A massive protest in Belgrade on Monday expressed anger over the role of reality television programs in creating a culture of violence seen as a factor in the two mass shootings that plunged Serbia into mourning last week.
The two mass shootings in the space of a week in Serbia were a shockingly rare occurrence, even though Serbia has the highest gun ownership rate in Europe.
With 19 dead, including children from a kindergarten, the shooting prompted Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to vow to “disarm” the country.
But for many protesters on the streets of Belgrade on May 8, sections of the media share a significant share of the blame for the tragedies of the past week.
“There have been many calls for the resignation of the heads of the media regulatory body, as well as calls for the media to stop promoting violence,” said Aleksandra Krstic, Serbian media expert at the University of Belgrade, which took part in the demonstration.
This anger at the violence relayed on television screens recalls the endless frustration at the violence on television and in video games responsible for many mass shootings in the United States.
“These tragic events occur in a social context in which the media increasingly glorifies violence,” said Nebojsa Vladisavljevic, authoritarianism scholar at the University of Belgrade.
Over the past decade, an alternative media reality has taken hold in Serbia, characterized by “creeping hate speech against any political opposition to the government, alongside the promotion of violent content”, Vladisavljevic continued.
“More and more violent”
He pointed to reality TV shows, which have become rating machines dominating Serbian broadcasting. Zadruga on Pink TV and Parovi on Happy TV have pushed the boundaries of the genre, pushing junk TV so far that they make Big Brother look like philosophical talk shows.
French audiences got a taste of it in 2016, when Serbian-French dual citizen Zelko told how he managed to escape six months of hell on Serbian reality TV. As a contestant on Parovi, Zelko was regularly beaten and humiliated by the other contestants. Then the production team refused to let him go, placing him in solitary confinement.
In 2019, another former Parovi candidate, Andelina Nikolic, told Serbian media how she had cut herself and swallowed detergent in a desperate effort to leave the Parovi plateau – even though this escape attempt had left her. sent straight to the hospital. But the producers just filmed the whole episode, forced her to vomit, and put her in solitary confinement.
These are not isolated cases in Serbian reality TV. “These shows encourage violence on different levels,” Vladisavljevic said. “They show it on screen; they invite convicted criminals to participate; and they talk about violence as if it were completely normal.
In 2015, a Bosnian NGO launched a petition against Serbian reality TV show Farma, accusing it of inciting ethnic violence just two decades after Yugoslav wars tore the Balkans apart.
However, laments Vladisavljevic, the virulent criticism of Serbian reality TV has not changed this – in fact, “the programs have become increasingly violent”.
It is no coincidence that these reality shows have only grown in popularity since Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party came to power in 2012. Analysts see Serbian reality TV as almost part of a political vicion media manipulation inspired by authoritarian rulers like Russia. Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The media “essential to maintaining power”
By making violence acceptable to viewers, these vicious shows allow state media to increase hate speech against opposition figures without much noise.
“You have to understand that Vojislav Seselj, the former Serbian Deputy Prime Minister charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, has become a TV regular and uses it as a platform for very violent speeches,” Vladisavljevic said. said.
“These reality shows are part of a system where violence is pervasive at every level,” Krstic said. The contestants face off and these fights become “the talk of tabloids controlled by people linked to governments, and then they are turned into clips relayed on social networks where young people – who are too young to watch the programs on television – are able to watch these violent snippets again and again,” she continued.
This media culture could be seen as a factor in the shootings of the past week because it has “created a generation of young people whose heroes are criminals featured in reality TV shows, which lends some legitimacy to the use violence,” Krstic said.
She expressed hope that the tragedies of the past week will open eyes to the dangers of this dynamic – and that Monday’s protests will put pressure on the government and the media to make changes.
“We are calling for the resignation of the head of the media regulator, because this organization is supposed to deal with the dissemination of violent content but has in fact done nothing about it,” Krstic said.
There’s a good chance that Vucic will “react” in response to the protests, Vladisavljevic added, because the president “knows that large gatherings like this create risks for the government.”
The “big demonstrations against [then Serbian leader] Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s played a role in the end of his reign,” Vladisavljevic continued. “The Minister of Education resigned on Sunday and others may follow.”
Still, Vladisavljevic concluded that Vucic is unlikely to make substantial changes to the Serbian media landscape because the media is “essential to maintaining power” in an “authoritarian regime like his”.
Meanwhile, public anger has not dissipated, with further protests planned for next Friday in an attempt to pressure the government into making more concessions.
This article has been translated from the original in French.
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