Anger at and distrust of media in the region is so widespread that the line between gender-based and media-focused violence gets blurred, especially for women working in the media. In the Western Balkans, physical violence against journalists is a very real problem, and one that is largely characterized by widespread impunity15.
Vanja Stokic, an editor for the online platform E-trafika from Bosnia and Herzegovina, has witnessed how misogyny is weaponized against women journalists for political gain16. “I’ve noticed that members of the media that support the current regime, when they hear about a potentially contentious political debate, deliberately send women journalists to cover it to increase the sensationalism and damage of political attacks, by adding a gender component. For instance, the mayor of Banja Luka, who belongs to the opposition party, recently held a press conference to which outlet ATV [closely tied to the regime] sent a woman journalist. As expected, the journalist and mayor clashed, with gendered and abusive language used by the mayor to gather support against her. The journalist left the event early, and afterwards, ATV used this attack to question his position of power – how could a man in such a position attack a woman?”
When it comes to online abuse, by positioning women as “easy targets” and “scapegoats”17, as was the case for Nova.rs journalist Ana Lalic in Serbia, who was detained while reporting on Covid-19 cases in the country in 2019, women journalists are now targeted in a complex, gendered and coordinated process that starts with harmful language from a few, but can quickly escalate to political disinformation campaigns18 that rely on misogynistic tropes to undermine confidence in journalists’ work, especially when reporting on or challenging existing power structures. Though identified as a serious obstacle to women’s online participation, online abuse, especially against women, has, at this point, been normalized as part of women’s internet experience, and, because it happens online, is not taken as seriously as other types of abuse. Given the prevalence of physical attacks against journalists in the region19, however, abuse and threats of any type are inherently violent and have real and physical effects on those targeted.
It is for these reasons, among others, that Marina Ridjic, a TV anchor from Al-Jazeera in Sarajevo no longer engages with her audience in the comment sections: “When I published an article, I didn’t want to read those comments. Every second or third comment – of about 150 – mentioned how I must not be [sexually] satisfied; that my husband should control me more, that it’s ok that I’m a feminist, but what fool would marry a feminist!? Commenters say that we [women] are mistresses of political opponents when we ask [tough] questions, or that we don’t have enough sex, so we need to be kidnapped, kept in a hut for three days, then raped. These are some of the things I heard said about myself in 2012.” Other journalists confirmed that they prefer not to read comments, given the response of online audiences to women journalists: “I am mostly targeted online. The most serious one was when I was threatened by a man that he would behead me […] There is a gender component to it: I am called a ‘migrant’s prostitute’. I don’t think that any of my male colleagues have been called a ‘migrant’s gigolo,’” Vanja Stokic told us.
The prevalence of social media, especially for news distribution, and resource gathering, means that women who are targeted online must choose between the constant risk of and exposure to abuse, or removing themselves from these platforms, with serious implications for their work and, therefore, financial stability. The social media business model exacerbates the spread of abuse, but also information and access to women journalists, not just by their readership through their work, but also more personal details by the broader public. In some ways, journalists, because of increasing visibility, are seen more and more as public figures whose lives are fair game for public scrutiny. Unfortunately, this becomes even more the case for women journalists targeted by public smear campaigns, or involved in high profile disputes online, with varying consequences. Ana Lalic told us about the drawbacks of her increased visibility following her detention, “After I was detained, I lost out on so many opportunities. The beauty of my job was the anonymity, and the main reason I always worked for print media. But now (because of this event) I’m forced into public view. This public attention and persona is still very uncomfortable for me, since I cannot hide.”
Infographic: BIRN/Igor Vujcic
Newsrooms, already subject to intense political, and financial pressures, are often the first and last line of defense when it comes to repercussions of an online attack. In the aftermath of online abuse, the system of protection is characterised by ad-hoc, and often arbitrary responses, fully dependent on the willingness and capacity of newsroom managers and decision-makers (e.g. editors or owners), if there is any response at all. Zana Dzubur, a journalist from the national broadcast service of Bosnia and Herzegovina summarized the situation she faces: “There are no written protocols either before going out into the field or when an incident could or has happened […] Even if the journalist draws attention to safety threats, they simply get forgotten, and happen all over again.”
Survey data indicate that newsrooms use a variety of practices and resources when it comes to online safety, though we know little20 about the sustainability of these practices and their ability to effectively address physical, emotional and digital safety.
Infographic: BIRN/Igor Vujcic
Looking to media outlets themselves, certain trends emerge when evaluating the key differences – size, percentage of women, location, etc. – of newsrooms and their approach to safety. International media, and media funded by international donors – with greater access to resources, and tools, but also more subject to global scrutiny and narratives – are more likely to have implemented some type of security protocol. Tanja Vujisic, a journalist from Radio Belgrade, shared her perspectives as a former employee of the BBC. “When I worked for the BBC, it was a complex time and there were more incidents. I felt safer because people knew the BBC was a big company, and I knew they would protect me. I also had mandatory safety training paid for by the BBC where I learned how to protect myself, and colleagues.” Marina Kostova, a deputy editor from SDK.MK Digital Newsroom, told us that her outlet adopted a safety protocol on sexual harassment, in order to meet partnership requirements for an international project. Journalists’ perceptions of this type of externally imposed regulation is mixed. While Kostova said that she was pleased to see this type of regulation finally take force, other journalists experienced more problematic outcomes.
Una Hajdari, a freelance journalist from Kosovo, works for a number of international newsrooms, and has seen how an overemphasis on women’s safety and security needs can also feed patriarchal narratives that paint women as vulnerable, and limit their agency and access within the media. Hajdari was taken off several stories that required reporting from potentially dangerous events, because the outlet saw her participation as too risky: “If you work for the international media, they have more resources and support for safety, but for them it is also a question of liability.”
After her outlet removed content from one of her articles, and then removed her name from another, Tanja Vujisic was told it was for her own protection. “My feeling is that they are more scared than me,” she said.
As a photography editor, Maja Mojskovski Rasevic has had to intervene in similar situations: “Sometimes I’ve been told not to assign a female photographer if the situation was too risky. That really gets on my nerves! I don’t abide by that ever […] Sometimes it is hard working with male colleagues as their boss because they play the “tough guys”, though it has no correlation with reality. On the contrary, in my experience women photographers are braver in times of crisis.”
“The result”, Hajdari emphasized, “is that men end up covering these topics and regions much more because news consumers and media outlets are still not fully comfortable with having women cover international and sensitive stories. Society, but also newsrooms and editors, do not provide women the space for meaningful contribution when they use kid gloves with women journalists.”
Newsroom culture is a significant factor when it comes to reporting online or other safety threats. For women working in regional newsrooms, structural misogyny can be hard to counter, especially when initiated or perpetuated by those at the top of the newsroom hierarchy21. Several women shared with us experiences of office gender discrimination, sexism, and other forms of exploitation, including Vanja Stokic, who was regularly told to do her boss’s son’s homework. Because there is so little case law in the region that effectively addresses the nuances of discrimination and exploitation, reporting these abuses, especially when perpetrated at managerial level, constitutes a significant risk that not only puts the onus of responsibility for protection back on women but also sends a clear signal that silence is easier and costs less22.
The women we spoke to were similarly sceptical about reporting abuse – even physical violence and threats – to law enforcement. After receiving a threat from a government official, Elida Zylbeari reported the incident, including a recording she’d made of the incident, to police who failed to even investigate. “But then I wrote an article about the incident, and by making it public – very public – it made a difference. The Minister [who made the threats] apologized, and I promised to continue publishing every threat made. But the police never did anything. It is all futile.”
Alice Taylor, an Exit News journalist in Albania, received and reported multiple death threats, with no response from police. “Nothing happened even though I did my own investigative work, found information that could identify the person, and sent it to the police. Still nothing. He (the perpetrator) called me a whore and a slut and said that he would find me and rip my skull off. I am a public person in some ways. If the guy wanted to find me, he could, but authorities didn’t take this seriously.”
So, what do women do? Where do they turn when they feel threatened or unsafe in an environment rife with risk?
Infographic: BIRN/Igor Vujcic
For many of these women, the answer lies in solidarity and peer support. Viber groups23, Slack channels24 and the like provide a space for women to share experiences and support with colleagues, and openly talk about the challenges they face. In some women-majority outlets – like a regional broadcaster in Serbia – journalists have established partnerships with local domestic violence organizations to provide more specialized care, including public statements of solidarity, and legal resources and support25. Similarly, Milka Tadic Mijovic explained, “While we don’t have official safety protocols, we already know what to do if someone is attacked. We decide together if this needs to be reported to the police, if we speak publicly about it, if we file a lawsuit. We often consult, not only amongst ourselves, but also with colleagues from other newsrooms. For me, personally, solidarity and support of the media community were so very important.”
What works: a compilation of findings, insights and advice
Peer support and solidarity: Online/offline threats can isolate and silence women. Bystander intervention, and affirmation, via closed group chats, collective action initiatives and personal expressions of support can help minimize the impact of harassment.
Community-based solutions and expertise: Local expertise, like domestic violence and women’s health organizations, can provide input and access to resources for holistic care.
Knowledge sharing: The experiences and responses of women targeted with exploitation and abuse is a crucial knowledge base from which solutions and support structures can be developed.