Serbian media: How German companies finance disinformation

fact finder

Status: 03/15/2023 06:36 a.m

In many Serbian media, there is massive anti-EU and pro-Russia sentiment. The evaluation of the Serbian NGO CRTA shows: Ironically, Western companies finance these media through advertisements – including many German ones.

By Pascal Siggelkow, ARD fact finder editors

“Russia was forced to go to war”, “ethnic cleansing” had been carried out in Ukraine, and the West had started the war in Ukraine anyway. Not least behind this is Serbian President Alexander Vucic, who has largely brought the media landscape in the country under his control.

What is explosive about it: According to the Serbian non-governmental organization CRTA, many of the Serbian media are financed to a large extent by advertising revenues from Western companies. An evaluation of the advertising in the national television stations and daily newspapers in the past year comes to the conclusion that around 63 percent of it came from companies in the EU, the USA or Switzerland. “Without the money from Western companies, the Serbian propaganda machine would not be possible,” says Rasa Nedeljkov, program director at CRTA.

Almost ten percent of the ads from German companies

German companies are also involved to a large extent and, according to Nedeljkov, are among the “most important players on the Serbian advertising market”: They make up almost ten percent of the advertisements evaluated. For comparison: according to CRTA, private and state-owned Serbian companies together account for 36 percent, Russian even only 0.1 percent.

More than ten German companies placed advertisements worth more than one million euros in Serbian media last year. LIDL spent by far the most money, with the group placing ads worth a good 54 million euros. This is followed by Beiersdorf with 10.3 million euros, Glovo – which belongs to Delivery Hero – with five million euros and Berlin Chemie AG with 3.7 million euros. Also dm, Dr. Theiss, Bayer and METRO each placed advertising worth more than one million euros. The advertisements were each placed in different media.

“More than half of LIDL’s spending, according to our analysis, went to the TV channels TV Pink and TV Happy, both of which are notorious for their pro-Russian war propaganda and their unprofessional and unethical reporting,” says Nedeljkov. According to Nielsen Television Audience Measurement, TV Pink is the most watched commercial TV channel in Serbia. According to the CRTA evaluation, all other German companies also placed advertisements on TV Pink.

Bad image of the EU

TV Pink, along with TV Happy, is considered one of the most extreme media outlets in the country. Here, for example, with a view to the war in Ukraine, it is primarily the Russian narratives that are being disseminated. For example, the Russian disinformation about the alleged “denazification” is adopted, or the war crimes allegedly committed by Russian soldiers in Bucha are presented as manipulation. In addition, NATO is blamed for the war. The disinformation about the biolabs also plays a role again and again.

In addition, the media paints a bad image of the EU. Among other things, it is claimed that there is no freedom of expression in the EU. Another post said the only “voice of reason” in the EU was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The United States is also regularly denigrated. After the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, the US was even blamed for causing the disaster.

Other high-reach media outlets in Serbia are also spreading similar views – such as the television channels TV Prva and B92 TV, or the newspapers Informer and Vecernje novosti. Here, too, several German companies placed advertisements worth more than one million euros. “All high-reach media, whether TV, online or print, are in line,” says Thomas Brey, long-standing regional office manager of the dpa news agency’s offices in south-eastern Europe. “There are only gradations.”

FDP MP appeals to “European values”

Thomas Hacker, member of the Bundestag for the FDP, calls on German companies to better analyze where they advertise. “Even as a company, I should look at the world situation we are in. And you should ask yourself: What kind of propaganda am I financing with my spending?” Because Serbia is significantly smaller than Germany, for example, the magnitude of the buzzers is so high that they make a difference. “That’s why German companies should make sure that they place ads in the media that also embody European values.”

He assumes that the companies did not make a conscious decision to support media with such content, but that they are much more concerned with their reach. “Nonetheless, businesses have a responsibility in choosing where to place their ads.”

The Greens member of the Bundestag Boris Mijatovic finds the behavior of the German companies involved “doubtful” – especially in view of the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine. “It’s not in the interest of Western European politics to support Russian narratives with more than 20 million euros.” He would like the public to focus more on these business practices.

Economic interests in the foreground?

Nedeljkov has his doubts about the ignorance of the companies: “These companies have their local offices and employees, local advertising and media buying agencies – for a long time the ‘professional reputation’ of these media has been obvious if you live and do business in Serbia or also just spending some time here.” He therefore suspects that it is because of the reach of these media that makes them attractive for advertising from the company’s point of view.

Aleksandra Tomanic, Managing Director of the European Fund for the Balkans, also sees German companies as responsible. “Especially in the context of the last year and in view of how many sacrifices the German economy, German politics and the population in Germany have made in order to position themselves clearly morally, that is not possible at all.” If the companies were to advertise on the Russian broadcasters RT or Sputnik, for example, there would be great outrage. However, the Serbian media are at least as bad and are legitimized and financed by the advertisements of Western companies.

“Corporate profits cannot be an excuse for everything,” says Tomanic. “There is also a moral and social responsibility. And you can’t talk about a free market economy in Serbia if you look at the framework conditions and political influence. Unfortunately, Serbia is simply no longer a democracy at the moment.”

Companies deny responsibility

At the request of the ARD fact finder don’t reveal. A spokesman for LIDL Serbia said that the decision on where to place ads would be made “based on marketing metrics such as reach, in order to best reach our customers and potential customers”.

It goes on to say: “The decisions about specific marketing measures are taken at national level in the LIDL countries and use the existing media structures under country-specific circumstances. They do not reflect the political attitude of the company.”

A spokesman for METRO Serbia said that the company works with a variety of media as part of its promotional activities in order to reach its target groups in the most effective way. “But only commercial goals are pursued and we never get involved in political matters.” Glovo responded to the request of the ARD fact finder, the company would ensure “that our advertising does not appear alongside inappropriate or illegal content”. In addition, the media budget for television in Serbia last year was “much lower” than the estimate mentioned.

Dm Serbia wrote at the request of the ARD fact finderthat the company cooperates with TV Pink because the channel is “the channel with the widest coverage in Serbia”. The main criteria for the selection of media from dm are “target groups, reach and program plan”. Dm Serbia only sees a clearly pronounced pro-Russian and anti-Western attitude on the part of one Serbian TV station, “with which we also do not work”.

A spokesman for Beiersdorf said that the company generally advertises on the channels “on which we achieve the greatest reach and reach our consumers efficiently”. In Serbia, this also includes the TV Pink channel. Bayer announced that it would investigate the matter. The companies Dr. Theiss and Berlin Chemie AG did not comment on this.

“A scandal that isn’t talked about enough”

In addition to the companies, experts see the EU in particular as having an obligation. Because they turn a blind eye to the fact that President Vucic has brought the media almost completely under his control. “Many of the Serbian media are like an extended mouthpiece for Vucic,” says Brey. “The opposition is not discussed.” This coincides with another analysis by CRTA, according to which there were 258 live streams of Vucic’s speeches on TV Pink in 2022 alone, three quarters of the news time was reserved for Vucic.

Tomanic also sees the EU’s inaction as the biggest problem. “It is well known that democracy and freedom of the media have been eroded in Serbia. This is a scandal that is not talked about enough in the EU and even less is being acted upon.” Because the reputation of the EU in the population has also continued to decline due to the state-controlled propaganda in the media – according to the Serbian Ministry of European Integration In December 2022, 43 percent of Serbs supported a possible EU entry – less than at any time since June 2016. And this despite the fact that the EU is both an important trading partner and a big funder is for Serbia. In November 2009, 73 percent of those questioned were still in favor of joining the EU.

With a view to the negotiations for an agreement in the Kosovo conflict, the EU is reluctant to clearly criticize Vucic, criticize the experts. The shortcomings are obvious, says Brey. “The judiciary is brought into line, there is not a single independent state institution. The media are centralized and censored, the economy is dominated by the state and by private oligarchs who are close to the state.”

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