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Disinformation sharpened tensions between Serbia and Montenegro as media misrepresented religion freedom law

Disinformation sharpened tensions between Serbia and Montenegro
Disinformation sharpened tensions between Serbia and Montenegro as media misrepresented religion freedom law
The divisive situation around the newly adopted Law on Freedom of Religion in Montenegro has been used by disinformation outlets in the Balkan region to foment division, which resembles the practice earlier detected in Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia.

Read also: Attacking Ukrainian church: The Kremlin turns the Orthodox world into a battlefield

The adoption of the Law on Freedom of Religion enacted by the Montenegrin Parliament on 27 December 2019 attracted significant media attention across the region and, especially, in Serbia. Coverage mainly focused on provisions related to the property of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) in Montenegro. The analysis of press clipping pointed at fair reporting, but also highlighted propaganda, disinformation, and fake news, which reached its peaks in the first week of January.

Read also: Greece threatened with Russia lifting “guarantees of non-occupation” for recognizing Ukrainian Church

As reported in the regional media, one of the disputed provisions in the law concerns proof of ownership of property by religious communities. According to the Montenegrin Digital Forensic Center, 35.000 news articles and social media posts opposing the Law emerged over the last three months. As reported, 20.000 of these news items came from Serbia and 9.000 came from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

From Russian to Serbian media

Enactment of the Law led to political tensions, violent incidents in the Parliament of Montenegro, and series of protests organized by the SOC in different towns in Montenegro as well as in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s entity of Republika Srpska.

The sources of the false reporting included media that were based in Serbia with some of those state-owned, the Russian-owned media reporting in the Serbian language (Sputnik), and some Montenegro-based news portals. They also often disseminated unverified manipulative content created by users of social networks and statements by Russian, Montenegrin and Serbian politicians and clergy representatives.

The phantom of 2015

Some media extensively wrote about the Serbian orthodox church property claiming it will “end up in the hands of the rival Montenegrin Orthodox Church”, which is a “fake church” and “schismatic”, claiming that the SOC properties will be rented or sold or made tourist resorts and attractions.

Read also: Attacking Ukrainian church: The Kremlin turns the Orthodox world into a battlefield

Another narrative was depicting a conspiracy theory that the Government of Montenegro was planning to give away SOC’s sanctities and relics to the Holy See and/or Order of Malta.

Another tactic, exposed by some local fact-checkers, was the use of articles from a 2015 version of the draft law that was neither adopted by Montenegro nor became part of the adopted law, to create a false picture of the effects of the new law. Those old texts included provisions envisaging that religious communities with an official seat outside of Montenegro would be prevented from registering, that the Government would be able to approve the election of heads of religious communities, that the religious organizations could be easily abolished and their property transferred to the Government. None of these made it to the currently approved text.

And then there is NATO…

Fuelling conspiracy theories, wrongful messages circulated that the government planned to invite 250 members of Kosovo’s special police ROSU to help ensure order on Christmas Eve. The Government reacted very quickly, announcing on Twitter that it was fake news. The news portal that broke this story, deleted it shortly thereafter. The disinformation came at a critical time when tensions were high and many people were engaged in protests.

Anti-NATO sentiments were used to increase the sense of conspiracy. Media alleged that the NATO’s counter-hybrid support team visiting Montenegro were tasked with “taking down sites and portals that disobey the Montenegrin President’s rule, controlling the internet, manipulating mass protests by diminishing their numbers, blaming archbishops through mounted texts…”

Read also: Plans for a “Great Serbia” and the Kremlin’s hybrid war in the Balkans

The situation has heavily stirred emotions within the country and partially sustained the protests that had started in December last year, right after the adoption of the Law.

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