Satirical Serbian news site Njuz.net [News.net] could best be described as Belgrade’s answer to The Onion. For more than a decade, Njuz has been lampooning local politicians and confusing gullible readers with headlines like: “Politician dies suddenly after 30 years of continuous non-work” and “Serbia reduces the delivery of brotherly love to Russia by 28 per cent”.
Yet as Serbia’s media scene has come increasingly under pressure from government attacks and oligarchic media tycoons, the site has become one of the last media organisations willing to take on Serbia’s increasingly autocratic government — albeit with a heavy dose of comedy attached.
That interregnum dented the Serbian public’s natural defences against irony to such an extent that, in the early days, many mistook Njuz’s content for actual news. An early Njuz article that spoofed the 2010 Sharm El Sheikh shark attacks was picked up by the Macedonian International News Agency and presented as fact. The article claimed that a drunken Serbian tourist had jumped into the sea, landing on the shark responsible for the attacks and killing it instantly. Not only did the story dupe MINA, but the agency translated the article into English, leading it to be picked up by publications such as New York Post. They also reprinted the story on the assumption that it had already been fact-checked.
Neither Dražić nor Viktor Marković, Njuz’s star staff writer, had any prior experience in spoof news before the website launch. Dražić had previously worked for Blic, a major Serbian tabloid, while Marković had run his own Belgrade city guide on a blog site. Initially, they simply started copy-pasting articles from local news agencies and editing them for absurdity. Eventually, Njuz’s bogus newswire-like format became second-nature. “We’re not really sure why journalism degrees exist,” Marković says with a playful smirk.
In the decade since Njuz’s debut, the site has blossomed into a major cultural force in Serbia. It now employs an editorial staff of six, supported by a legion of freelance contributors. It has also spawned its own podcast and 24 Minutes with Zoran Kesić, a satirical TV news show which has aired on national television since 2013. Lampooning current affairs has also transformed Dražić and Marković into genuine political commentators, who are regularly invited onto news programmes to offer serious-yet-witty takes on events in the country.
While Njuz’s arrival on the Serbian media scene caught many people off-guard, it also coincided with a major sea-change in the country’s politics — one which has completely transformed the domestic media landscape. The Democratic Party, which led the overthrow of the Slobodan Milošević regime, was voted out of power in 2012. They were replaced by a coalition of former Milošević acolytes, led by the country’s current president, Aleksandar Vučić. Since then, the vast majority of Serbian media outlets have been taken over by regime-friendly oligarchs, who silence critical coverage of the government in exchange for political and financial benefits.
“The difference is that the news on our site could potentially occur, but what’s reported on the evening news isn’t possible – that’s a proper lie”
Although their criticism is drenched in comedy, Njuz is among the few remaining independent media sources that is able to reach a wide audience and serve some sort of social purpose. The paper draws attention to state dysfunction and the absurdities of domestic political life. Choice headlines include: “Politicians breathe sigh of relief upon realising that changes to labour laws do not apply to them”, or “Citizens shocked by totally predictable election results”.
“We strive to be something more than just mere entertainment,” says Dražić. “We truly want everything that we publish to have some sort of message and offer a clear critique. We do have some articles that are just for laughs, but generally we try to make sure that everything we do clearly criticises something.”
“But we still have to strike a balance between criticism and humour,” adds Marković. “If we’re too critical then we might start deluding ourselves that we’re here to change things, and too much critique isn’t funny. But at the same time if we forget that critical part then it’s just mockery for mockery’s sake, which isn’t that appealing to us either”.
Although they don’t see themselves as freedom fighters, the sheer inefficacy of Serbia’s opposition parties has led some exasperated voters to hope that the Njuz team and other entertainment industry critics might lead the resistance to Vučić by steering people towards revolution. Dražić rules this out as a possibility.
“Do I think that satire can achieve fundamental change? No,” he says flatly. “Satire and humour can be a component part of some larger movement. If some sort of political force showed up as a genuine alternative to [the government], then our humour and criticism could be an additional motor for that. But people here are often so desperate and can’t see any viable [political] options that they often turn to comedians, caricaturists, and TV show hosts in the hope that they might take down Vučić. It’s both tragic and funny if you think that comedians can change anything that matters.”
Despite being some of the government’s most prominent critics, Njuz’s irreverence and humour has served as a protective armour that has largely helped it escape state censure. “It’s logical, because it’s quite hard to openly attack a site that trades in comedy and satire”, says Marković. “Like, what do you say? Everybody sees that it’s comedy and while it probably does irritate [the government], insult them, and makes them feel threatened to some extent, they still can’t attack you because it would make them look ridiculous.”
But that’s not to say that Njuz has entirely escaped pressure from the powers-that-be. The Serbian government is among the world’s most prodigious users of troll farms, and Njuz found itself besieged by state-directed bots after making a “slightly brutal” joke about then-president Tomislav Nikolić (although Dražić doesn’t remember the details.)
“[The government] instructed their bots to bombard us with comments on our homepage and Twitter that went something like ‘we know this is just satire but it’s not alright to mock our president like that’,” recalls Dražić. “We literally got dozens of near-identical messages that day, but has anybody threatened us directly? No. What actually happens is that politicians often try to act cool by sharing our articles and laughing about how they made it onto Njuz. Prime minister Ana Brnabić did that, and even Vučić praised our work once. That annoys me so much more.”
Although Njuz operates largely unhindered, the political atmosphere in Serbia presents other challenges for its team. Dražić says that he’s noticed brands becoming more hesitant to advertise on the site out of a fear that it might invite pressure from the state, which then makes it more difficult to keep Njuz running. State censorship has been replaced with self-censorship, but the biggest pressure that the editorial team faces is creative.
“What kills me the most is that we’ve had to endure Vučić for nearly 10 years now,” says Dražić. “[The government has] been in power for so long, and it’s always the same actors constantly repeating the same lines. Vučić has this pathological need to be on TV several times a week, and yet he never has anything new to say. It’s exasperating because while he can say the same thing nine times in a row, we can’t repeat the same jokes and it becomes really difficult to turn his statements into new material. What I miss from the Democratic Party days is those side characters that made things easier… there’s not enough of them now.”
“And then when someone new like [Prime Minister Ana] Brnabić shows up, it doesn’t take long for them to become a copy of Vučić,” Marković interjects. “They become the same character, so again it’s a struggle to come up with something new.”
Njuz occupies a strange place in the Serbian media. Despite being satire, its stories are often less absurd than the disinformation published by government-friendly media, which is often so disconnected from reality that it cannot even be described as disinformation because it lacks any sort of factual basis.
“When we appeared in 2010, it really was a curiosity to have this site that publishes fake news,” says Dražić. “But now we live in a country where all mainstream tabloids and the most-watched TV stations are founded upon complete lies. It’s not like they have a base story that they exaggerate with a few fibs — the entire structure is a lie. Everything is a total lie”.
So, what’s more fake? Njuz.net, or the actual news, I ask.
“I think that Njuz is one of the more serious media outlets of recent years,” says Dražić matter-of-factly. “At first glance Njuz may be fake news, but I think that the message and a certain essence is much closer to the truth than what you’ll see on the evening news, [private broadcaster] Pink or various tabloids”.
“The difference is that the news on our site could potentially occur, but what’s reported on the evening news isn’t possible – that’s a proper lie”, Marković adds with a laugh.
“Yes!”, exclaims Dražić. “You’ll sooner see a drunken Serb kill a shark than see Serbia overtake Germany in terms of GDP.”