Websites were blocked, servers attacked, and Twitter accounts hijacked in Serbia last weekend in a cyber assault on tech hobbyists and “geeks” in Belgrade. The reason? A viral video mocking Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s recent attempt to present himself as a “man of the people” on national news.
Media workers in the country have felt a steady wave of harassment and thug-like behavior by government officials and their aids since the country’s current ruling coalition took power in 2012. But recent events have led to increasingly aggressive actions by government officials, particularly Vucic, a fierce power broker known for using national media to promote his public image. With parliamentary elections fast approaching, he and other leading figures appear determined to preserve and promote their images in both traditional and online media.
In this particular incident, an unknown satirist layered humorous subtitles over the above video, in which Vucic “rescues” a child in a snowstorm. The full clip shows two aids arriving with the child and setting up the shot, making it clear that the scene was staged.
The video swiftly went viral. The original footage was taken by state-run public broadcasting service Radio Television Serbia (RTS). But it was Austria-based KVZ Music, an entirely different distribution company with offices in several countries including Serbia, and no apparent ties to RTS, which claimed that the video violated copyright restrictions. A request was filed, and the video was removed from YouTube.
But the video had already made the rounds and been re-loaded and copied onto various sites and blogs throughout the country. Soon, several sites that reproduced the video were blocked — and several others discovered their servers suddenly facing massive DDoS attacks, all of which seem to have originated from sources within the country.
Some administrators of these sites — many of which are blogs that offer independent news or commentary — soon found their Twitter accounts had been hacked, with passwords and associated email accounts changed. The account information was soon restored, but the message was clear: “Don’t mess with us.”
The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, the Independent Association of Journalists of Vojvodina, and SHARE Foundation issued a statement the following day, condemning the questionable removal of the videos and Internet censorship, claiming that the “remix culture”, or the practice of combining and editing video and other material to create new online content, represents a “pillar of Internet culture.”
Local media expert and NGO leader Danica Radisic, also an editor with Global Voices, described the attacks as “unprecedented and…almost unimaginable even during the ill-remembered Milosevic era.” Although many details remain unknown, Radisic suspects the attacks were perpetrated by “thugs” or entities working on behalf of the ruling coalition.
I simply don’t see who else would have the motive to spend the time, energy or power involved in these attacks. In fact, I don’t see how this could possibly be a smart move on part of the ruling coalition either, as I assume their goal is to win as many votes as possible in the upcoming early parliamentary elections on March 16th of this year.