Astroturfing Serbian way, just when we thought we’d seen it all …

by ZS Law

Photo by Adrian Curiel on Unsplash

Astroturfing – the deceptive practice of presenting an orchestrated public relations campaign in the guise of unsolicited comments from members of the public, has reached its new height in the letters to the editor section of “Politika”, Serbia’s newspaper of record.  

On 5 May 2017, “Politika” published a letter of one Milovan B. Vučić, signed as the university professor, psychoanalytic psychotherapist and psychoanalytic supervisor, child psychoanalysis specialist from Los Angeles, California, criticizing “injustices of feminist judiciary” in Serbia and arguing that Serbian courts and social services centers are either corrupt or biased in favor of women when deciding in child custody cases.

Just ten days later, “Politika” published another letter, this time by one Petra Nožica, psychiatrist and family psychotherapist from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Ms. Nožica praised “Politika” for addressing an important human rights issue and argued that Serbia was the only European country where custody is awarded to mothers in more than 80 per cent of child custody cases. The issue amounted to, according to Nožica, discrimination practiced with impunity.

The agenda behind both letters was obvious even to an average “Politika” reader. It was all in the timing: the major story back in May was the custody case involving children of Belgrade’s mayor and his former wife. At the moment nobody noticed that there was no university professor called Milovan B. Vučić in Los Angeles, nor a psychiatrist called Petra Nožica in Sarajevo. No one bothered to try a reverse image search of the alleged Milovan B. Vučić’s photo published in “Politika”. Two months later, it was discovered that it was just a stock photo available via several stock photography providers (e.g. here and here).

Two months later, in June, custody case involving children of Belgrade’s mayor was almost forgotten. The major stories were murders that occurred in, or just in front of, social services centers in Belgrade. First, on 5June 2017, a man who came to New Belgrade social services center to a supervised visitation time with his wife and three sons; killed the wife with a rock, in front of the boys. Just a couple of days later, another man killed both his four year old child and child’s mother, in front of the Čukarica social services center.

In the midst of a public outcry over the gender based violence, “Politika” decided to publish another letter, this time signed by an alleged forensic psychiatrist and court appointed expert in child custody cases from Montreal, Canada, Dr Petar Veličković. In the letter, published on 18 July 2017, Veličković claimed that “aggressive feminists” abuse the tragedies for their political agenda, while “almost all infanticides in the world are committed by women”.

This time, however, someone bothered to search the doctor on the Internet, as well as to search doctor’s alleged photo published in “Politika” with reverse image search engines. It appeared that there was no forensic psychiatrist and court appointed expert in child custody cases with that name neither in Montreal, Canada, nor elsewhere. On the other hand, the person on the photo was a German actor, Andreas Kaufmann. In a statement given to Serbian media, Kaufmann called the article “disgusting”. “I have nothing to do with any of the opinions mentioned in the article. The photo displayed is one of my casting photos I use as an actor in Germany. It’s a case of theft and misuse,” he said.

The Serbian Press Council, an independent, self-regulatory body that brings together publishers, owners of print and online media, news agencies and media professionals and that has been established for monitoring the observance of the Journalists’ Code of Ethics, solving complaints made by individuals and institutions related to media content, just reached its decision upon Andreas Kaufmann’s complaint (available here in Serbian). Unsurprisingly, the Press Council held that “Politika”, in publishing Veličković’s  letter, was in breach of the provisions of the Serbian Journalists’ Code of Ethics on accuracy, that are insisting on information being verified prior to their release, on lack of respect for dignity and integrity, due to Mr. Kaufmann’s likeness being associated with ideas he vehemently oppose, as well as the provisions of the Press Council’s Guidelines on the application of the Code of Ethics in a digital environment insisting on journalist’s obligation to verify the profile of the source and ensure that the source really is who and what he, or she claims to be. The Press Council required publication of its decision in the newspaper, as a remedial action. Judicial decisions shall also follow, since Andreas Kaufmann claimed damages at the Higher Court in Belgrade. What is much less likely to happen is the real Petar Veličković, Milovan B. Vučić and Petra Nožica to stand up.

Živković Samardžić lawyers, led by  Kruna SavovićTechnology, Media and Telecommunications Senior Associate and Miloš Stojković, Technology, Media and Telecommunications Associate, are advising Andreas Kaufmann in the proceedings in front of the Press Council and the Serbian courts.

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