Disinformation launched June 3 by several right-wing media in North Macedonia, falsely claiming that Greece prohibits citizens of certain municipalities to enter the country, had been promptly debunked by CriThink, but it continues to serve as part of the populist arsenal for inciting inter-ethnic tensions and hate speech promoting religious intolerance.

These claims were originally published on by the website of newspaper Vecer and TV Sitel, under the same headline “Greece forbade entrance for municipalities from Macedonia that have the most infected – including Tetovo and Čair.”

A short while later the disinformation was spread by the website Republika and several other associated media outlets supported by influx of money via Hungarian companies. By admission of one of the involved editors, this media group serves as mouthpiece of the political party VMRO-DPMNE, a long term ally of the regime of Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán.

These articles claimed that alleged Greek prohibition will affect the citizens “from municipalities with highest number of people infected with the corona virus in Macedonia,” listing the inhabitants of Tetovo, Čair, Saraj, Butel, Aračinovo, and several more including Šuto Orizari.

“Symptomatic property of such lists is that they only include municipalities with high presence of ethnic Albanian or ethnic Roma population, who are mainly Muslim. The biased lists don’t include municipalities with majority ethnic Macedonian and Christian population, such as the municipality of Štip, which has  been identified as one of the hotpots of the COVID-19 epidemic, duo to disrespect of the government measures by textile companies,” noted an additional analysis by CriThink, that examined the aspects of inflaming ethnic unrest.

This kind of selectivity indicates a manipulative technique of dog-whistle politics, “employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the population of the general public at large while also simultaneously having an additional, different, or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup.” In this case, the terms “inhabitants of Tetovo, Čair, Butel municipalities” are used to incite negative associations towards the ethnic Albanians as a whole, which is part of efforts to create a false narrative (conspiracy theory) blaming only the members of particular ethnic or religious communities for the spread of COVID-19 disease.

Several of these articles used as “source” a photo-shopped image, claiming to be a screen shot of an alleged announcement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Greece. CriThink’s fact-checking determined that no such announcement exists on the website of the Greek MFA, while the actual announcements regarding the border regime doesn’t mention specific municipalities.

In addition, Macedonian MFA published a Facebook post declaring that this disinformation is “false news.”

CriThink fact-checking analysis also noted that it would be highly unlikely for Greece to issue such travel restriction, relating only to citizens which live in certain territories of a foreign country, since that would be an infringement of the ETIAS agreement between North Macedonia and the European Union.

Some of the media which published the false news on June 3 removed it after several hours, after it gained prominence on the local news aggregators which serve as main channels for driving internet traffic besides the social media.

Screenshot of the front page of Time.mk, the most influential news aggregator in Macedonian language, featuring the articles with disinformation as top news on June 3.

Several of these media that removed the articles from their websites, like Vecher and Sitel TV. Contrary to the standards of professional journalism, they failed to publish a correction, or apologize to their audience for providing them misleading contents. The rest retain the articles on their websites, without any amendment that would indicate the veracity of the false and inflammatory claims.