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Weighing Words: Fixing Macedonian Media Coverage of Gender-Based Violence

Media in North Macedonia still have a tendency to sensationalise coverage of gender-based violence and point the finger of blame at the victim, but activists and experts believe this can change.

Sara Milenkovska finds it “frightening” when reading news stories about gender-based violence in her native North Macedonia.

Having been a victim of such violence, the 27-year-old postgraduate student at the London School of Economics sees the danger of ‘double victimisation’ in the way in which such cases are reported on, in the tendency to sensationalise and place the blame on the victim, implicitly if not explicitly.

“I imagine how a person who went through this feels when reading as others comment on, minimise or relativise [what she went through],” said Milenkovska, a feminist activist in her home country and one of the founders of the civil society organisation Stella, which facilitates mentorships for women and girls.

The issue was thrown into sharp relief  in early 2020 when news broke about a Telegram chat room called Public Room [‘Javna soba’] in which more than 7,000 members were exchanging explicit images of women and girls as well as contact information without their consent.

Much of the reporting on the case failed to use the correct terminology and implicitly blamed victims who – the tone often suggested – ‘brought it on themselves’.

The causes can be found in the stubbornly patriarchal nature of Macedonian society, in a lack of understanding among often overworked and woefully-paid journalists and systematic shortcomings in the way the authorities deal with such crimes.

Change is on the horizon, say activists and experts, who express hope that new tools, training and growing social awareness can influence for the better the way that victims are portrayed in the media.

Sara Milenkovska sits at a computer
Sara Milenkovska, photo by Aleksandar Cokrevski.

Sporadic, sensationalist, insensitive coverage

A 2021 monitoring report, to which this reporter contributed, for the human rights organisation Coalition Margins identified a litany of gender-insensitive reporting on the Public Room scandal in the months after the story broke.

In avoiding terms such as “sexual harassment” or “gender-based violence”, the reporting often glossed over the crimes involved and frequently left the reader with the impression that both perpetrator and victim shared the blame, the victim for taking or allowing such pictures to be taken and the perpetrator for sharing them without the person’s knowledge and consent.

In 2020, many articles even omitted the term ‘victim’ for the affected parties and focussed only on those who were underage, not on adult victims whose pictures and personal information had been widely shared without their consent.

Such reporting fed a tendency to explain the scandal as the result of alleged deviance among young people and an erosion of so-called ‘family values’ rather than an issue of gender-based violence. The finger was pointed at families, not at the institutions responsible for dealing with these crimes, the report concluded.

The Public Room group was shut down quickly in 2020. On March 11, more than two years later, the creator of the group, Darko Kostovski, and the administrator, Mihail Panevski, were each sentenced at the first instance to four years in prison for production and distribution of child pornography.

After the group was shut down for the first time it reappeared in January 2021. The report, however, found a significant improvement in the reporting the second time around, in part thanks to the greater visibility of civil society figures as well as adult victims who chose to speak out.

That said, most articles still failed to use the correct terminology while the pronouncements of politicians and public bodies were carried with little context or qualification.

And it’s not just in the case of Public Room. Similar problems can be seen in coverage of smaller scale cases of gender-based violence.

“I think that regular reporting on gender-based violence is definitely sensationalist because there are always some very weird headlines and very often violence is framed as a love drama or some private relationship between people or partners,” said Kalia Dimitrova, editor-in-chief of the Skopje-based feminist publication Meduza.

Kalia Dimitrova stands at a podium
Kalia Dimitrova, photo by Vanco Dzambaski

The law does not help. In Article 186 of North Macedonia’s Criminal code, the crime of rape is understood through the legal term ‘obljuba’, which takes its root from the Macedonian word for ‘love’ and remains common in much of the media coverage.

In accordance with the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe treaty on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence, amendments were approved by the government in July 2021 that will remove the term ‘obljuba’ from the legal definition of rape, providing they pass parliament.

“Rape will be completely redefined by the fact that the Istanbul Convention requires the use of the word ‘consent’ as the basic qualification for the crime,” said Ana Avramovska, the legal coordinator for the National Network against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. “Until now, that was not regulated i.e. the [lack of] consent was not recognised in the definition of the crime.”

The hope is that an emphasis on the question of consent will affect media narratives.

Efforts underway to improve reporting

Other steps are being taken to address the problem.

In July 2021, the state Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Services published a guide for monitoring standards in reporting on cases of gender-based violence. The guide emphasises the preventive role the media can take by raising awareness and explains certain aspects of the Istanbul Convention.

The convention has become a bête noire for some conservative groups, particularly in Eastern Europe, who claim it is an assault on ‘traditional values’.

Also in July of last year, a Handbook for Gender-Sensitive Reporting in the Media was published as a collaborative project between a number of civil society organisations including Coalition Margins and the National Network against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence.

“There is reporting about the incident itself and about its consequences… without going into the essence of the problem,” Tuneva told BIRN. 

The full picture is incomplete: why did the violence occur? What are the consequences other than those that are visible? Apart from physical violence, what other consequences do the victims suffer and what is the immediate environment of those victims?

Marina Tuneva, Media Ethics Council

Other help is available in the form of publicly-available learning modules compiled by Healthy Options Project Skopje, Coalition Margins and the National Network against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence to help journalists and other media workers better understand the issues and the legal framework.

Project coordinator Elena Petrovska from Coalition Margins said the programme worked well, despite being run online due to COVID-19 restrictions, but that the organisers struggled to involve many journalists from media outside of the capital, Skopje.

“This is due to the fact that they have a very small editorial staff,” Petrovska said. “One journalist covers all topics and does not have time to attend three days of training on gender-based violence, although there is the interest in doing so.”

“This must be corrected simply because of the fact that many cases occur at the local level and should be adequately represented in the media because the goal of these training sessions is for the media to have a partner role in combating gender based violence.”

Another shortcoming was the near absence of male participants in the programme as well as the complete lack of editors and management staff, Petrovska said.

Journalists profess a lack of motivation

Journalism as a trade is in trouble in North Macedonia, where like much of the Balkans journalists struggle with below-average pay, long hours and pressure from political and business interests. Many say they lack the motivation to develop as journalists.

“What I was told was that earning little is a big obstacle in terms of motivation to come to additional educational training sessions to further their knowledge,” said Petrovska. “So the journalists who came here were the ones really interested in understanding more about the topic and that made me happy.”

Some journalists told me in confidence that with the COVID pandemic they were left without most of their engagements and some stopped receiving any payment. They are not motivated to simply learn more about certain topics when they have no salary.

Elena Petrovska, Coalition Margins

According to the results of a survey by the Independent Syndicate of Journalists and Media Workers, SSNM, published on December 6, 62 percent of journalists between the ages of 18 and 35 earn below the national average. Of those surveyed, 54.5 percent said they would quit the profession given the opportunity.

Teodora Cvetkovska, a Skopje-based freelance journalist and executive board member of the SSNM, said that the working conditions journalists faced were part of the reason for the standard of reporting on gender-based violence.

These conditions worsened at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, just as rates of domestic violence went up.

Teodora Cvetkovska stands in front of a phone, filming her
Teodora Cvetkovska, photo by Igor Panevski

“The problem is that we do not have departments in the media,” said Cvetkovska, who was working in a television newsroom when the pandemic struck in 2020.

“Maybe today you’re working on a story that targets the problems of gender-based violence, tomorrow you may have to write about economics, then about the judiciary and so on. So rarely will a journalist be able to sit down and dedicate a month to researching it and exhausting all aspects of a particular problem.”

“Journalists want to report on this topic, which is very important,” Cvetkovska told BIRN, “but there is not always enough time to thoroughly research and report about these problems.”

“Our main task is to fight for the public interest, but at the end of the month when your bills and expenses pile up, [it is hard to] to fill the fridge with a salary that is below average. There are people among us who not only take care of themselves, but also have families, they need to take care of someone else. ”

"A salary that is below average simply cannot allow you to be fully committed."

That said, Cvetkovska believes narratives have changed in recent years, “both among journalists and in terms of editorial policies.”

“I don’t know if I could say that [reporting on gender-based violence] is a priority. When the case is isolated, I still think that it is reported less often. But with a case like Public Room, literally everyone was talking about it.”

Dimitrova said the ‘sporadic’ nature of reporting, often only around International Women’s Day on March 8, was a significant problem.

“Then all of a sudden the media are very interested in gender-based violence and take statements from NGOs,” Dimitrova told BIRN.

“They want statistics for the whole year; they want comparative statistics for the past 30 years in the country and so on. The good thing is that there are really media outlets that report well on gender-based violence, but they really do it very sporadically and it is not enough to change the mind-set when the rest of the year it is reported in the other way.”

It was the lack of coverage that prompted Dimitrova to found Meduza three years ago.

“What motivated me… was the lack of this type of content – that is, quality, progressive, feminist, leftist content – in Macedonian,” she told BIRN. “For me, that kind of content was crucial in shaping the woman and person I am today. However, I got everything in English and eventually I started to follow the regional feminist sites a lot.”

“Everyone deserves to have access to such content in their native language because it is very different when you read such things that are so deeply connected to our intimate experiences, about gender and collective struggles, when you read them in a foreign language rather than in your mother tongue.”

Kalia Dimitrova, Meduza

Milenkovska, who previously worked as a journalist, said change is by no means impossible.

“Speaking from the perspective of what I have personally experienced and keeping in mind what I professionally advocate for, these [potential improvements] are not science fiction, but are literally things that can be very simply implemented and there are literally people who offer solutions to certain social problems that just need to be heard,” she said.

This piece was produced through BIRN’s Gender-Based Violence Programme for Journalists and originally published on Balkan Insight.

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