When tabloids play 007

In Serbian tabloids, there's a new "spy drama" every day, and the latest one was inspired by a true incident -- but reporters described an international political crisis that never took place.

Tijana Cvjeticanin
Tijana Cvjeticanin Istinomjer, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Source: Istinomjer
When tabloids play 007 - NewsMavens
Eye. Pixabay

Why this story matters:

In an attempt to be more transparent, an Albanian ministry published data on the salaries and activities of civil servants on its website. However, in doing so they accidentally published confidential information on some intelligence operatives -- data sheets containing the names, positions, salaries and expenses of the country's intelligence agency (SHISH).

The gaffe was noticed by a journalist from Independent, who notified the ministry, waited until the names were removed from the website and then published a report about the whole faux pas

But days later, tabloids from Serbia picked up on the news and decided to give it their own twist. Their wildly incorrect version of events quickly became a viral hit, appearing under headlines such as: 

NATO IN PANIC AND FEAR Russia published a list of spies in Serbia -- and now CHAOS begins!

EXCLUSIVE! A shock for NATO: Putin published a list of spies in Serbia!

Russia published a list of spies in Serbia! These are the names of all Albanians who "operate" in our country

A LIST HAS BEEN PUBLISHED: HERE'S WHOM AND WHAT THE ALBANIAN SPIES FOLLOW! 

None of these claims are true. Although Independent never published a single name from the data sheets, the Serbian (and then Bosnian) tabloids offered a list of names of the supposed "Albanian spies in Serbia" and "secret power structure of SHISH".

Both lists exist, but they have nothing to do with the latest information leak, or with Serbia. They actually contain (publicly disclosed) names of former and current heads of SHISH departments, published in Albanian media earlier this year, after a series of discharges in the organization's ranks. 

This stunt, like many others before, was carried out by tabloids that serve as mouthpieces for Serbia's government. Claims of Albanian spies "snooping around Serbia" add fuel to the fire in the already tense political conflict with Kosovo. This state of affairs often taints relations with Albania, and negative attitudes towards Albanians are still being propagated, as demonstrated here. 

Details from the story:

  • Implying that the "scandal" took place at a high geopolitical level made the story more appealing and seemingly more relevant to domestic audiences.
  • Although neither Putin nor Russia had anything to do with the story, the tabloids used a nonsensical "five degrees of separation" route to justify their clickbait headlines -- claiming that Alexander Lebedev, father of Evgeny Lebedev (one of the Independent's owners) is using Independent to deploy Putin's messages.
  • Similarly, there was absolutely no indication of "panic, fear and chaos" in NATO -- their only response was that they don't comment on national intelligence matters.
  • Borzou Daragahi, a journalist for Independent, was the one who discovered the ministry's gaffe. 
  • Daragahi confirmed that no names were ever published in his article.
  • According to all available information, the names never appeared anywhere since the ministry removed them from the website as soon as Daragahi contacted them.
  • However, the altered version of the article, containing a fake list, is still spreading through the Balkans, published and republished without any fact-checking -- as usual.
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