As anti-government protests swell in Belgrade, pro-government media outlets in Serbia are stepping up a disinformation campaign accusing protestors of “savagery” and pinning violence on pro-Russian groups, 5G conspiracists, and right-wing groups.

Triggered by President Aleksandar Vucic’s re-introduction of a curfew scheduled for three days this weekend, the protests, now spreading to other cities, are widely seen as a rejection of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and simmering anger against the president. 

Authoritarianism in Serbia has been on the rise under Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party. Democracy watchdogs have documented attacks on independent media, electoral fraud and corruption. Two weeks ago, opposition parties boycotted parliamentary elections, and the president is broadly accused of a wholesale hijacking of Serbian pluralistic democracy.

While thousands of Serbs gathered for two consecutive nights in front of parliament in Belgrade, Serbian social media have been flooded with videos of police using batons against protestors. One independent TV station captured the beating of a journalist by police after he identified himself as a reporter.

Pro-government media have focused on attempts by rioters to break into parliament, writing that they “DESTROYED AND BURNED EVERYTHING IN FRONT OF THEM.”

Earlier today, Kurir, a pro-government tabloid, ran a front page story accusing “Anti-European” and “right-wing pro-Russian” forces of the “destruction of Belgrade.” 

Protesters have accused pro-government media outlets of disinformation. “I think that we gave up on traditional media. We are used to reading lies,” said protestor Zaklina Zivkovic. “They are not even trying anymore to make some good lies.”

Serbia and Russia have been tight allies but the relationship may be tested as “Serbia and its President Aleksandar Vucic are now willing to scapegoat Russia in light of ongoing protests,” tweeted Vuk Vuksanovic, an associate fellow at the London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank. 

Independent media outlets have posted video footage and photographs of men they identified as plain-clothed police officers who joined the protests and may have provoked some of the violence. 

On Wednesday, police director Vladimir Rebic said in a press conference that “the lives of police officers were endangered” and defended the use of force, mounted policemen, and tear gas. He promised to prosecute the “hooligans” who protested by analyzing camera footage. 

Vucic seemed on Wednesday to walk back the announcement about a weekend curfew, but not before describing the protestors as anti-5G activists, flat-earthers and members of the far-right.

“These people were not talking about coronavirus — they were talking about some kind of betrayal, about migrants, the 5G network and the earth as a flat plate,” Vucic said.

In recent weeks, Serbia has experienced a surge in coronavirus cases. Tuesday was the country’s deadliest day, when 13 people died. The country of just under 7 million people has 17,000 confirmed cases. Last month, the news outlet Balkan Insight published an investigation revealing dramatic underreporting of deaths and infections, finding that the government’s own database counted twice the number of deaths than were officially reported.

“The fire starter for the protests was the announcement of the lockdown because of the epidemic, but it was only a last straw,” said protestor Zaklina Zivkovic. “It wasn’t acceptable to us anymore — the elections, the state of the media, the economy, the way they handled this pandemic, the way they lied to us.”

Photo by Mustafa Talha Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images