Ocean Lemoniady

Russian war on Ukraine and bias in the Serbian pro-government media: a corpus-based insight into interdiscursivity

Since the war began, public sphere in countries like Poland witnessed an extraordinary abundance of experts in national mentality. In normal settings helpfulness of such a concept would be rightly contested. In fact, even under the current extremely complicated circumstances it seems to be more constructive to scrutinise information production and circulation that may influence [...]

10 V 2022

Since the war began, public sphere in countries like Poland witnessed an extraordinary abundance of experts in national mentality. In normal settings helpfulness of such a concept would be rightly contested. In fact, even under the current extremely complicated circumstances it seems to be more constructive to scrutinise information production and circulation that may influence large share of public opinion. In this draft I analyse Serbian non-oppositional media and their reactions to the war in Ukraine, focusing on their clear reluctance to sympathise with the civil victims.

The analysis used two sources: 1) the centre-right daily newspaper Politika, currently supportive of the illiberal regime led by the President Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party, 2) press releases of the press agency Tanjug, until 2021 state-owned, currently in the hands of a number local businessmen loyal to the government. 5,976 texts were included in the corpus, 45% of them published between the 24th February and the 15th March 2022, the remaining 55% between the 1st January and 23rd February 2022.

Intertextual relations: news sources

The study began with establishing links to other media – references to various outlets may hint at the intertextual relations of dependence between texts. Automated named entity recognition was performed over the corpus and the resulting set of proper names was then hand-filtered for the most frequently occurring names of media outlets:

Tanjug

41,46%

Reuters

18,41%

TASS

8,21%

Beta

7,75%

Sputnik

7,09%

RIA Novosti

3,71%

Interfax

2,45%

1. Media outlets most frequently referred to by Politika (>2%)

It turned out that texts published by the daily Politika are heavily dependent on news prepared by the Tanjug agency. Reuters presence is also significant, but references to Russian sources (TASS, Sputnik, RIA Novosti) are also clearly noticeable. There are also citations from another Serbian news agency (Beta) and from Ukrainian Interfax. However, what does Tanjug cite?

Reuters

45,31%

TASS

20,04%

RIA Novosti

9,18%

Sputnik

5,48%

Interfax

4,32%

BBC

3,65%

AP

3,65%

CNN

3,46%

2. Media outlets most frequently referred to by Tanjug (>2%)

It is also the case of Tanjug that the presence of the Reuters news agency is most significant. Nonetheless, Russian media are also very frequently cited (TASS, RIA Novosti, Sputnik). References to Ukrainian Interfax are more rare and so are other Western outlets (BBC, AP, CNN).

But how can these figures be interpreted? For comparison, live updated pieces of news about the war, published by English-speaking Al Jazeera since 24th February, were analysed for named entities referring to media outlets. Given the characteristics of these texts, they are not perfectly comparable with the Serbian sources, nevertheless, they offer some valuable insights.

Reuters

36,96%

Interfax

11,30%

RIA Novosti

9,13%

OVD-Info

7,83%

AP

7,39%

BBC

7,39%

TASS

5,22%

CNN

3,91%

Belta

3,04%

AFP

3,04%

RT

2,61%

Sky News

2,17%

3. Media outlets most frequently referred to by Al Jazeera English (>2%, ignoring self-references)

Firstly, also here Reuters is the most cited source. Moreover, Al Jazeera does not ignore Russian (and Belarusian, vide Belta) sources, too, however, their share is visibly balanced by the much more significant presence of news pieces from Ukrainian Interfax. It also includes oppositional Russian sources, devoting their attentions to human rights violations in Russia. This is not the case in the Serbian pro-government media, where already the intertextual relations demonstrate that the Ukrainian perspective is largely absent.

Intertextual relations: quotation patterns

Up to now, we only had a brief glimpse into what is quoted – but it is even more important how things are quoted. In this section of the study I have observed which political actors are quoted in the headlines of Politika and Tanjug, as well as what kinds of reporting strategies are used. Against a reference corpus (consisting of ca. 19,919 articles from Serbian and Croatian press on European matters published in 2007–17), a list of keywords most typical for the first of two analysed media outlets, the daily Politika, was generated.

name

occurrences

keyness

Zelenski

13

3114,8

Zaharova

5

483

Džonson

6

124

Makron

6

55,5

Bajden

5

48,9

Lavrov

7

27,3

Putin

21

25,2

Dodik

6

21,8

Vučić

10

3,3

4. Personal names occuring among the keywords of the Politika corpus

The Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenski, is represented mostly neutrally, his quotations are used in headlines i.a. to illustrate Ukrainian diplomatic efforts, but also to report about military losses.

Zelenski : Evropo ne zatvaraj oči , ne ćuti – podrži Zelenski: Europe, don’t close your eyes, don’t be silent – support
Zelenski : Uništili smo planove neprijatelja Zelenski: We have destroyed the enemy’s plans
Zelenski : Uslov za pregovore prestanak bombardovanja Zelenski: Ceasing bombardment a condition for negotiations
Zelenski : Prilika da se obezbedi mir Zelenski: An opportunity to guarantee peace
Zelenski : Nećemo položiti oružje Zelenski: We will not put away our weapons
Zelenski : Hvala Americi na podršci Zelenski: Thanks to America for its support

5. Representation of the Ukrainian president in the headlines of Politika and Tanjug

However, sporadically the Politika’s headlines feature Zelenski in sarcastic remarks (Oživeli vojnici koje je Zelenski hteo posthumno da odlikuje [=Soldiers whom Zelenski wanted posthumously to decorate rose from the dead]) or in what in Russian discourses may have been interpreted by some readers as anti-Semitic allusions (Zelenski traži pomoć od američkih Jevreja, Ruse uporedio sa nacistima, dobio odlikovanje i ulicu [=Zelenski seeks help from the American Jews, compares Russian with Nazis, obtains a distinction and a street]).

An old and frequent guest of the Politika’s headlines is the Russian president Vladimir Putin. Also in this case quotations are given without distancing verbs introducing reported speech – a practice common in the Serbo-Croatian speaking media (including Al Jazeera Balkans), but e.g. not in English-speaking Al Jazeera, where hedging frequently occurs (Kremlin says…).

Putin : U Ukrajini će učestvovati samo profesionalna vojska Putin: In Ukraine only professional army will partake
Putin : EU da natera Kijev da poštuje humanitarno pravo Putin: EU should make Kiev respect humanitarian law
Putin : Ukrajinski nacionalisti i dalje drže civile Putin: Ukrainian nationalists still hold civilians
Putin : Uništavanje vojne infrastrukture u Ukrajini biće uskoro završeno Putin: Destruction of the military infrastructure in Ukraine will be finished soon
Putin : Nemamo loše namere prema susedima , ispunićemo naše zadatke Putin: We do not have bad intentions against our neighbours, we will fulfil our tasks
Putin : Zapad je imperija laži Putin: The West is an empire of lies
Putin : Akcija u Ukrajini iznuđena , nije nam ostavljen izbor Putin: Action in Ukraine forced, we had no choice left

5. Representation of the Russian president in the headlines of Politika and Tanjug

As visible, the quotations from Putin are prevailingly utterances where facts and their interpretations are established. Loaded phrases, such as ‘Ukrainian nationalists’, are reproduced without journalist distancing.

Among other frequently featured figures, quotations from Maria Zakharova – spokesperson to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs – are frequently used to disseminate the Moscow’s perspective where it is Ukraine and the Western countries which are uninterested in negotiations and constitute hindrances to peace.

The PM of the UK, Boris Johnson, occurs mostly in the context of sanctions imposed on Russia. This may be interpreted as a piece of neutral information, but it has to be noted that the Serbian society lived under the Western sanctions throughout the 1990s and the lived experience of these economic hardship and the NATO intervention with bombardment of cities may contribute to negative connotations attributed to the notions of sanctions (or NATO) even among the otherwise rather ‘pro-Western’ parts of the readership.

However, Johnson is quoted directly only when he distances from Ukraine, the Ukrainian refugees, and a possible greater role of NATO. The French President, Emmanuel Macron, is represented in a relatively positive way, mostly in the context of his negotiations on humanitarian corridors. It may be speculated that this positive representation is somewhat connected to his role in direct negotiations with Vladimir Putin.

All in all, Russian actors occur more frequently in the headlines.

Referential strategies: activity and passivity

Finally, in this brief insight strategies of representing military actors and the civilian population by the analysed media will be also taken into account. This can be illustrated by the discursive representation of bombardment in the analysed outlets (granatirati). Both Politika and Tanjug, before the outbreak of the war, extensively reported bombardment of the Donbas separatist territories by the Ukrainian forces. For this reason, in the whole corpus – i.e. since the beginning of 2022 – the verb granatirati occurs more frequently with the subject being the Ukrainian military.

The situation changes since the onset of the Russian aggression, at least in the article texts. Nonetheless, the general image offered by headlines differs from the detailed descriptions of the hostilities, as illustrated below.

Politika
1 Mar Granatiran centar Harkova Kharkiv downtown bombed
28 Feb Ukrajinska vojska granatira Donjeck Ukrainian army bombs Donetsk
17 Feb Ukrajina granatirala naselja, Kijev demantuje, a posmatrači pozvani da spreče krvoproliće Ukraine bombed settlements, Kiev denies, observers invited to prevent bloodshed
Tanjug
7 Mar Rusija granatirala crnomorsku luku Olvija, tenkovi napadaju aerodrom u Nikolajevu Russia bombed Black Sea port Olviya, tanks attack the Mykolaiv airport
1 Mar Donjecka Narodna Republika: Ukrajina granatirala rudnik, 33 rudara zarobljena u oknu Donetsk People’s Republic: Ukraine bombed a mine, 33 miners trapped in a shaft
25 Mar Donjecka i Luganska Narodna Republika: Ukrajina granatira civilne objekte, ima žrtava Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic: Ukraine bombs civilian objects, casualties present
25 Mar Ukrajinci granatirali ruski granični punkt, nema žrtava Ukrainians bombed Russian border point, no casualties

6. Headlines of Politika and Tanjug featuring the verb granatirati ‘to bomb’

As apparent, Ukrainian activities dominate the headlines, with a significant occurrence of passive expression Kharkiv downtown bombed in Politika, disguising Russian military actions.

Conclusion

The Serbian pro-government media offered a biased, pro-Russian perspective on the war in the Ukraine. The main cause of such a situation was an overreliance on the Russian sources and ignoring of the Ukrainian press agencies, especially blatant in the case of the daily newspaper Politika.

This resulted in adopting official positions of the Russian officials without accompanying critical comments or any sort of distancing, as demonstrated by the headline analysis. Military activities of the Russian army were left underreported.

Various causes of such a state can be diagnosed, exceeding the scope of such a short text. Nonetheless, accepting Reuters news pieces as a sufficient counter-balance to the Russian sources may originate in perception of the West as a homogenous block and of Ukraine as a non-autonomous actor.

In the case of Tanjug, this may be caused by the lack of correspondents in Ukraine, a situation inherited from the state-owned agency and aggravated after the privatisation. Reporting by Politika seems to be strongly influenced by the legacy of Miroslav Lazanski, a legendary Serbian war reporter, who eventually sided with Russia and held the office of the Serbian Ambassador to Russia until his death in 2021. Even more importantly, the political column of Tanjug and Politika is edited by Bojan Bilbija, who spent a long time in Russia, privately a son of Đuro Bilbija, a long time Moscow correspondent for Večernje novosti.

Such explanations based on personal affiliations and networks are attractive, yet insufficient. It is obvious that a political demand on the higher level must have existed and exists. Whether there is something more than raising a feeling of insecurity before the April elections was at stake, it remains an open question.

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