SEXISM IN THE WESTERN BALKANS: Monthly monitoring highlight

Throughout February, Reporting Diversity Network’s monitoring team discovered more than 20 incidents related to sexist and misogynist narratives across Western Balkan media that targeted female politicians, journalists and other public figures, perpetuated rape victim-blaming and placed women on usual margins of media reporting and society. 

Although we looked at other diversity categories as well, sexism has been a cross cutting issue that was detected in all the countries.

Victim-blaming narratives in Serbian media in case of sexual harassment

The confession of actress Milena Radulovic that she was repeatedly raped by her acting teacher, renowned Serbia actor Miroslav Aleksic, divided the region.

Despite the great support Milena Radulovic and other girls that decided to speak out received from some media and particularly civil society (including MDI WB, RDN member), the case also showed that patriarchal norms are still deeply rooted in the society.

There were several incidents in the Serbian media that perpetuated continuous targeting and victimisation of women and further spread of victim blaming narratives.  In the TV show “Posle Rucka“ on the Serbian national television ‘TV Happy’ the audience was asked to comment on Milena Radulovic case and one of the comments was that “there is no rape without panties being ripped off”. The Serbian national daily Alo went even further in involving citizens in sharing their opinion when they published a public poll on their online platform for people to vote if Aleksic was guilty or not, as if the Jurisdiciary is not in charge of deciding about someones responsibility.

Victim blaming narratives came in different forms and from different actors; from citizen’s comments to public figures. They all took part in creating a media space in which sexual predators and aggressors are not held accountable for their actions, but instead the whole burden is placed on victims. Actress Jelena Tinska downplayed rape accusations of actress Milena Radulovic by statements such as “If it is true that he raped her, why did she continue to go in his private school?“ or “Why didn’t she tell her mother?“ that disregard the fact that all of the alledged victims were very young (some of them minor) girls. These problematic statements transform the media into a hostile environment without any red lines. By giving everyone space to debate, harmful speech negatively affects the victims, exemplifies complete lack of recognition for victim support systems and opens new pathways for victim-blaming narratives to be perpetuated further.

Furthermore, the case was, though indirectly, used in case of discrediting a female opposition politician Marinika Tepic, alleging that she might come with accusations that she was raped, as she could be encouraged by the Aleksic case.

Besides the many hateful narratives in the media, women activists created an online support system that has demonstrated empathy, acceptance, normalisation of the rape cases that remain unreported for a number of reasons, including the inability of institutions to appropriately sanction rape. The Facebook page Nisam Trazila (I Didn’t Ask for It) still exists as an online space where thousands of women from all across the Western Balkans share their stories of gender-based violence, rape and trauma, and together create a female unity online.

Online harassment and sexual violence of girls and women in North Macedonia in the “Public Room scandal

In North Macedonia around 7,000 male users joined a closed group named “Public Room“ on the communication platform Telegram. The purpose of this group was to share leaked or stolen photographs and contact information from girls and women- including minor girls.

One of the victims whose photos were stolen from her Instagram profile, Ana Koleva has exposed her story in order to further empower victims of online abuse not to blame themselves, but also met Minister of Justice, Bojan Maricik and shared her experience of photographs and information abuse on Telegram as she was haunted with phone calls and messages from unknown men. Ana Koleva was not the only victim whose experience with ‘Public Room’ was totally neglected by the police.

Activists for women’s rights in North Macedonia joined by the general public have been protesting for two months and require the Public Prosecutor to act upon the Public Room case as a criminal offense case that includes several criminal actions: abuse of personal data; facilitating prostitution, threats to women’s personal security, or spread of racist and xenophobic materials, depending on the circumstances of each case within the group.

Female politicians across the Western Balkans target sexist media portrayal and narratives

RDN media monitoring uncovered how women in politics are treaded by the media and public, due to their gender. In Montenegro, Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sport Vesna Bratic and Minister of Health Bojane Bojovic Borovinic, both women, were depicted in sexist and vulgar caricatures. RDN partner Center for Investigative Journalism-Montenegro publicly condemned these incidents in which female public figures are targets of sexist portrayal in the media. Slavoljub Scekic, Editor in Chief at the Center for Investigative Journalism- Montenegro in the public reaction reminds journalists of the ethnical codex for journalists in which “media should not publish any material that includes hate based on gender“. 

Similarly, Vjosa Osmani, Kosovo presidential candidate, has faced verbal insults during the electoral campaign, as well as edited pictures of herself, altering her appearance. There was no reaction from the media, her colleagues in politics, or from representatives of women’s rights organizations (see more in this RDN video).

In these caricatures, women were sexualised and even pictured as submissive to men in order to humiliate the targeted Ministers. The media context in which sexist and misogynist narratives operate are completely dismantling the concrete actions or policies that these politicians might stand for or against, but instead they operate only in the domain of their gender and physical appearance, which aims to make any argument against certain political action discredited by default.

Similarly, female figures in public life are also perceived through their gender and are targets of sexism. Journalist Milka Tadic-Mijovic, President of the Center for Investigative Journalism-Montenegro, member in Reporting Diversity Network, was targeted by sexist hate speech for her statement that “lawsuits against the media and journalists, if well-founded, can contribute to raising standards in journalism and media freedoms.” A local media in Montenegro published an article with a headline “Hypocrisy in Practice: Only the Media Gang can Sue“ in which afterwards Tadic-Mijovic was named as “this biological entity with human shape and female attributes“.

Sexism in popular culture

In the Albanian dance show, “Just Dance“, which is broadcast on a national private television a male member of the jury, used sexist language towards a female participant due to her age. She was told to “go and make babies” indicating that she is old to participate in this sort of competitions and it would be better for her to get married have a family.

Similarly, at the Serbian singing competition show named “Zvezde granda“, two members of the jury (male and female) used sexist language towards a female participant. They were commenting on her physical appearance more than her singing skills. This popular TV show is known for such comments and sexism.

Sexism in such popular shows that are watched by a large amount of people can be particularly influential in people’s perception of gender roles and how women (and men) should look like and behave, at a particular age.

Reporting Diversity Network 2.0 reminds of the need to make the media environment free from sexist and misogynist narratives. On International Women’s Day on 8 March it is more relevant than ever to mention that the media in the Western Balkans must comply with ethical standards that include fair representation of all diversity categories, gender included. We urge the media to create a space in which victims of rape, online harassment, and violence are treated with dignity and respect.