Unveiling Injustice – Securitizing misogyny in Serbian tabloids from below: The case of I.M.

December 7, 2023

In September 2022, the news about the release of a serial rapist I.M., who spent 15 years in prison, caught headlines in Serbia. Various media outlets disseminated details of his criminal history, and physical appearance, and urged caution to women. The public responded by widely sharing articles and information on social media, intensifying what resembled a ‘witch hunt’. The controversial tabloid, Informer, notorious for sensationalism and disinformation, published an exclusive one-hour interview with the rapist, causing backlash on social media. “Ženska solidarnost,” a feminist organization, organized protests outside Informer’s headquarters, supported by grassroots organizations, activists, and public figures. Protestors called for the interview’s removal, I.M.’s supervision, and sanctions against Informer for spreading misogyny and instilling fear among women. Despite I.M.’s subsequent arrest, the interview has not been removed from YouTube. Informer faced no sanctions, and no proactive measures were taken. This article uses the Copenhagen school’s securitization theory, explores ‘securitization from below’ in non-democratic settings, and employs discourse analysis to chronologically examine media narratives (including media outlets and portals such are Informer, Kurir, Blic, Nova S, Insajder, Biz life), reactions on social media (Instagram, Twitter – now X), and the interview with I.M.

Securitization theory

As a concept in security studies, securitization emerged in the 1990s. It was introduced by Ole Wæver, who further developed it together with Barry Buzan and Jaap de Wilde, all representatives of the Copenhagen school. In their joint work, securitization is an act of presenting an issue as an existential threat thus moving it out of the domain of ‘normal’ political debate into the domain of emergency politics. The essence of the theory lies in the notion that security threats are socially constructed. Furthermore, securitization theory also relies on the Speech Act Theory derived from the field of linguistics proposing that the sole use of the term “security” is an act in itself. Furthermore, by uttering “security” in relation to a certain issue, decision-makers attempt a “securitization move”, i.e., moving an issue on a spectrum from non-politicized to politicized and finally to securitized. However, an issue cannot be completely securitized if there is no audience to accept it and consent to it as such.

Wæver argues that there are, in fact, three ‘felicity conditions’ that are required for a successful securitizing speech act. First, the speech act needs to follow the traditional securitization “plot” which was already outlined above. Second, the actors who attempt to securitize an issue have to possess enough social or political capital to convince the audience of the existential threat in question. Third, the issue needs to be depicted as having been historically threatening because this way, it is more convincing to the audience.

Furthermore, what happens after a speech act is securitized and the issue moves to the realm of emergency politics? As we all know the expression ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’, we can notice the same logic in securitization: When an issue is successfully securitized, then using exceptional, out-of-the-ordinary measures becomes acceptable. Hereinafter, we shall use Mark Salter’s scale for assessing the degrees of success of securitization moves: low success exists when a problem is merely debated about in a security mode; medium-low success exists when the issue is accepted or rejected as security one; medium-high success exists when the use of exceptional measures for eradicating an issue is accepted; high success exists when new emergency powers are granted to the securitizing actor.

Bottom-up securitization

The classical securitization of the Copenhagen School describes the process as top-down and linear. However, when it comes to “securitization from below” citizens and grassroots activists are the ones who try to alert other civilians and eventually convince policy elites that there is an existential threat that requires their attention and exceptional action and/or measures. As already established, the success of a securitization move includes the consent and acceptance of the audience (usually the public in the top-down scheme). Hammerstad argues that in the context of a non-democratic country, this understanding becomes problematic because often “the threat perceptions and needs of the rulers can differ widely from those of the ruled”. In such a context ‘the ruled’ often hold very little power and, therefore, have limited opportunities and capacities to make a successful securitization move. Nonetheless, in bottom-up initiatives, as Buzan et al. noted, on national levels, governments remain the core audience that needs to be convinced since they are the ones who possess the power and authority to decide how to deal with a threat. One does not need much expertise to fathom how difficult this audience may be to convince, especially in non-democratic environments. This is especially important since the context of Serbia will be further discussed, which is, according to Freedom House’s 2023 [TS1] Nations in Transit report, classified as a ‘transitional’ or ‘hybrid regime’.

Unveiling the Dynamics: Analysis of a Media-Driven Saga on Sexual Violence, Protest, and Legal Gaps in Serbia

Chronologically, media and social media narratives can be analyzed in two phases. First, the period between I.M.’s release from prison and the interview with Informer (the initial phase). Second, the period of the protests and I.M.’s rearrest (post-trigger phase). These narratives can help assess whether the securitization moves in both phases followed a classical securitization plot and to which degree they were successful.

Our main securitizing actors are Informer, the feminist organization Ženska solidarnost, and others who joined the protests. As already noted, everything began when the media started massively publishing news pieces about the release of a serial rapist in an alarming manner (Informer; Kurir; Blic). Thus, the media was the first securitizing actor to present the issue as a threat to women’s physical security. The audience (the public, mostly women), accepted this as a security matter and started sharing pictures of I.M. and information about his whereabouts (e.g., Patogeni pudding; Viva La Vida; Gazda Žika) which was dovetailed by the media in the following days (such as Nova S; Blic).

In the post-trigger phase, i.e., after the interview (Youtube) in which I.M. describes in detail when, how, and why he raped women, which tools he used, and even “gave advice” to women on how to protect themselves from a rapist, I.M. was somewhat cast aside as the main threat. The morality of such an interview, under these conditions, conducted by a tabloid journalist, became the main concern of the public. The main questions raised were: how is it possible that a person who sexually assaulted women repeatedly got a spotlight in the media, and what about the victims who are watching? Women were furious and took to the streets led by Ženska solidarnost under the slogan: “Her rape is not your exclusive story” on September 28. The same day, Ženska solidarnost wrote on its Instagram profile: “Releasing a serial rapist and giving him space in the media is yet another dehumanizing and misogynistic practice that we are witnessing in the public arena. The media is lately not only creating an atmosphere of paralyzing fear but also putting the responsibility for defense against potential violence on women who inform each other where they can buy pepper spray, knives or how to learn to physically defend themselves.” The protesters demanded the complete removal of the interview, supervision of I.M. by authorities, as well as sanctions for Informer for publishing misogynistic content, retraumatizing victims of sexual assault while spreading insecurity and fear among women, and breaking the Journalists’ Code of Ethics. In addition, they demanded that the Ministry of Justice proposes, and the Parliament adopts, a law on a register of rapists, based on the existing register of pedophiles, and establish records on violence against women.

Immediately after the first protest, Informer announced that I.M. was arrested “thanks to” their report to the police in which they claimed “the maniac” threatened their journalist during the interview and stated he was ready to attack again without remorse. However, if one listens closely to the whole interview, not only the click-bait intro, I.M. said he would not attack again under any circumstances and that, even in the past, he felt remorse after committing a crime. Nevertheless, Informer announced this as a big win and a successful effort to protect women, dispatching the rapist to a “safe place” before he “strikes again”. Women, however, continued organizing protests weekly as their demands were not met. I.M. was arrested, however, this did not solve the systematic lack of adequate punishment for and supervision of rapists, as well as the problem of tabloids exploiting such news for sensationalist purposes. 

At one of the protests, according to Insajder, a representative of Ženska Solidarnost, Anita Marković voiced: “I’m angry because they don’t believe us when we say we suffer violence, when we say we’re afraid. I’m angry because the institutions don’t react when we report violence, and even when they do, the perpetrators don’t get adequate punishment, they get released soon after and often repeat their violent deeds”. In the following months, nothing changed: the Government of Serbia never introduced any new measures, Informer was not sanctioned, and I.M. is still under prosecution for the sexual harassment of Informer’s journalist.

Battling Misogyny: Unpacking the Complex Dynamics of Media Influence and Societal Response in Serbia’s Struggle Against Injustice

Misogyny is a common occurrence in the media (especially in the tabloids) in Serbia. Women are bullied and called out for their behavior, physical appearance, and choices they make almost daily. The case of I.M. is an interesting one as it was the straw that broke the camel’s back which united women into speaking up against this injustice. In the initial phase, referring back to Salter’s scale, the attempt to securitize I.M.’s release achieved a medium-high degree of success because the issue was accepted by the audience as a security one, and the public and media continued monitoring I.M.’s whereabouts as a preventive measure.

Moreover, it can be assessed that the plot did fulfill Wæver’s felicity conditions: there was a traditional securitizing “plot”; the media warned about the threat (I.M.) being “historically threatening”; and some media included segments in the text where “experts” claimed that I.M. would rape again (Informer; Nova S).

In the post-trigger phase, the bottom-up efforts to securitize misogyny, violation of ethics, and the state’s lack of interest to supervise and adequately punish rapists achieved a medium-low degree of success. The issue has been problematized and accepted as a security concern, however, no proactive measures were taken by the state to address the issue.

Two felicity conditions were met: the problem followed the traditional “plot”; misogyny has been always omnipresent in media throughout history; however, the securitizing actors did not have enough social capital to convince the authorities to take action. Informer, on the other hand, as a media known to be affiliated with the leading establishment, had enough formal support to succeed in spinning the situation to their advantage and market themselves as saviors by contributing to the rearrest of I.M.

In the end, the failure to address such systematic societal problems, and the protection of corrupt media are common symptoms of hybrid democracies where the needs of the rulers are often incompatible with those of the ruled.

Author: Katarina Popović


A ‘transitional’ or ‘hybrid regime’ is a gray zone between a democracy and an authoritarian regime.

 [TS1]the 2023 report has same classification, so this is updated