With new, less repressive tactics, countries like Serbia, Poland and Hungary are deploying highly effective tools to skew public opinion.
BELGRADE, Serbia — When Covid-19 reached Eastern Europe in the spring of 2020, a Serbian journalist reported a severe shortage of masks and other protective equipment. She was swiftly arrested, thrown in a windowless cell and charged with inciting panic.
The journalist, Ana Lalic, was quickly released and even got a public apology from the government in what seemed like a small victory against old-style repression by Serbia’s authoritarian president, Aleksandar Vucic.
But Ms. Lalic was then vilified for weeks as a traitor by much of the country’s news media, which has come increasingly under the control of Mr. Vucic and his allies as Serbia adopts tactics favored by Hungary and other states now in retreat from democracy across Europe’s formerly communist eastern fringe.
“For the whole nation, I became a public enemy,” she recalled.
Serbia no longer jails or kills critical journalists, as happened under the rule of Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s. It now seeks to destroy their credibility and ensure few people see their reports.
The muting of critical voices has greatly helped Mr. Vucic — and also the country’s most well-known athlete, the tennis star Novak Djokovic, whose visa travails in Australia have been portrayed as an intolerable affront to the Serb nation. The few remaining outlets of the independent news media mostly support him but take a more balanced approach.
Across the region, from Poland in the north to Serbia in the south, Eastern Europe has become a fertile ground for new forms of censorship that mostly eschew brute force but deploy gentler yet effective tools to constrict access to critical voices and tilt public opinion — and therefore elections — in favor of those in power.
Television has become so biased in support of Mr. Vucic, according to Zoran Gavrilovic, the executive director of Birodi, an independent monitoring group, that Serbia has “become a big sociological experiment to see just how far media determines opinion and elections.”
Serbia and Hungary — countries in the vanguard of what V-Dem Institute, a Swedish research group, described last year as a “global wave of autocratization” — both hold general elections in April, votes that will test whether media control works.
A recent Birodi survey of news reports on Serbian television found that over a three-month period from September, Mr. Vucic was given more than 44 hours of coverage, 87 percent of it positive, compared with three hours for the main opposition party, 83 percent of which was negative.
Nearly all of the negative coverage of Mr. Vucic appeared on N1, an independent news channel that broadcast Ms. Lalic’s Covid-19 reports. But a bitter war for market share is playing out between the cable provider that hosts N1 — Serbian Broadband, or SBB — and the state-controlled telecommunications company, Telekom Srbija.
Telekom Srbija recently made a move that many saw as an unfair effort to make SBB less attractive to consumers when it snagged from SBB the rights to broadcast English soccer by offering to pay 700 percent more for them.
Telekom Srbija’s offer, nearly $700 million for six seasons, is an astronomical amount for a country with only seven million people — and nearly four times what a media company in Russia, a far bigger market, has agreed to pay the Premier League each season for broadcast rights.
“It is very difficult to compete if you have a competitor that does not really care about profit,” SBB’s chief executive, Milija Zekovic, said in an interview.
Telekom Srbija declined to make its executives available for comment, but in public statements, the company has described its investments in English soccer and elsewhere as driven by commercial concerns, not politics.
“Their goal is to kill SBB,” Dragan Solak, the chairman of SBB’s parent company, United Group, said in an interview in London. “In the Balkans,” he added, “you do not want to be a bleeding shark.”
Eager to stay in the game, Mr. Solak announced this month that a private investment company he controls had bought Southampton FC, an English Premier League soccer team. Broadcast rights for the league will stay with his state-controlled rival, but part of the huge sum it agreed to pay for them will now pass to Mr. Solak.
Government loyalists run Serbia’s five main free-to-air television channels, including the supposedly neutral public broadcaster, RTS. The only television outlets in Serbia that give airtime to the opposition and avoid hagiographic coverage of Mr. Vucic are Mr. Solak’s cable news channel N1, which is affiliated with CNN, and his TV Nova.
Without them, Mr. Solak said, Serbia “will be heading into the dark ages like North Korea.”
Space for critical media has been shrinking across the region, with V-Dem Institute, the Swedish research group, now ranking Serbia, Poland and Hungary among its “top 10 autocratizing countries,” citing “assaults on the judiciary and restrictions on the media and civil society.” Freedom House now classifies Serbia as “partly free.”
In each country, security forces — the primary tools for muzzling critical voices during the communist era — have been replaced in this role by state-controlled and state-dependent companies that exert often irresistible pressure on the news media.
Poland’s governing party, Law and Justice, has turned the country’s public broadcaster, TVP, into a propaganda bullhorn, while a state-run oil company has taken over a string of regional newspapers, though some national print outlets still regularly assail the government.
In December, Law and Justice pushed through legislation that would have squeezed out the only independent television news channel, the American-owned TVN24, but the Polish president, worried about alienating Washington, vetoed the bill.
Hungary has gone further, gathering hundreds of news outlets into a holding company controlled by allies of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Only one television station with national reach is critical of Mr. Orban and financially independent from his government.
Mr. Orban’s previously divided political rivals have formed a united front to fight elections in April but have been unsuccessful in shaking his stranglehold on the news media.
In Serbia, the media space for critical voices has shrunk so far, said Zoran Sekulic, the founder and editor of an independent news agency, that “the level of control, direct and indirect, is like in the 1990s” under Mr. Milosevic, whom Mr. Vucic served as information minister.
Journalists, Mr. Sekulic added, do not get killed anymore, but the system of control endures, only “upgraded and improved” to ensure fawning coverage without brute force.
When United Group started a relatively opposition-friendly newspaper last year, it could not find a printer in Serbia willing to touch it. The newspaper is printed in neighboring Croatia and sent into Serbia.
Dragan Djilas, the leader of Serbia’s main opposition party and formerly a media executive, complained that while Mr. Vucic could talk for hours without interruption on Serbia’s main television channels, opposition politicians appeared mostly only as targets for attack. “I am like an actor in a silent movie,” he said.
N1, the only channel that sometimes lets him talk, is widely watched in Belgrade, the capital, but is blocked in many towns and cities where mayors are members of Mr. Vucic’s party. Even in Belgrade, the cable company that hosts the channel has faced trouble entering new housing projects built by property developers with close ties to the government. A huge new housing area under construction for security officials near Belgrade, for example, has refused to install SBB’s cable, the company said.
Viewers of pro-government channels “live in a parallel universe,” said Zeljko Bodrozic, the president of the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia. Channels like TV Pink, the most popular national station, which features sexually explicit reality shows and long statements by Mr. Vucic, he said, “don’t just indoctrinate, but make people stupid.”
The European Union and the United States have repeatedly rebuked Mr. Vucic over the lack of media pluralism, but, eager to keep Serbia from embracing Russia or stoking unrest in neighboring Bosnia, have not pushed hard.
This has given Mr. Vucic a largely free hand to expand the media control that Rasa Nedeljkov, the program director in Belgrade for the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability, described as “the skeleton of his whole system.” In some ways, he added, Serbia’s space for critical media is now smaller than it was under Mr. Milosevic, who “didn’t really care about having total control” and left various regional outlets untouched.
“Vucic is now learning from this mistake by Milosevic,” Mr. Nedeljkov said. Mr. Vucic and his allies, Mr. Nedeljkov added, “are not tolerating anything that is different.”
Once powerful independent voices have gradually been co-opted. The radio station B92, which regularly criticized Mr. Milosevic during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, for example, is now owned by a supporter of Mr. Vucic and mostly parrots the government line.
Journalists and others who upset Mr. Vucic face venomous attacks by tabloid newspapers loyal to the authorities. Mr. Solak, the United Group chairman, for example, has been denounced as “Serbia’s biggest scammer,” a crook gnawing at the country “like scabies” and a traitor working for Serbia’s foreign foes.
Mr. Solak, who lives outside Serbia because of safety concerns, said he had become such a regular target for abuse that when he does not get attacked, “my friends call me and ask: What happened? Are you OK?”
Evening Update: Texas gunman posted on social media about attacking a school minutes before shooting – The Globe and Mail
Good evening, let’s start with today’s top stories:
Texas gunman posted on social media about attacking a school minutes before shooting, governor says
Just 30 minutes before opening fire in a Texas elementary school, gunman Salvador Ramos, 18, had made three separate posts on social media: The first said he was going to shoot his grandmother, a second that he had done so and a third that he was about to shoot up a school, the state’s governor said today.
Ramos had legally purchased the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle shortly after his 18th birthday and just days before he stormed a classroom at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, killing 19 children and two teachers, according to authorities.
As details of the latest mass killing to rock the U.S. emerged, grief engulfed the small town of Uvalde, population 16,000.
The dead included an outgoing 10-year-old, Eliahna Garcia, who loved to sing, dance and play basketball; a fellow fourth grader, Xavier Javier Lopez, who had been eagerly awaiting a summer of swimming; and a teacher, Eva Mireles, with 17 years’ experience whose husband is an officer with the school district’s police department. Here are more details about the victims of the massacre.
In Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, terrorized civilians recount war crimes and ‘chaos’
Officers at a police station in Beryslav district – a small corner of Ukrainian-controlled territory at the northern tip of Kherson Oblast in the country’s south – have been on the front lines of Russian occupation. Thousands of people fled the area; some have stopped at the police station to recount what they’d endured. Officers have opened hundreds of war crime cases at the station.
For those living under occupation, there is “an absence of any basic rights,” said Captain Mykola Marinik, who is deputy head of investigations in the district. “Rights belong to the person holding a gun. People have no ability to protect their freedoms, their property or their own lives.” Read the full story by The Globe’s Nathan Vanderklippe.
Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin issued an order today to fast track Russian citizenship for residents in parts of southern Ukraine, while lawmakers in Moscow passed a bill to strengthen the Russian army. The order, applying to the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, could allow Russia to strengthen its hold on territory that lies between eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014.
The Russian army is engaged in an intense battle for Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Lawmakers have agreed to scrap the age limit of 40 for individuals signing their first voluntary military contracts, in sign that Moscow is attempting to strengthen its military.
This is the daily Evening Update newsletter. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was sent to you as a forward, you can sign up for Evening Update and more than 20 more Globe newsletters here. If you like what you see, please share it with your friends.
ALSO ON OUR RADAR
U.S. Fed embraces 50-basis-point rate hikes in June, July to curb ‘very high’ inflation: All participants at the Federal Reserve’s May 3-4 policy meeting backed a half-percentage-point increase in its benchmark lending rate to combat inflation they agreed had become a key threat to the economy’s performance and was at risk of racing higher without action by the U.S. central bank, minutes of the session showed on Wednesday.
Federal government isn’t ruling out court challenge to Quebec’s Bill 96: Federal Justice Minister David Lametti says he first wants to see how it’s implemented, adding that the law could be enforced in a way that doesn’t violate constitutionally protected rights.
British PM Boris Johnson says he takes ‘full responsibility’ after damning final report into ‘partygate’ scandal: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has issued a renewed apology for the conduct of his staff after an internal investigation found widespread drinking, violations of COVID-19 restrictions and abuse of cleaning staff at Downing Street.
Victims’ families tell lawyers to boycott N.S. mass shooting inquiry over questioning of Mounties: The relatives of victims of the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting have told their lawyers to boycott the public inquiry investigating the tragedy, after its commissioners decided to prevent cross-examination of key Mountie witnesses.
Shortage of family doctors puts B.C. government on defensive: At a time when thousands of British Columbians are struggling to access a family doctor, and while family physicians who remain in practice are battling rising costs, physicians are feeling undervalued in the province.
Wall Street closed higher Wednesday, boosted after minutes from the Federal Reserve’s latest monetary policy meeting showed policymakers unanimously felt the U.S. economy was very strong as they grappled with reining in inflation without triggering a recession. Canada’s main stock index also rose, reaching its highest level in more than a week, as higher oil prices boosted energy shares and stronger-than-expected bank earnings bolstered financials.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 191.66 points, or 0.6%, to 32,120.28, the S&P 500 gained 37.25 points, or 0.95%, to 3,978.73 and the Nasdaq Composite added 170.29 points, or 1.51%, to 11,434.74.
The Toronto Stock Exchange’s S&P/TSX Composite Index ended up 97.55 points, or 0.5%, at 20,383.75, its highest closing level since May 17.
The Canadian dollar traded for 77.90 cents US compared with 77.97 cents US on Tuesday.
With Bill 96, François Legault is trying to tiptoe out of Canada’s constitutional order
“But the overall response to Bill 96 in the rest of Canada has been one of overwhelming uninterest. While language has long been the hottest political issue in Quebec, and its protection is seen as sacrosanct, it hardly registers outside it.” – The Editorial Board
Hong Kong’s ‘autonomy’ era is all but over, only halfway through
“What is important to bear in mind is that what has happened in Hong Kong is only a symptom showing where China is heading.” – Dennis Kwok
The history of Cantopop is the history of Hong Kong – and perhaps its grim future
“If, as John Lennon once said, “music reflects the state that the society is in,” its fade and absence should surely refract as sharply. And so Ms. [Denise] Ho’s arrest signals something deeper: the loss of a unique culture, in a place undergoing a forced identity crisis.” – Adrian Lee
Biden’s visit to Asia highlights the continent’s ‘Finlandization’ – a desire to steer clear of conflict between Russia and the West
“The term “Finlandization” describes a commitment to strategic neutrality that a small country might make, in order to avoid provoking a much larger and more powerful neighbour … Even as Finland abandons Finlandization though, many Asian countries may well be set to adopt it.” –Takatoshi Ito
Avoid crowded airports and security delays with these three cross-border trips
If news of chaos and long wait-times at airports has you rethinking your summer travel plans, you may want to consider a road trip, instead. One way to fulfill your wanderlust without emptying your wallet (entirely) would be to visit a U.S. border town, many of which have exciting new developments happening. Less than 90 minutes from Vancouver, Bellingham, Wash., has a new waterpark, beaches and walking trails to enjoy. There’s also plenty to explore in Buffalo, like the recently-restored Buffalo Heritage Carousel, now operated by solar power at the newly revitalized waterfront venue Canalside.
TODAY’S LONG READ
Telesat is in race to deliver high-speed satellite internet, but it’s going up against two of the world’s richest men
Every spring and fall, over the course of several days, Nunavut’s government employees lose telecommunications abilities for up to 12 minutes at a time. Most of the territory’s internet connectivity is beamed via a single satellite locked in place 36,000 kilometres above the Earth. A couple times a year, the sun’s angle overpowers the satellite’s signal, shutting down communications.
That satellite, Telstar 19 Vantage, launched by Ottawa-based Telesat in 2018, brought slightly faster internet speeds than an earlier one did, but it suffers from lag time, and its limited capacity means the government’s connectivity needs far outweigh what the satellite can provide, which means users need to ration internet.
Dan Goldberg, chief executive officer of Telesat, has been working toward a solution. A few years ago, Goldberg announced plans to launch low-Earth-orbit (LEO) communications satellites, which whiz around the planet multiple times a day but at lower altitudes, allowing them to offer speedy and reliable internet. Telesat called the endeavour Lightspeed: It’s a $6.5-billion network of 298 initial satellites aimed at serving enterprise customers such as governments, telecoms, and companies in the marine and airline industries. Despite many opportunities, the project has encountered various barriers. As the program moves forward, nothing less than the future of the company is tethered to Goldberg getting the Lightspeed rollout right. Read the full story by Jason Kirby.
Uvalde School Shooting Sparks Cries For Action Across Social Media – BNN
(Bloomberg) — With former President Donald Trump scheduled to speak at the NRA’s National Meeting this Friday in Houston, in the same state where 19 children and two teachers were killed at the hands of an 18-year old gunman who stormed their school, rallying cries for gun control can be heard across social media.Former President Barack Obama posted a string of tweets that began,“It’s long past time for action, any kind of action. And it’s another tragedy—a quieter but no less tragic one—for families to wait another day.” He added, “Across the country, parents are putting their children to bed, reading stories, singing lullabies—and in the back of their minds, they’re worried about what might happen tomorrow after they drop their kids off at school, or take them to a grocery store or any other public space.”
From LeBron James to Mia Farrow, an outpouring of grief from celebrities followed an emotionally charged speech by Golden State Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr who called a press conference before tonight’s NBA semifinals game to express outrage at the “50 senators” who have failed to move on a House bill on common-sense gun safety reforms that President Biden is ready to sign into law.Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James shared Kerr’s remarks and tweeted, “My thoughts and prayers goes out to the families of love ones loss & injured at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX! Like when is enough enough man!!! These are kids and we keep putting them in harms way at school. Like seriously “AT SCHOOL” where it’s suppose to be the safest!” Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey, who was born in Uvalde and runs a foundation to help high school students in Texas, asked all Americans to take action “so that no parent has to experience what the parents in Uvalde and the others before them have endured.”
Other celebrities taking to Twitter to share their grief include human rights activist George Takei who co-starred in “Star Trek: The Original Series.” He tweeted, “14 children and 1 teacher. There are no words. And there are no actions ever taken.” National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman wrote, “It takes a monster to kill children. But to watch monsters kill children again and again and do nothing isn’t just insanity—it’s inhumanity.” Actress Mia Farrow retweeted Gorman and said, “Don’t anyone dare do “thoughts and prayers”. We are way past that. We need reasonable gun legislation like every other rational country.And late night talk show host James Corden commented on how shocked he is by America’s inability to act when it comes to gun control. “It doesn’t make sense to me. It doesn’t reflect the country that I think America is. The America I’ve always admired. You have a problem, you solve it. You’re on the forefront of medicine, of technology, of innovation. When there’s a world war, you are the ones we turn to. Yet on this issue America is one of the most backward places in the world.”Cordon noted this year there have been no school shootings in England, Japan, and Australia, but this year there have been 27 school shootings in America and 212 mass shootings and we are just five months into the year.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.
/REPEAT — Media Advisory – Minister Mendicino to make a funding announcement/ – Canada NewsWire
OTTAWA, ON, May 24, 2022 /CNW/ – Members of the media are invited to join the Honourable Marco Mendicino, Minister of Public Safety, for a funding announcement under the Crime Prevention Action Fund to underscore the Government of Canada’s efforts to keep Canadian youth safe in Halifax and surrounding communities.
He will be joined by Lena Metlege Diab, Member of Parliament for Halifax West-Nova Scotia.
Following the announcement, Minister Mendicino and MP Diab will take questions from the media.
Wednesday, May 25, 2022
9:00 a.m. ADT
358 Herring Cove Road
Spryfield, Nova Scotia
Media representatives who wish to attend the event must arrive at least 15 minutes in advance to sign in and present photo ID and credentials.
Media can dial-in by using the numbers below. Media are encouraged to dial-in 15 minutes before the start of the press conference.
Participant dial-in numbers: 1-866-206-0153 / 613-954-9003
Access Code: 9504354#
Media and guests are asked to respect local physical distancing guidelines. Participants will be required to share their name and phone number for possible contact tracing. Wearing masks is recommended, especially when not able to maintain physical distance.
Public health protocols are in effect: please stay home if you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed here: Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Government of Nova Scotia, Canada, practice good hand washing and other hygiene steps, as well as physical distancing.
SOURCE Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada
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