Thousands Serbian citizens took to the rainy streets of Belgrade on December 8, demanding an end to state-sponsored violence against political opposition leaders and an end to “bloody shirts.”
The protest was organized by opposition parties in response to recent attack on opposition leader Borko Stefanović, who displayed his bloody shirt at a press conference, creating a new symbol of repression.
But Serbia's heavily controlled media ecosystem was loathe to acknowledge this significant expression of public discontent. In the hours and days following the protest, Serbian internet users and media experts watched as local media misinformed the public about the scale and scope of the protest. These misleading reports in turn inspired a flood of viral reactions on social media.
As reported by N1 Tv, Voice of America and Reuters, protesters who chanted and blew whistles blame the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) for enabling violence against political opponents, and shouted “Out with you” and “you will not get away with it.” Various public figures, including the actor and philanthropist Sergej Trifunović gave speeches. Notably, protesters did not display party symbols.
The non-violent protest included a march through the center of Belgrade to the Parliament and then on to the Public Broadcaster Radio Television of Serbia (RTS).
Hej @RTS_Vesti imate par desetina hiljada ljudi ispred zgrade. Pomenućete ih u Dnevniku 2 koji počinje za 15 minuta, je l’ da?
Ako ih ne vidite i ne čujete, slobodno promolite glavu kroz prozor.
Molim i drugi put. pic.twitter.com/GaKcgNgONa
— Ana Stevanović (@StevanovicAna7) December 8, 2018
Hey RTS News there's couple of tens of thousands of people in front of your building. Will you mention them on the Evening News 2 which starts in 15 minutes?
If you don't see them and listen to them, feel free to look through the window.
You are welcome! Anytime!
Organizers said the turnout was larger than expected, estimating that around 15,000 people participated. But many warned that information about the event was not reaching the general public in Serbia, as most of the media are controlled by the SNS government.
Isli smo kolektivno sa car-go na protest i nazad – ni jedan od vozaca nije imao pojma da postoje neki protesti. A ti vozaci nisu simpatizeri ni clanovi svinjo-mafije. 96 je bio b92 i Studio B -sada medijski fasizam. Gde ljudi da cuju? S obzirom na ovo – ogroman broj ljudi veceras
— Srdjan Dragojevic (@srdjandrago) December 8, 2018
We collectively went to the protest and back using Car-go [an Uber-like service]. None of the drivers had any idea that there was a protest tonight. And those drivers are neither sympathizers or members of the pork-mafia [his term for the regime]. In 1996, at least two stations informed about such events, b92 and Studio B. Now we have media fascism. Where can people get the news? Considering this, we had a huge turnout tonight.
After the protest, Studio B TV broadcasted a short item in which the reporter minimized the protest. This swiftly become a hot topic on Serbian social media. In the clip, the reporter Barbara Životić claimed that the protest was attended by very few people and described the organizers as hypocrites and promoters of violence.
In the report, she said:
Navodno je to trebalo da bude spontani mirni protest pobunjenih građana protiv nasilja. Naravno da se iza tog protesta nalazi glavni finansijer lider opozicije Dragan Đilas, koji je finansirao sam taj protest i organizovao i okupio navodno vanstranačke ličnosti kako bi se okupio što veći broj građana. Protest je blokirao saobraćaj. Daleko malo ljudi je prisustvovalo protestu. Kako je naš reporter nama preneo bilo je dosta neorganizovano.
Kako sam navela protest je organizovan protiv nasilja, pod parolom „Stop krvavim košuljama“, što je veliko licemerje, zbog toga što upravo ti ljudi koji su organizovali protest pozivaju na linč, silovanje, nasilje, državni udar… I to smatramo jako, jako, jako licemernim. Pogotovo u ovoj situaciji kada našoj državi treba mirna i stabilna situacija, zbog čitavog dešavanja na Kosovu i Metohiji. Naravno, oni organizuju proteste!
Allegedly this was supposed to be a spontaneous peaceful protest of citizens opposing violence. Of course behind this protest is the chief financier and opposition leader Dragan Djilas, who financed that protest and organized it, by gathering alleged nonpartisan personalities to attract more citizens. The protest blocked the traffic. Very few people participated in the protest. As our reporter said earlier, it was rather unorganized.
As I said the protest was organized against violence, under the slogan “Stop to bloody shirts,” which is huge hypocrisy, because the people who organized the protest are the ones calling for lynching, rape, violence and coup d'etat… And I find that very, very, very hypocritical. Especially in this situation when our state needs peace and stability, because of all the developments in Kosovo and Metohija. Of course, they decided to organize protests just now!
Anti-fake news website Raskrikavanje published a fact-check of the report, marking it as media manipulation. They noted that contrary to available footage from the march and official police report, Ms. Životić claimed the event included a violent incident, then broke the Code of Journalists of Serbia by describing the participants in a biased manner, claiming that “very few people attended the protest”, and making other unfounded claims while hiding behind anonymous sources.
Digital artist Bojan Dzodan juxtaposed the footage from the Studio B report with actual footage from the protest, showing thousands of peaceful protesters on the same spot. The resulting video went viral.
In just one day, the Facebook version of the video received over 5800 shares and more than 633,000 views. He wrote:
Apsolutno me ne interesuje ko je na vlasti, dok nam mediji budu ovako izgledali sretaćete me na protestima.
I absolutely don't care who's running the government, but as long as our media look like this, you'll be meeting me at the protests.
Along with sharing raw footage of the controversial news items, some social media users went in a creative direction with the material. One user wrote and posted an original rap about the situation.
In the only prominent official government response to the protest, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić, who has been blamed for autocratic tendencies, declared: “March as much as you want, I won’t fulfil your demands.”