Wireless Media (WM) is an IT company that designs and creates websites and other digital content for other companies, to promote themselves online. This company founded a special section that has been working on promoting local authorities and the Serbian Progressive Party since 2017, says a source of the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) well acquainted with the company’s operations. The source wanted to remain anonymous, but CINS got confirmation for the claims made in the piece from multiple sides and through documents.
The Progressive party appeared among WM’s clients at one point, specifically the chapter in Stari Grad, one of the few Belgrade municipalities that were not controlled by the ruling party at the time. Their cooperation continued even after the party came to power in the municipality in 2020.
Over the last three years, this company has designed websites and social media accounts for Belgrade and Sombor, and has established social networks for Pančevo, Novi Sad, Subotica and Sremska Mitrovica.
How cooperation with the Serbian Progressive Party was established and realized is best illustrated by the case of the Pančevo brand Pančevu Treba (Pančevo Needs), which they worked on until July 2020.
It all begins with a meeting between Wireless Media and the mayor. Company representatives explain that they are social media experts, that they have Beograd Živi in their portfolio, and then they discuss the City’s priorities with the mayor. Then WM commissions an opinion poll from the IPSOS polling agency and finds out what the biggest problems are according to the citizens, what the successes are and to whom the citizens attribute them, what they think about the authorities and the like. Based on that, the company was able to come up with a strategy for promoting the city leaders and life in the city.
In this case, an opinion poll conducted in April 2019 showed that optimism was low among Pančevo citizens, and so Pančevu Treba aimed to boost optimism on social networks and to show that the city government keeps its promises.
It turned out that the results of the local authorities, the mayor and the members of the city administration were not visible enough, and so the strategy sought to show the mayor’s interaction with the citizens, his presence in places where projects were being carried out, as well as “his love for Pančevo.”
The focus was on the brand of the City, the slogan, the tone of the messages, visual appearance, etc.
The then Pančevo mayor, Saša Pavlov, from the ranks of the Serbian Progressive Party, confirmed in a statement to CINS that he had met with Wireless Media representatives, at their initiative. They asked him what the most important investments were and what plans the city authorities had for the upcoming period. It was important for them to learn what they should focus on in the promotion, Pavlov explained to CINS:
“Since I had a four-year term of office, they needed an opinion on what had been done and what, in my opinion, should be presented in the media.”
Violeta Jovanov Peštanac worked on the project as a journalist. Peštanac is an editor on the websites Zeleni Minuti (Green Minutes) and Pančevo MOJKraj (Pančevo MYNeighborhood) and has been covering environmental topics for years, for which she has even won awards. According to the Media Financing database of the Journalists’ Association of Serbia, since 2017 she has received just over 7.5 million dinars in media competitions through her consulting agency and the association, and just under 3.2 million of that sum came from Pančevo.
Although our interlocutors from Pančevo confirmed that Peštanac had worked on the project, when contacted by CINS she first denied any ties to the project, and then refused to answer any questions.
In less than six months in 2020, 140 videos were posted on the Pančevu Treba page on YouTube, i.e. on average 23 videos per month.
The promotional videos were made from people at the local level. The ones we spoke to do not hide the fact that it was political propaganda. Cameraman Srđan Milivojević explains what the work looked like:
“They call me up: ‘Come on, the opening of a playground needs to be shot,’ for example. I go there, shoot the opening of the playground, give the card to the video editor and I’m done with it.”
Such footage went to video editor Radovan Đerić, who received instructions on how to edit it. He explained to CINS that they had also used footage from other televisions, such as Pink TV and local Pančevo TV.
WM had project coordinators at the local level, and sometimes they were local officials of the Serbian Progressive Party.
Embellishment of reality at Žeželj’s expense
In most cases the promotion started before elections, and in some cities it ended after them. Former Pančevo mayor Saša Pavlov confirmed that everything had been done for election campaign purposes:
“We all wanted what we had done to be seen, to be properly validated for a future period. I see nothing strange there.”
This statement may be taken as confirmation of sorts that the promotion was a part of the campaign of his party, the party from which he and the other city officials hail, said Nemanja Nenadić of Transparency Serbia.
The money spent on the promotion was not included in the Progressive party’s financial statements, and Nenadić said that the donation had to have been reported to the Anti-Corruption Agency.
WM representatives deny that the platform was made for an election campaign, but rather for the improvement of communication with the citizens and greater transparency of work of the city administrations.
“We look regretfully at the statement by Mr. Pavlov who managed the project, because it confirms that he and his team in the City of Pančevo at the time did not recognize the true purpose, importance and potential of the platform. Their idea was obviously to use it once, as you say he stated, for an election campaign rather than for the greater good and for improving communication with the citizens,” the company said in its reply to CINS.
The company representatives also said that after the first successful project, Beograd Živi, several cities and municipalities from Serbia and the region had contacted WM with a request for cooperation:
“Given that our commercial offers were too expensive for them, we decided to do a few more pilot projects in smaller environments, so as to additionally develop the product and additionally optimize the price.”
In their words, they are working on expanding the project to several other cities in Serbia.
Besides social networks, influence is spread in other ways, too. Some of the most popular tabloid websites in the country– Kurir, Mondo, Espreso, now all owned by Žeželj, convey stories and videos, and provide links to the Instagram pages of these cities. Ahead of the elections in Belgrade, the Beograd Živi brand was also promoted on billboards in the city center.
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“I see only something that has been modernized in media terms, polished, well shot, graphically well presented, it’s all nice and modern, but nothing new aside from the standard creation of a parallel reality,” journalist Tamara Skrozza explained to CINS.
That content is manipulative, Skrozza believes, and the goal is to convince people to vote for the Serbian Progressive Party:
“The ruling party is stuffing our media and online sky with a bunch of stories, pieces of information, which makes it increasingly difficult for us to see what the real information is.”
Some of the contracts that the cities and municipalities concluded with WM state that the company itself is paying for the promotion.
After the Progressives came to power in Stari Grad in 2020, municipal chief Radoslav Marjanović concluded a contract with WM on promotion on social networks, which is valid until the end of 2021. The contract does not say that the company is being paid for the job.
Cooperation deals have also been made in Sombor, Novi Sad and Sremska Mitrovic.
WM has pledged to design the promotion of these cities and maintain their websites and social network accounts at its own expense, for a period of between one and two years. These contracts and protocols do not say either what the company gets in return and who is paying for it all.
The WM representatives declined to say how much such projects cost because they believe that if they revealed the price, they would jeopardize the company’s “market potential.”
They assured us that the budgets were “modest and optimized” because they had kept in mind the fact that the municipalities were supposed to pay for those projects.
“Based on the pilot projects, we developed platforms that are part of our commercial offer in the whole region and we hope that in the next few months we will be able to boast to commercial clients, who finance the service on their own or from numerous EU and other available funds which support such platforms.”
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