically divided, one prevailing trend can be traced across the WB countries: Russia relies on the local media that are supporting and promoting pro-Russian oriented news without the need to inject financial investment heavily.

Over the past year, there has been a lot of attention put to Russian-spread fake news and disinformation campaigns with the Balkan region being no exception. Certainly, the threat of disinformation must be taken seriously, especially in the sensitive post-conflict societies where it has significant potential to exacerbate inter-ethnic tensions. However, it is often difficult to trace direct Russian involvement in these activities and in many cases the initiative comes from the local actors rather than being inflicted from outside.



Press agencies and media outlets in the Balkans republish Sputnik’s free content in local languages often without verification

 

Russia relies greatly on the mainstream media controlled by the local ruling parties especially in Serbia and in Bosnia's Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska (RS). Their media keep close ties and use the content provided by Russian media present in the region. With its Balkan branch launched in 2015 in Belgrade, Russian-operated news agency Sputnik has become Russia’s leading media apparatus in the Western Balkans. It produces a lot of free content, and press agencies and media outlets in the Balkans often without verification republish its content in local languages. Thanks to the multi-media services provided to all interested media, Sputnik is able to expand its impact on other media considerably.




Local political actors often promote Russia in contrast to the West, when pursuing their own interest and therefore make Russian influence more effective



Close ties between some Balkan and Russian political elites also play an important role in promoting a positive image of Russia in the local media, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia. The local political actors and interest groups take advantage of anti-Western tendencies and pro-Russian sentiment during election campaigns, or when resolving internal issues. They often promote Russia in contrast to the West, when pursuing their own (political) interest and therefore make Russian influence more effective.

Russia has relied on its political and business links also in its involvement in the election processes by providing rhetorical and media support to certain candidates and parties. However, although it has been accused of more direct meddling in the elections, in particular by alleged involvement in the attempted coup before Montenegrin elections in 2016, or more generally by disinformation campaigns and establishing fake accounts on social networks, such claims are hard to verify and in most cases have not been confirmed.

 



This summary is a part of a broader analysis conducted by the project Western Balkans at the Crossroads: Assessing Non-Democratic External Influence Activities,’ led by the Prague Security Studies Institute.

 

 

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