Briefing Paper V:
EXTERNAL INFLUENCE IN MEDIA & ELECTIONS
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The Briefing Paper V: External Influence in media and elections covers Russian, Chinese, Turkish, the Gulf States’ and Iranian influence in media and elections aiming at shaping public opinion and creation of a more accommodating environment to achieve own goals.
Preceding briefing papers:
The Briefing Paper III maps influence in the economic and financial sphere, especially main forms of dependencies and activities undermining rules-based market competition – full version or an executive summary .
The Briefing Paper IV covers influence in the cultural, academic and religious spheres, areas most often associated with the notion of soft power in international relations - full version or an executive summary.
Media plays a crucial role in forming our views and beliefs on a personal and a societal level since it is a major source of information which shapes our understanding of the world. The information is, however, always mediated—by someone, for someone, some reason, or goal—and thus never neutral. Even in a democratic society, the media can easily become a tool of manipulation by influencing what is covered, how, and when. In particular, the media can greatly affect the electoral processes and shape voters behaviour.
The media is often criticised for reinforcing existing stereotypes and increasing the polarisation of society. It has a huge potential to mobilise society and played a crucial role during the violent dissolution of the former Yugoslavia when the media-disseminated war propaganda was a very effective channel for warmongering.
Despite the post-war Western investments into the democratisation of the media in the post-Yugoslav states, much of the media scene has remained ethnically and politically divided and biased. Also, the consumption of media content is divided largely along ethnic lines rather than state borders. The ethnic segmentation of the media is a source of instability especially in multinational democracies such as Bosnia and Herzegovina or Kosovo.
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 in the Western Balkans media and elections, 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 in all the analysed countries. 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.
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.
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.
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. The local political actors and interest groups take advantage of anti-Western tendencies and pro-Russian sentiments 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. 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.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
One of the key pillars of Russian influence in BiH, especially in its Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska, is its media presence. Yet, unlike in Serbia where Russia and its state media established or in/directly supported dozens of print, electronic media and web portals, in BiH, Russia did not need such large investment but relied heavily on the RS mainstream media which are under tight control of the RS strongman Milorad Dodik. Most of these media frequently use reports from Russian Belgrade-based Sputnik news agency, which is broadcasting regional news in local languages. The media being controlled by Bosnian Serb and Bosniak ruling parties have provided a solid ground for Russian interference and for Russian content to be spread as the local media keeps close links and use content provided by Russian mainstream media in Bosnia and report it in the local language. Read more...
In the last couple of years, Kosovo has experienced intensive media propaganda and fake news activities by Russian-owned media outlets such as Sputnik and Russia Today. Although media in the country are primarily influenced by local actors, rather than foreign powers, due to Kosovo’s multi-ethnic society, Russia has succeeded in penetrating the media and shaping public opinion to an extent that can be considered effective. The Russian media purposely tries to inflict fear among the Serbian community and to make integration and coexistence between Serbs and Kosovars more difficult. Furthermore, Russia utilizes the language barrier to further amplify the cultural differences among Serbs and Kosovars. Read more...
In recent years, Russia has exercised extensive and increasing influence over both media and elections, culminating during the vital name change referendum held in Macedonia in September 2018. Russia utilizes various media channels ranging from Russian TV channels being broadcast in Macedonia, offering a Macedonian version of a web portal Russia Beyond the Headlines (RBTH) to also using social media – namely Facebook due to its popularity among the locals – for its propaganda. Read more...
There are a lot of pro-Russian media outlets in Montenegro, whose number started to increase from 2014 (as elsewhere) and in relation to Montenegro’s NATO accession process. Their main aim is to spread Moscow’s narratives and establish themselves as legitimate and objective sources of information. They are also used to interfere in the Montenegrin political life. The most visible meddling of Russia in the internal affairs was the attempted coup during the last parliamentary elections in 2016, co-orchestrated with the pro-Russian opposition party, the Democratic Front. Out of the analysed external powers, Russian influence is by far the strongest and most visible. Read more...
The positive perception of Russia as an important political player and ally among the Serbs mirrors Russia’s portrayal in the press. The public’s image of Russia is largely in line with pro-Kremlin media, such as Sputnik and Russia Today, but also in line with pro-regime Serbian media, which promote Russian content despite the country’s official pro-EU policy. Russian propaganda in Serbia is mainly created by media editors under the influence of the political elite in power who use it to pursue their own political interest or to divert attention from internal issue that Serbia is facing. The biggest advantage that Russia has at its disposal is that its media outlets are being broadcasted in local language. The Russian media skilfully amplify anti-Western narratives already present in the local media. Read more...
Read more about Russia's media outlets, disinformation campaigns or election meddling in the individual Western Balkan countries in the full BRIEFING PAPER – it is easy to navigate to the section of your interest.
Turkish narratives, as put forward by its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have had a strong presence in the Western Balkan countries, especially in the Muslim-dominated communities. It is facilitated both through the Turkish media outlets, such as Anadolu Agency which produces news stories in common language spoken in Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia since 2012, and through the local Balkan media that are often very close to the ruling political circles.
Such links are especially visible in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Federation TV and radio and media outlets such as Faktor or Stav are close to the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action, and promote Turkey and Erdogan on a regular basis. Turkey and Erdogan have been presented in positive terms also in the Serbian media in recent years, as the relationship between President Erdogan and President Vučić have become close. As for the involvement in local elections, Turkey has considerable influence on the local election processes and results in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia, but also in the other Bosniak populated areas of Serbia and Montenegro, namely the Sandžak region. Their influence is mostly exerted through close links between Turkish and local political leaders.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Turkey along with Russia has a very strong influence on the local media, yet with little investments of their own thanks to the specificity of the local media scene. Turkey has heavily relied on the mainstream media controlled by Bosniak ruling parties that keep close links and use content provided by Turkish mainstream media present in BiH. This enables Turkish narratives to penetrate media scene with relative ease. Turkey exerts also significant influence over the elections since it both politically and financially supports the ruling Bosniak party SDA and its leader Bakir Izetbegović. In May this year, Erdogan staged a showpiece election rally in Sarajevo. Read more...
Turkish-based news outlet Anadolu Agency publishes in Albanian and it is trying to find its place in the Balkans, but it is less engaged in comparison to the Russia-backed media. The Turkish influence in media stepped up after the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016. The Turkish ambassador to Kosovo was involved in several incidents aimed at influencing Kosovo’s media practices and spreading anti-Gulenist propaganda. For example, he was urging Kosovo’s authorities to take action against a journalist who called Kosovars being in Turkey on holidays to join the anti-government forces while the coup was unfolding.
Turkey has had a strong influence over both media and electoral sphere in Macedonia, not least through several Turkish media outlets with Macedonian-language content and Turkish Democratic Party which allegedly has links to President Erdogan. It has been widely rumoured that the Albanian party BESA, which emerged in recent years, has been financed directly by the Turkish government. In the rhetoric of Erdogan himself also appear increasing references to Macedonia, especially with regards to the name dispute. Given Turkey’s strained relations with Greece, Turkey firmly opposes the deal and Erdogan has stated that “Turkey will never leave its [Macedonian] brothers alone.” Read more...
Unlike Russian, the Turkish media influence in Montenegro is still marginal. Ankara’s interventions in elections, on the other hand, are more visible and usually concern Bosniak and other Muslim populations in the Sandžak region of Montenegro which is historically, culturally and religiously susceptible to Turkish influence. Read more...
Like other countries and news agencies, Turkey has also launched media outlets in Serbian. Aside from the Anadolu Agency, Turkish radio television also publishes news in the Serbian language. The Serbian mainstream pro-governmental media portray Turkey and as a dear friend to the country even though Turkey recognised Kosovo. Both Serbia’s President Vučić and his Turkish counterpart Erdogan promote themselves publicly as leaders of two key countries in the Balkans, whose cooperation is crucial to maintaining stability, peace, and prosperity. As for the influence in the electoral sphere, president Erdogan has enjoyed a strong influence on internal affairs in the majority Muslim region of Sandžak, especially in the Bosniak community. Read more...
Read more about the increasing Turkish involvement in the Western Balkans media sphere and election processes in the full BRIEFING PAPER .
So far there seems to have been no direct Chinese investments in the local media of the West Balkans, like the kind we have seen for instance in the Czech Republic. Only cooperative agreements between the Chinese state media and local outlets have been conducted.
There are some China-oriented, and possibly PRC-funded, portals like Kina-Danas (China-Today) in Bosnia Herzegovina (also serving Croatia), or the “Serbia and China” website, symbolically launched on May 7, 2015, on the anniversary of the bombing of the PRC Embassy in Belgrade. These portals have low visibility, and the latter one has not been updated for several years now. There are also occasional visits by local Balkan journalists in China under the 16+1 framework, with unclear results.
Discourse management, a key part of the CCP United Front tactics, is mostly conducted through the local political elites, usually more than happy to repeat the Chinese “tifa” (talking points), which are then quickly picked up by the mainstream media. For the time being, China is not focusing on active media influence or election meddling, and the paper, therefore, does not report on the individual countries separately except Serbia where Chinese messaging through local political representation is most visible.
Serbian President Vučić never fails to boast about his close relationship with Beijing, calling the Chinese Ambassador in Belgrade Li Manchang “my brother Li.“ The high degree of mutual accommodation between Chinese interests and Serbian politicians results in the domination of positive rhetoric about China in Serbian mainstream media, controlled by the ruling elites. Consequently, 21 % of respondents surveyed by the Serbian European Integration Office in December 2016 mistakenly believed that China was the largest investor in Serbia while it does not even appear among the top ten over the past eight years.
Read more about China’s media portrayal in Serbia in the full BRIEFING PAPER .
The Gulf States and Iran
Al Jazeera Balkans, the 24/7 international television channel which belongs to the international Al Jazeera network, owned by the Qatar Media Corporation, has established a firm, but not intrusive, presence in the Western Balkans. The arrival of the Al Jazeera Balkans to the region was initially questionable for political reasons, but with time it began to be perceived as an objective broadcaster among the plethora of the local media heavily influenced by politics. It is also seen as one of the most modern media outlets (€15 million was invested in Al Jazeera Balkans) with authentic stories coming from the former Yugoslav republics. Unlike the domestic media that are almost exclusively focused on local events, Al Jazeera offers viewers a wider picture of what is happening regionally and globally, from the crisis in the Eurozone to the global recession and its consequences. Al Jazeera also regularly reports on foreign power influence in the Western Balkans, particularly Russia’s role and has a column about the “Serbia and Kosovo dispute.”
People seem not to fear that the arrival of Al Jazeera or its possible increase in the influence from the East, or that this was the motive for Al Jazeera to settle in this part of the world. Experts believe that Al Jazeera is not propagandistic per se, but also that the selection of information in some cases points to particular interests, especially in relation to events for which Qatar has a particular interest in the geopolitical framework.
Except for Al Jazeera Balkans, there is no other significant media influence either by the Gulf States or Iran in the region. The same goes for influencing local elections.