A daily occurrence in Balkan newsrooms and a risk factor for press freedom according to international bodies, online harassment against women in the media is on the rise everywhere
"The last thing we need are special laws – argues Tamara Skrozza of the weekly Vreme (Time) from Belgrade – also because women journalists getting special protections would only worsen the situation, confirming in the eyes of male colleagues their image as particularly vulnerable, difficult, and sensitive".
Difficult and sensitive, on the other hand, remains women journalists' everyday work life – in the Balkans, but not only – made of online threats, insults, and intimidation. According to a recent survey by BIRN, – a network of NGOs and journalists active on human rights and democracy in the Balkans – online harassment is "commonplace" for women journalists.
"Thanks to a deeply rooted culture of undermining the position of women in society in general, many of my colleagues would rather swallow a few insults than go public about them", confirms Elvira Jukić from Sarajevo, editor-in-chief of the portal of the Mediacentar research centre. "Denouncing often means risking your job, receiving disrespect from colleagues, or bringing shame on your family".
A global alarm
A sub-category of threats to press freedom, online harassment of women journalists was singled out by the OSCE Representative on freedom of the media as early as 2015, when the SOFJO project on the Safety of Female Journalists Online was launched. Since then, according to an OSCE recommendation last February, countless testimonies about sexual harassment, strategic attacks, disinformation and smear campaigns
targeting female journalists have been collected: "It is clear, female journalists face a double-burden: being attacked both as journalists and women". And the escalation of recent months is a threat to journalism and consequently to democracy.
The deregulated space of the web, enabling freedom of expression but also abuse and censorship against "dissenting and marginalised" voices, should be enriched according to the OSCE of a greater caution for human rights and transparency on the action of algorithms, trolls, and bots, while politics is called to commit to finding "innovative responses", involving victims and platform managers.
In addition to the OSCE, the United Nations, UNESCO, and the European Parliament have also addressed the issue recently as a matter of human rights, as a specific type of threat to the security of journalists, but also as gender discrimination. "While attacks on men are more often based on their professional opinions or competence, women are more likely to be subject to sexist and sexualised abuse and invective", says the Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers to member States on preventing and combating sexism adopted at the end of March 2019.
During the UNESCO conference of last June 18th, which gathered more than 200 national delegates, journalists, and lawyers in Paris, the intention was also announced to carry out a study on "effective measures to counter online harassment of women journalists". The phenomenon is growing and so is the attention of institutions. According to a UN report of 2018, 23 per cent of women have reported having experienced online abuse or harassment at least once in their life, and journalists and bloggers are among the most affected groups, along with members of ethnic minorities and lesbian and transgender women: "States should apply a gender perspective to all online forms of violence – the UN recommends – and periodically publish violations with gender case studies”.
A threat to press freedom
The relevance of gender is confirmed by the analysis conducted by the journal Feminist Media Studies which sifted through the approximately 70 million comments left by readers on the Guardian portal in the decade from 2006 to 2016: it was found that articles written by women did attract a higher percentage of blocked comments than those written by men, regardless of the subject of the article. And a 2018 survey conducted by the International Federation of Journalists based in Brussels shows that 66 % of the women journalists who were victims of online harassment suffered attacks based on their gender, while almost two-thirds of the 600 surveyed by the International Women’s Media Foundation have suffered an online attack full of sexual threats. And the attacks had the desired effect, bringing almost 40% of them to abandon the theme they were working on.
"I noticed that these waves of hatred changed my journalism – admits Elfie Tromp, one of the journalists interviewed by the Dutch Association of Journalists last May – I would rather avoid certain topics for some time, saying to myself that it was not worth the hassle for the little money I earn with journalism". The geography of harassment and self-censorship transcends the borders of countries traditionally guardians and champions of press freedom, and even in the Netherlands there is little to be happy about: out of 350 interviewees , over half said they had been subjected to intimidation or violence in their work and around 70 percent said these threats were a danger to press freedom.
Also the Balkans have mobilised to collect reports and develop defensive strategies: in mid-June the BIRN network opened a dedicated section . "We want to know your experience facing online violence as a female journalist in the Balkans, whether it's attacks, harassment or threats", reads the page that explains how these types of attacks resort to "sexism, degradation and comments on personal appearance and relationships to try to discredit, shame and ultimately silence women journalists”.
Women team up against the perfect storm
"In the Balkans scrutiny and denigration of women is part of the culture – writes freelance journalist Lidija Pisker from Sarajevo – online attacks targeted at women are almost as common as saying ‘hello’. In many cases, the media encourages such behaviour". The confirmation comes from Duška Pejović, television journalist of the public network of Montenegro (RTCG), who explains the question as cultural: "In the nineties I was doing a show on women’s rights and the deconstruction of the patriarchy [...] I was subjected to a torrent of insults and name-calling because I was a woman violating the customary rules.
I was threatened with guns and rape".
Years later, the threats have perhaps modernised in the medium, while remaining the same in content. "A stereotypical depiction of women is still present in the media in Montenegro", continues Duška, despite the principle of gender equality being included in numerous international and national regulations. According to Mehmed Halilović, a longtime journalist now on the board of directors of The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN) in Sarajevo, female journalists in the Balkans face a perfect storm of widespread misogyny and disdain for journalists in general.
Therefore the analysis by Tamara Skrozza from Belgrade is spot on: new laws are not needed, we must rather "re-programme citizens’ attitudes towards women, female journalists and journalists in general". And to get there, it is women, female journalists, who need to learn to build up a critical mass, to show solidarity, to denounce. As they are doing in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where in mid-July the Female Journalists Network BH was born, a sort of secure house from which female journalists will draw strength, ideas and knowledge in the struggle to improve their professional rights.
Because this is what it is all about. To defend access to the profession by protecting its quality, as Radio Free Europe journalist Maja Nikolić well explains: “The creation of the network will benefit the whole community of journalists, including our male colleagues who all too often remain silent”.
The Resource Centre
Reports and surveys mentioned in this article and much more can be found in our online Media Freedom Resource Centre, a platform for rapid access to an ever-expanding collection of resources on media freedom and pluralism in Europe, managed by OBCT within the project ECPMF supported by the EU Commission.
This publication has been produced within the project European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, co-funded by the European Commission. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso and its partners and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union. The project's page
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