Media coverage of Election Day in Niksic: Heightening tensions and spreading narratives

The Election Day in Niksic passed in a relatively peaceful atmosphere, even though during the weeks prior to March 14, these elections had been evaluated as historic. Several (minor) incidents were reported, such as a violent attempt of mail-in voting reported by the Centre for Monitoring and Research (CeMI).

However, numerous pieces of disinformation and fake news published by the Serbia-based media, and posted on social media, marked the electoral processes. Fortunately, their predictions, from the riots in the streets in case the ruling power loses elections, power outages in the afternoon hours to President Milo Djukanovic’s plans to flee the country through Albania, turned out to be wrong.

At the same time, everyone who followed the coverage of Election Day via news portals and social media platforms had an impression that an atmosphere prior to potential conflicts prevailed in the town under the Trebjesa. After the closing of the polling station and the announcement of the election results, the supporters of the coalitions For the Future of Niksic and Peace is Our Nation gathered in large numbers. Minor incidents occurred then in front of the campaign headquarters of the coalition For the Future of Niksic and the COVID-19 measures were breached despite the calls from the leader of the coalition For the Future of Niksic Marko Kovacevic and President of the Parliament Aleksa Becic on their supporters to celebrate the victory at home.

As during the parliamentary elections in Montenegro in 2020, the Serbia-based media outlets led in covering the situation in Niksic, with their headlines frequently colored with sensationalism and tendentiousness. The identical narratives and predictions about the results of the Election Day prevailed as during the parliamentary elections. Following the same pattern, the goal was to create an image of Niksic as a place where unrest and chaos rule. While the news portal Glas javnosti had led in covering the parliamentary elections, the news portal Nacionalist led in covering the local elections.

The riots that never happened

The essential topic in the Serbia-based media was the narrative about the riots planned by the DPS. On Election Day, they wrote that the DPS activists are taking photos of the voters, threatening them not to vote for another political option, and as well as gathering 300 young male persons to organize riots at the polling station to override the political will of the voters. According to those texts, the DPS found support for causing the unrest in Budva. The news portal Nacionalist writes that Milo Djukanovic realized that it is getting beyond a joke now, so he is asking his friend Brano Micunovic to send a squadron of Komitas, thugs, and members of the Kavac clan from Budva to spark riots in Niksic. A similar narrative marked the parliamentary elections: (BREAKING NEWS) DPS prepared “special” scenario for tonight: All citizens should celebrate the victory at their homes!, when the news portal IN4S wrote about the DPS’s plan to organize groups that would set the flags of NATO, the EU, and Montenegro on fire.

The news portal Novosti writes that the members of the Special Anti-terrorist Unit were seen in the streets of Niksic with the intention to prevent the chaos announced by the DPS because of the alleged beating of its members. It also writes that large police forces continue to gather in front of the police station in Niksic, and that their colleagues from Zabljak are coming to help them, all with the goal to prevent potential riots. The news portal Informer republishes the same text with a tendentious headline: NIKCIS REACHING A BOILING POINT, THE NEXT FEW HOURS FILLED WITH DREAD, AS LONG AS THERE IS NO ERUPTION OF…! POLICE FROM ZABLJAK IS HERE, The DPS supporters driving around the headquarters of the coalition “For the Future of Niksic”!

More from the column #itneverhappened: Power outages, the escape of the President

Apart from the outbreak of riots and police presence on the streets, neither this time did the narratives achieve a level of originality higher than the one seen in the parliamentary elections. The news portal Nacionalist finds out that the DPS is planning to cut electricity to Niksic. According to their writing, the DPS soldiers, faced with certain defeat, got an assignment to create a diversion, immediately after the closing of the polling station, by disrupting the electric power system in order to prevent the local electoral commission from counting the ballots under normal conditions, which would mark their end. On the day of the parliamentary elections, the news portal Glas javnosti published that the disruption of the Internet and shutting down of opposition news portals including IN4S and Borba was planned around 6 p.m., which, as well as the power outages, never happened.

The press statement issued by the Police Administration calling on citizens not to go to the streets after the closing of the polling station and to respect the COVID-19 preventive measures was used by the news portal Nacionalist to spread panic under a headline: IT DOESN’T AUGUR WELL!  Montenegro’s police issued an emergency statement: Stay at home, GATHERINGS ARE PROHIBITED.

In the Serbia-based media, the closing of the polling station was rounded out by repeating the narrative that Milo Djukanovic was planning a spectacular escape from the country. The news portals Objektiv and Alo write that the chief of Djukanovic’s security was ordered to prepare an inconspicuous middle-class vehicle in which he will, in case that the political-security situation in Montenegro doesn’t develop in his favor, head toward Albania and, with the help of confidential people working at the Bozaj crossing border, secretly leave Montenegro’s territory the same night under cover of the darkness. During the parliamentary elections in 2020, the news portal Alo spread the same narrative on President Djukanovic’s leaving the country. The text then reported the lawyer Goran Petronijevic’s statement that Milo Djukanovic had helicopters awaiting him at three locations that are supposed to take him to Albania, should he suffer the defeat in the elections.

The persistent narrative about the DPS members leaving the party

The news portal Kurir publishes a piece of breaking news with a headline: LEFT FOR GOOD: Dusko Markovic left the DPS’ headquarters, A NEW PARTY IN THE CARDS? This news portal writes that, according to a well-informed source, the former Prime Minister of Montenegro left the DPS and started forming a new party, predicting that after the elections in Niksic, the first rift will open up within that party. Markovic quickly denied those allegations on his Twitter account. According to the news portal Nacionalist’s writing, Andrija Nikolic will join the Dusko Markovic’s faction, because he does not want to put up with the mobbing and the pressure from boss Milo any longer.

In its inappropriate content, the news portal Alo assures that Markovic and Nikolic are not the only ones who are leaving the DPS: THE ANARCHY WITHIN THE DPS Milo’s loyal servant first hit the bottle and then turned his back on him! According to this news portal’s writing, knowing that the DPS will be defeated, Milutin Simovic, in accordance with the old-age traditional custom, turned to the grape rakia in the most difficult times, entering into the state of severe intoxication, to reduce his fear and stress. The narrative on the DPS’s losing the elections circumvented not even the Election Day, which was portrayed by the news portal Glas javnosti under the headline: THE FIASCO AROUND THE CORNER: Sanja Damjanovic burst into tears when she realized that she’s LOOSING!

Fake news and false surveys

One of the first fake news to appear on social media platforms during the Election Day in Niksic was that Niksic-based singer-songwriter Miladin Sobic called on the citizens of Niksic to vote against the Democratic Party of Socialists. The allegations were denied on Sobic’s official Facebook page.

False public opinion surveys also circulated during the election campaign, circumventing not even Election Day. A survey allegedly conducted by the Centre for Monitoring and Research (CeMi) on the exit poll results, according to which the coalitions For the Future of Niksic and Peace is our Nation are well ahead, circulated on social media. The CeMI told the fact-checker portal that Montenegro prohibits the exit polls. The CeMI has never conducted them, thus neither at these elections. Those are just disinformation that we should pay no attention to. The CeMI will announce the election result forecast, once the polls have closed, and NOT based on the exit polls, but rather on another methodology, i.e., the method of the parallel vote tabulation that we always employ in the election monitoring, they stated.

Soon after the video showing vote-buying and selling of ID cards in the coffee bar Arkade appeared on social media platforms, it was shared by the media outlets. The video was published by the tabloid Alo under a headline: SCANDAL SHAKES NIKSIC Police are guarding the coffee bar where Djukanovic’s men are buying the votes; citizens were threatened with arrest!, explaining that more than 15 persons had been seen in one place. The texts republished the words of Milan Knezevic that the police was called, but they have not done anything about it. A bit later on, the news portal Novosti recycled the text providing some new information and shared another video claiming that during the search of the coffee bar Arkade, ten DPS’ activists had been found buying the votes. Sometime later, the Police Administration stated that there was no vote-buying in the coffee bar Arkade, which is registered as the DPS’ headquarters.

The incident in Dragova Luka at polling station No. 118

The Municipal Board of the Democratic Party of Socialists in Niksic stated that Marko Kovacevic violently entered the polling station No.118 in the neighborhood Dragova Luka, which was followed by taking of the voting material, preventing of the electoral commission to come on-site, and beating of one person. The Police Administration stated that they came to the polling station and determined that the information about the beaten person was false.

The news portal Nacionalist closed the Election Day coverage with the headline: MILO IS TRAMPLING ON THE CONSTITUTION: He is imposing police curfew in Niksic! (PHOTO). The text attached the screenshot of a Viber message in which the person under the name MILO THE BOSS says the following: Get ready for tonight I’m ordering police curfew in Niksic.

As during the parliamentary elections, none of the projected scenarios including the power outages, the escape to Albania, and the declaration of police curfew, occurred in Niksic. While there was certainly no lack of tensions in the headlines and the media coverage, Election Day in Niksic passed relatively peacefully.

The Digital Forensic Center recalls that a quality fight against disinformation and fake news requires the education of the citizens and the strengthening of media literacy in Montenegro and all the countries in the region. Fake news travel six times faster than the truthful information on social media, which serve as evidence of how much the fight against this phenomenon is difficult. The only possible solution is the joint fight of media, the competent authorities, and organizations against fake news.