40 percent of content published about the census in Montenegro was misleading

The strongest opponents of intention to organize the census in Montenegro last year were representatives of the opposition (declaring themselves pro-Montenegrin), who claimed that the current government, under the influence of Serbia, intends to manipulate the results in favor of the Serbian people in Montenegro. Half of the media content analyzed shared negative sentiment about the intention to hold the census during 2021, while the two remaining quarters were either neutral about the idea or supportive of it.

Nearly 40 percent of 554 articles analyzed by DebunkEU.org have been labeled as problematic. This topic has been highly politicized, and the main message sent by both sides it is that “census is prone to manipulation”- those in favor of holding a census have been accusing the then Government of manipulating the results of the last census, while those opposing it fear that the current majority will manipulate the results. This report cannot confirm these claims, as the Government members actually were neutral about the census, while only a part of a current parliament majority advocated strongly in favor of it.

The census, a regular statistical procedure usually organized once a decade, was supposed to be held in Montenegro in 2021. The collected data provides a base for numerous state policies. In Montenegro, however, this was and still is, a very sensitive issue, which is usually perceived as an opportunity to measure the size of ethnicities in Montenegro. After the DPS and its partners lost their majority in the 2020 parliamentary elections for the first time since Montenegro regained independence, the census was portrayed as an instrument to determine the size of the pro-Montenegrin and the pro-Serbian camp, and which side therefore had more political influence. This turned a statistical procedure into a “to be or not to matter” for both “sides” – the “pro-Montenegrin” one that strongly opposed it and the “pro-Serbian”, which supported the idea of holding the census. The parties representing Serbian people in Montenegro claim that the last census was manipulated by the at that time pro- Montenegrin majority. They say that as the result of political pressures to citizens significantly smaller number of people identified as Serbs.

This analysis covers a total of 554 articles published during the period of 1st September to 30th November 2021 in the Balkan regional media outlets. In this period, the interest in the topic peaked during September mostly due to two facts: the protests against the appointment of the Serbian Orthodox Church bishop, Joanikije, in Cetinje, which the “pro-Montenegrin” side strongly opposed, and second, the Government adopted a draft of the Law on Census, making the perspective of organizing the census more real, which sparked a heated debate of proponents and opponents. A total of 210 media pieces, or nearly 40 percent of the content, was labeled as misleading. More than half of it was identified as disinformation, while the rest of it were misinformative.

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A vast majority of analyzed content came from the media based in Montenegro (nearly 80 percent), while the second biggest number of outlets are based in neighboring Serbia, with a little over 15 percent. However, once the false and misleading content is singled out, the research shows that two-thirds came from the local Montenegrin media, while a third came from the media based in Serbia.

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The most frequent message conveyed through problematic pieces is that “the census is prone to manipulation for political benefits”; and this is the argument used by both those against and those in favour of organizing the census. The opponents of the census claimed that it is “being pushed by official Belgrade”, that “it won't meet professional standards” and that “the results will be manipulated”. On the other side, the proponents of the census claimed that “the then majority manipulated the results of the census held a decade ago”, in order to decrease the number of people who identify as Serbs, and thus, “postponing of the census will deprive Serbs of their rights”.

Narratives and sub-narratives

Nearly half of the total content shared negative sentiment, most commonly voiced by the representatives of the so-called pro-Montenegrin block- consisting of predominantly the parties that constituted former majority, the NGO organizations, some Western diplomats, and officials.

Neutral content usually conveyed the message about the administrative procedures related to the census and most often, the actors were members of Government. On the other hand, predominantly the representatives of the Serbian parties in Montenegro, who are part of the ruling majority, shared the strong pro-census attitudes.

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A major advantage in this particular topic of research was the fact that the census was not eventually organized as just the unravelling of events has proven some of the claims to be false. One such case was the statement made by the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, and it was analysed in this report.

Case #1

Another case that is the part of this analysis is an opinion piece published in a Montenegrin news portal portalanalitika.me. This particular case is interesting due to several points, including the fact that the opinion pieces do give larger freedom to the author to interpret the current events, but do not stop them from following a particular set of rules related to professional journalism.

Case #2

Over a period of three months, nearly six articles a day were published in Montenegrin and Serbian media, about the census that eventually was not even organized. Approximately, four out of ten pieces were false or misleading. Although a vast majority of content did originate from Montenegro based, interest of Serbian media in the topic was also noted- a third of disinformative content came from the media of the neighboring country. Neither the opponents nor the proponents of the census managed to indisputably argument the narratives shared claiming that the Government will, i.e. that the former Government did, manipulate the census. What they did manage to do is undermine any attempt to organize the census without the political involvement that will damage the credibility of the census which even at this point, couple of months after the sample of media publications was collected, is still not known when it might be organized.

This analysis was carried out through a project financed by the German Federal Government.