Photograph of a small girl close to her killed mother from the film ”Fortress of War” is being shared on several posts on Facebook and Twitter, related to the NATO-bombing of former Yugoslavia. The post falsely claims that the photograph was taken during the bombing of NATO
In an attempt to illustrate the attack of the North-Atlantic Treaty (NATO) on former Yugoslavia in 1999, the Russian Mission in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is sharing a photograph that was actually taken in 2003 in Iraq, i.e., four years after that.
In the research performed for the Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub under the auspices of Metamorphosis Foundation, KALLXO.com discovered that thousands of such material aiming to depict NATO as an aggressor and its intervention as a criminal act, are available on the Internet and continue to be published and republished on the social networks. Just last year, articles written in Serbian language are continuously published covering NATO’s “crimes” in Serbia and in Kosovo.
The articles, usually in Serbian language, have the purpose to influence Serbian citizens of Kosovo who are predominantly informed from the media with a seat in Serbia.
There are less articles in Albanian language promoting narratives against NATO-membership. These organizations continue to have a positive public image following the bombing of former Yugoslavia in 1999.
The media in Albanian language, however, and the social network posts are marked with an increased number of posts against the European Union, most of which are related to the delayed visa liberalization for Kosovo.
Apart from the anti-EU narrative, including the countries that conditioned visa liberalization, some portals published lies about the integration and liberalization reports. The portal lajme.buzz published an article titled: “EU shocked all, double-crossed Albin Kurti and stood for Serbia. The article was shared on Facebook with insults for the EU. The title of the article was false along with the hypothesis therein. The news published on the website of lajme.buzz have been shared on at least 10 Facebook pages, all managed by one person.
Since July, the same pages have shared more than 10 fake news, all checked by Cryptometer.
Populated with 93 percent Albanians and 7 percent other communities, Kosovo is among the countries with the most European narrative in the region. Surveys have proved that more than 90 percent of the citizens are in favour of Euro-Atlantic integration, while the tendency to discard such an opinion is predominantly present in the Serbian community. For the latter, propaganda and the past created a different approach towards the integrations.
Five percent of the population of Kosovo are Serbs, whose representative must approve every agreement for Kosovo’s integration into EU and NATO. Kosovo’s constitutional order demands an approval from 2/3 Members of Parliament from the minorities for all important agreements.
Under the circumstances, the easiest group to target are the Serbian citizens whose representatives can prevent Euro-Atlantic integration of Kosovo in the future.
Internet search engines and automatic filters also show the intention to influence other ethnic groups in Kosovo.
Lacking visa liberalization and the limited progress made in European integration increased the propaganda on the Balkans aiming to project the integration processes as very difficult.
More than 120 posts have been registered with the title “Turkey is placing a veto in NATO”. In the meantime, other fake news related to Turkey were published such as: “Albin Kurti played Erdogan, good for him! We are friends with Turkey, but the dialogue will happen in Brussels”.
The narrative presented in these two titles aims to indicate that membership is impossible due to political problems.
On the other hand, in some Albanian language media the fake news created is directed towards spreading disinformation regarding the possibility of NATO attacking Serbia again.
July 2022, a post was published with the fake title: “KFOR commander with a statement! We will not leave Kosovo until Serbia accepts independence”. The post was published on the website of lajme.icu. Later on, the post was edited because it was reviewed as fake on Facebook. Since July, the website of lajme.icu has published several pieces of fake news which Cryptometer assessed as false.
There were other fake posts regarding NATO. One such post was titled “The situation in Ukraine, Prime-minister Kurti with an “ultimatum” for NATO and EU: Accept Kosovo’s membership” and assessed as fake. When the war started in Ukraine, other fake articles were published like the one titled “Fake news on both conditions that Kosovo must fulfill for membership in NATO“.
Again websites published interviews from 2018, but added fake elements as was the case with the article titled: ”KFOR commander terrified the Serbs!: Recognize Kosovo or have American troops facing you all the time!” Cryptometer confirmed that the Chief of staff of NATO Liaison Office in Serbia, Cezare Marinelli, said nothing of the kind. Moreover, the source interview from where this invented news originated from was published in 2018.
Fictitious portals and unverified sources of information in Kosovo are spreading the narrative that EU integration is impossible since five EU countries have not recognized Kosovo.
Research and experts warn that the bureaucracy of European elites and the incapacity of Kosovo to consolidate the country, enables the expansion of Russian influence in Kosovo, especially with the Serbian population.
Currently Kosovo lacks data on the nationalities of the people living there because some Serbs refused to participate in the 2011 Census.
According to the Census of the population implemented in 2011, 92,9% of the population in Kosovo are Albanians, 1,5% are Serbs and 5,6% are “others”.
In the last 20 years a big propaganda spread among the Serbs living in Kosovo, mainly with an anti-NATO and anti-EU narrative.
In the course of 2021 and 2022, the civil society organization, “Democracy for Development” (D4D) monitored the online portals and the social networks.
Allen Meta, senior researcher in the organization, says that on the basis of the monitoring, a conclusion was derived that the settlements populated with Serbs were targeted with fake news for propaganda purposes.
He said that propaganda usually came from portals and media with seats in Serbia, but that there were cases when the news of “Russia Today” and “Sputnik” ended up in Kosovo media.
Meta claims that the fake news produced in these suspicious media in Serbia are sometimes translated into Albanian language.
In general, it has quite a big influence on Serbian citizens, says Meta.
One such piece of news, initially published in the media in Serbia and then translated and published in Klan Kosova, is the news titled: American Ambassador in Serbia: We are pressuring Pristina to act, responsibility must be borne. ”Cryptometer” determined that the news was not telling the whole truth.
”Cryptometer” revealed that part of the Ambassador’s statement about not having information about the ongoing action at the time was not published at all. In addition, apart from being published as the statement of the Ambassador regarding the action in the North, the Ambassador in his response talked about events in general. He did not even say that Pristina should bear responsibility for the last action. Talking about the ongoing action, the Ambassador said that he had no information:
Regarding the incident that happened today, we still lack sufficient information to judge.
Ramadan Ilazi, senior researcher at Kosovar Centre for Security Studies (KCSS), says that Kosovo is responding to the “conditionality by the West” just like the other parts of Eastern Europe.
According to Ilazi, an even bigger dose of conditionality was imposed on Kosovo by the West, compared to the other countries because of the special state-building process.
Response to the Western conditionality in Kosovo is formatted by the increased frustration of youth due to the legitimacy given to the corrupt political elites – but also from the general view that Euro-Atlantic consensus is not managing to secure consolidation of Kosovo’s statehood abroad. On the other hand, the feeling of local actors for the need of bearing responsibility by the Kosovars is growing.
Kosovo – East or West?
Two narratives dominate in Kosovo: pro-Western (EU, NATO and United States of America) and anti-Western (Russia and China).
Kosova Democratic Institute (KDI), a civil society organization with a seat in Kosovo, conducted a public opinion poll to see the position of the citizens of Kosovo towards European integration.
By measuring opinion by means of a questionnaire, KDI concluded that approximately 52 percent of the respondents believe that the EU did little to encourage Kosovo’s path towards EU membership.
An equally high percentage, approximately 29 percent, assess EU efforts to advance Kosovo’s path towards membership as moderate, while only 18 percent of the respondents think that EU did a great deal to accelerate the membership process.
For Bekim Collaku, former minister for European integration, the essential problem in the relations Kosovo-EU is the failure of five EU Member-States to recognize the country.
According to him, that makes it difficult for the EU to create unity in treating Kosovo as a country and subsequently, Kosovo is the last in the region in the EU integration process.
Consequently, Kosovo’s journey to the EU is – and remains – extremely difficult, he says.
EU’s discrimination of Kosovo in the visa liberalization process is the best proof of the wrong approach of the Union.
Indeed, all these events weakened the trust of the citizens of Kosovo in the EU. As a result, EU’s credibility is constantly degraded. Nevertheless, Kosovo’s aim to become an EU Member-State remains, says Collaku.
Bearing in mind the enormous influence of Serbian media on Serbian citizens in Kosovo, as well as the “shady” relations between Kosovo and the EU, space for developing anti-NATO and anti-EU narratives was created.
Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development (KIPRED) monitored published news in 2020 on Kosovo from a large number of Serbian and Russian media, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation and Kremlin.
Serbian media selected for monitoring were “Tanjug”, “Informer”, “Novosti”, “Kurir”, “B92”, “Politika” and “Nasa Borba”, while the Russian media selected were: “Russia Today”, “Sputnik International”, “Sputnik Serbia”, “Medusa”, “Russia Insider”, “TASS”, Moscow Times”, News Front”, Unz”, “Duran” and “Pravda Report” as well as the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Kremlin.
According to KIPRED, deconstruction of the news shows that the aim of the disinformation of the selected Serbian media was to create and strengthen the narratives that shake the core of legality of Kosovo’s statehood and denying the right to sovereignty as an independent country.
Moreover, the interesting feature of this disinformation, according to KIPRED, is the attempt to change the narratives about the war in Kosovo by denying war crimes committed by Belgrade in Kosovo depicting the Serbs as the sole victims and NATO as the aggressor and perpetrator of war crimes. There was, apparently, news that unrealistically increased the number of Serbian victims in the Kosovar war or presented the war of the Kosovo Albanians for independence as a religious war, and KLA as an Islamic military formation.
The Executive Director of the Institute, Lulzim Peci, says that this narrative, which is essentially anti-NATO and anti-EU, started a long time ago.
This anti-NATO and anti-EU narrative has been there since the beginning of the crisis in former Yugoslavia. That means that the narratives were created more than 30 years ago by media from Belgrade, and as such they are implanted in the heads of generations of people, he says.
According to him, anti-EU and anti-NATO narratives are present even today when EU is one of the biggest investors in Serbia, although the USA are also an important investor.
The investments did not play a strong role in changing these narratives, says Peci.
He stressed that the same difficulties prevail in Kosovo, since the Serbian population is informed predominantly from the media located in Serbia.
That is substantiated by the fact that EU and the international community have invested a great deal in places populated by Serbs in Kosovo, the approach, however, remains unchanged.
Peci says that the Serbian population in Kosovo is under great influence of the Russian propaganda.
What we see in the public is the perception that Serbian citizens in Kosovo are more pro-Russian oriented, he explains.
He also added that the establishment of the “Serb List” prevented freedom of thought.
In actual fact, political pluralism among the Serbs in Kosovo does not exist since the establishment of the “Serb List” and that prevents us from seeing or realizing what the Serbian population is really feeling here, he says.
Peci however, thinks that the discourse of the Kosovar Albanians is also problematic.
We have such narratives in Kosovo as well. They are not strongly pro-Western in our media, not even from political figures in our society. Therefore, we find ourselves in a situation that I tend to call post-historic which refers to the position towards NATO and EU, but also the change in narratives of the developments.
Fake news, the best method for creating fake narratives
The news that the Serbian portals and tabloids feed the population of Serbian nationality in Kosovo are quite often twisted, distorted, and contain quasi-facts.
The topic of the fake news is usually related to nationalism, anti-NATO narrative, KLA and the statehood of Kosovo in general.
For example, 24th March 2018, the medium ”Srbizasrbe” (Serbs for Serbs), on the anniversary of NATO intervention in Kosovo, published an article calling NATO-intervention “criminal aggression on our fatherland”.
In 1999, Western civilization proved that media propaganda can brand an entire nation thereby putting the branded in mortal danger. Bombing with depleted uranium makes the criminal action even more monstrous, because the accurate number of victims cannot be determined. Nineteen years after the bombing, we are praying for the souls of the victims and we see how history is redefined and how the aggression against our people continues in other forms”, reports this article, not substantiated by any accurate source of information.
The non-governmental organization in Serbian language from North Mitrovica, “Alternativa”, says that when one talks about the media and informing citizens of Serbian nationality in Kosovo, one should distinguish between the media in Belgrade and the media in Kosovo.
Ana Marija Ivkovic from this organization says that Serbian language media in Kosovo are significantly more careful in their reporting compared to the media in Belgrade.
The narratives against EU and NATO are mainly published by tabloids and some pro-regime media in Serbia. Such media aim at manipulating the public and spreading fear when the government in Belgrade needs to adopt and implement unpopular decisions or when the rating of the ruling party (SPP) needs to be increased, says Ivkovic.
Another example for propaganda of Serbian nationalism can be found in the medium ”Beograd.in” that published an article on NATO intervention 19th May 2020. That same article was shared on the social networks in 2022. The article quotes three former military staff members talking about “NATO intervention and the battle at Kosare and Pastrik”.
The article claims that in 2012 such topics were banned and that ”Aleksandar Vucic was the first to speak about the aggression and bombing of the country calling the events by their real name”.
That way the three Serbian military staff promoted anti-NATO narrative, using nationalism. The same medium published fake news and twisted the statement of a former KLA soldier.
On the other hand, Albana Rexha from the non-governmental organization “Democracy Plus”, says that on the basis of the latest polls published by NDI Kosovo, Kosovar Serbs have a positive opinion of Russia and China, unlike the Albanian who have a positive opinion of USA, NATO and the EU, contrary to their opinion on Russia and Serbia.
According to Rexha, most of the Kosovar Serbs responded negatively to the question whether they would vote for EU and NATO membership, unlike the Albanians who responded positively.
These opinions express the ongoing ill-intentional impact of external factors such as Russia, China, or Serbia, through various online portals that spread all sorts of disinformation for the purpose to sustain these negative opinions towards the Western forces, on the one hand, and strengthen the positive opinions of China and mainly Russian politics, on the other hand, says Rexha.
According to Allen Meta from D4D, judging from the discussions this organization had with Serbian citizens and Serbian non-governmental organizations, one can conclude that they fall under the influence of the news that aim to twist information.
We noticed that this narrative created by the Serbian portals against NATO and EU prevailed in the questions, but also in the answers of Serbian citizens. You realize that all the time Serbian citizens in general base their opinions, in one way or another, on these developed narratives and that they are against NATO and EU all the time, says Meta.
This does not affect Serbian citizens in Kosovo only, because he had seen the same narrative during various discussions that took place in Belgrade.
Lack of investigations
Kosovo is hesitating which instances should deal with issues caused by fake news.
For a long time, institutions in Kosovo had no strategic vision for dealing with this problem. Thus, institutions do not have instruments to analyze and oppose fake news and propaganda.
The Strategy against Terrorism in Kosovo provided for the development of an Action Plan for intercepting fake narratives. This document has not been developed yet by the implementers of the Strategy.
Another document awaiting approval is the National Strategy against Cyber-Crime. This document also is in the phase of development and it envisages activities that would prevent sharing false information.
In the same token, the National Security Strategy aims at developing activities on the same topic, but it was recently adopted.
One of the most significant challenges is the lack of investigations of the sources of funding of fake portals.
Some of the websites that aim at influencing Kosovo are not even registered in Kosovo. Some of the fake news discovered by “Cryptometer” were created by sites that were registered in North Macedonia. The news published by these sites was predominantly Kosovo related.
In the meantime, a great dela of portals and Facebook pages generate income although they are not registered as businesses in compliance with the law.
The Tax Administration in Kosovo is still lacking capacity to trace and prosecute these fictitious portals without addresses and not registered as businesses regardless of the fact that they generate income from their activity.
Moreover, the Tax Administration in Kosovo, and the other institutions have not investigated nor made a statement about the sources of funding of these online media. External advertisements, income generated from social networks or from ADD are not monitored and not taxed by the Tax Administration of Kosovo.
Other data shows that the level of cash payments in Kosovo is high. A study developed through a project funded by the European Commission claims that the level of the grey economy in Kosovo is approximately 30 percent of GDP.
A study published in 2020 by Global Initiative indicates that money-laundering is ongoing in Kosovo to a great extent, mainly in the construction sector, retail and services such as “call-centres” or taxi services.
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