The story was almost too good to be true. "A Serbian man reportedly has become a hero in Egypt -- by accidentally killing a shark with his butt while drunk."
Unfortunately for the "New York Post
," and other international and regional media that ran similar pieces, it was.
The December 2010 shark story is what launched Serbia's Njuz.net, then a relatively new fake news site, into the international spotlight. "Everyone picked up the story, and the Russians even made charts to find out whether it's possible for a man to kill a shark in that way," the story's author, Nenad Milosavljevic, recalls.
Since then Njuz.net -- initially tailored after the American news-satire organization "The Onion" -- has established itself as a popular website known for its sharp and satirical take on Serbian politics, society, and public opinion.
According to Alexa
, a website providing web metrics, Njuz.net ranks 116th out of Serbia's top 500 websites, 39 spots ahead of the website of Serbia's daily "Danas" newspaper. In December 2011, Njuz.net received an editorial award
-- usually given to legitimate, traditional news outlets -- from the Journalists' Association of Serbia (UNS).
It now has a website in English, a book
compiling some of its most popular stories, and is looking into launching a TV show. Under the slogan of "News in the mirror," Njuz.net says it aims to reflect the true nature of news.
Njuz.net reporter Marko Drazic says the shark story tapped into a stereotype Serbs have of themselves as strong and skilful -- a stereotype only reinforced by the reaction to the hoax story.
"Although due to this story, Njuz became quite popular, most of the headlines in the media during the aftermath were along the lines of 'Ha ha ha, the Serbs fooled the whole world,'' which confirmed exactly what we had criticized in the article," Drazic says.
A Grain Of Truth
Over the years, Serbian media have fallen victim to several stories by Njuz.net, including one about the opening of a rehab clinic for people addicted to the "like" button
on Facebook. Njuz.net's team says such cases are a reflection of the current state of Serbian journalism.
How to jump the shark, courtesy of a Russian newspaper
Their stories, although fake, are based on real news events. And there's no lack of grist for Njuz.net's mill. "We live in such a country, that every day something fun happens," Drazic says.
Neighboring countries are also fair game. In February this year, a Macedonian tabloid website, Interesno.com.mk
picked up a Njuz.net story that said "Greece will recognize Macedonia for 100 euros per month."
Though false, the story killed two birds with one stone by addressing the two countries' name dispute as well as Greece's economic troubles.
Velimir Curgus Kazimir, manager of the Belgrade-based media archive Ebart, describes Njuz.net as a welcome, "fresh phenomenon" on the Serbian media scene.
"I think it was the lack of trust in the traditional media, especially in print media, which reached its peak and allowed for satire and humor to emerge," Kazimir says. "This represents a strong societal critique and a critique of everything going on around us."
Most controversial are the site's articles dealing with the region's past. Like the one Njuz. net ran this summer on the 17th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica, when Bosnian Serb forces killed some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in what was Europe's worst atrocity since World War II.
The headline, "Serbia Marks the Day of the Phrase, 'What Others Did to Us,'
" played on the widespread feeling in Serbia that Serbian civilians' wartime suffering has been overlooked.
The Njuz.net team has gained the Serbian media's attention -- and respect
"The story soon enough received hundreds of comments from both sides with arguments and vulgar language," Drazic says. "This shows that people are poisoned, that they carry a large dose of prejudice and hate and they are looking for any sort of occasion to get rid of it."
Milosavljevic says that, on reflection, the story crossed a line. But, he adds, it sparked a discussion, showing that Njuz.net is more than just a satirical website.
Njuz.net's editorial team says that in comparison to most Serbian media organizations, they do not take sides or shy away from taboos. There are now few public figures who have not experienced the sting of satire from Njuz.net.
The writers say they hope that by highlighting public figures in their satirical stories, they will prompt those people to think about their actions -- at least for a few seconds.
Written by Deana Kjuka, based on reporting by Iva Martinovic; with additional reporting by Slobodan Kostic