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Women as a monolith

The media ecosystem in the region faces many threats, including a lack of plurality, bias and widespread mis/disinformation5 – perpetuated by colonialist and patriarchal hierarchies and development investment in the region – ethnic tensions and oppressive speech against marginalized communities, economic instability and competition for limited resources6. These factors fuel societal mistrust of and anger towards media, resulting in abuse and harassment – physical and online – directed at journalists and other media workers7. “The biggest problem for journalists is the (lack of) independence of editorial policy, unstable salaries and inextricable link to journalism as an insecure environment – frequent threats, abuse, violence. And yet highlighting the safety issues overemphasizes female vulnerability – we are seen as the weaker sex, so we are attacked,” Marija Cosic, a media worker from Raskrinkavanje, a fact-checking platform in Bosnia and Herzegovina, explains. 

The situation for women journalists varies, however, when seen through an intersectional lens. Women journalists come from and identify with a vast array of ethnicities, religious and political affiliations, and societal communities, with varying needs depending on family structure, career priorities, access to resources and/or network support, topical focus, and level of visibility, among others. Initiatives that treat women (journalists) as a monolith fail to address the realities of diverse lived experiences at best, and perpetuate structural misogyny at worst, and have serious implications for limiting women’s full participation and holistic representation8.

In the Western Balkans, ethnic tension and marginalization is a significant obstacle for media plurality and participation. Elida Zylbeari, the Albanian editor-in-chief of North Macedonian-based Portalb.mk, experiences regular discrimination as a member of an ethnic minority. “Being an Albanian journalist in North Macedonia is harder than being a Macedonian journalist. There’s a [first] language barrier and privilege, the community thinks that Macedonians are more important than Albanians, so when it comes to government briefings, for example, you see even fewer Albanian female journalists. Other minorities [Turks, Bosnians] are practically non-existent – left out, taken less seriously, and undermined. Especially when looking for a Macedonian source, Albanian women journalists face more obstacles. When a Macedonian journalist writes a story that should be relevant for both ethnic groups, they often only cover one (Macedonian) side of the story.”

For women journalists affiliated with a newsroom, the newsroom experience is often contingent on ownership9. Media ownership in the Western Balkans is largely tied or subject to political incursion and influence10, with journalists and other media workers seeing and feeling the effects of this influence in editorial decision-making and newsroom culture.  When asked how she could advance her career, Katarina Radovic, a journalist for a regional broadcaster from Novi Pazar in Serbia, immediately answered: ”Membership of the ruling political party exclusively.” Many of the other women interviewed echoed a similar sentiment11. 

For those women working in so-called, “tabloid media”, a number of outlets often even more closely tied to political parties, and responsible for much of the widely spread propaganda and mis/disinformation, misogyny seems to be more flagrant, though for a variety of reasons. Maja Mojsovski Rasevic, a Serbian photojournalist from the daily Objektiv, shared her experiences working at one such outlet. “When I worked for tabloid media, I saw women often represented in a degrading or negative manner, but, in the last years, things have been even more out of control […] My feeling is that tabloid journalism is this way, not because people working there have no respect for women, but rather because it reflects market needs.” We attempted to establish contact with journalists working for tabloid media, but were unable to find a willing interview participant. Therefore, we do not have enough information to evaluate the working environment or experiences of women in these newsrooms. Perspectives are by no means clear cut, since it is somewhat subjective what makes a healthy or unhealthy newsroom culture. What was made clear, as a shared understanding amongst surveyed journalists, is that political and business interests create obstacles for independent journalism and journalists, including and, often, women. 

The harms caused by political pressure go further to create competition amongst and between media outlets, and journalists, all vying for a very limited pool of resources, as well as the influence, but also the conflict, that political connections bring, and the engagement this drives. This competition distorts relationships, internal media identity and the stated goal of independent journalism – to hold accountable those in power, and provide citizens with information of public interest. Jelena Jovanovic, a journalist for the outlet Vijesti explained the current environment in her country. “In Montenegro, there is no solidarity among journalists, except for a couple of us and we support each other. There is no solidarity because there is some awful vanity here, and because journalists are instructed to spit on and discredit the stories of other journalists in comment sections.” 

When asked about the differences in treatment of women and men journalists, almost every woman had a different answer. Indeed, so divergent are the experiences of womanhood in the region that there is a complete lack of consensus on the conceptualization of gender and how (or even if) gender identity affects media participation and representation. For Tanja Vujisic, a journalist from Kosovo working at Radio Belgrade, “I feel I am more respected because I am a woman journalist and I am a reporter from Kosovo.” Una Hajdari is a freelance journalist from the same country, with a very different view: “Being a woman and dealing with sensitive topics is hard because people find it a lot easier to criticize you publicly, and speculate about your private life. This is a lot more common for women – so, in general, women are not as respected as men in the profession.” 

Many women told us that their gender identity has little to do with their work, but perceived differences in treatment more on a policy level, rather than in the working environment. “We are treated equally in newsrooms, though we are not equal when it comes to upward mobility or pay. If you want to work as an investigative journalist, or if you need to get to a certain source, I think that we are equal,” Milka Tadic Mijovic, editor-in-chief of the Center for Investigative Journalism of Montenegro, explained. All of the women interviewed were painfully aware of the inherent friction in the “one world”12 ontology that enables “capitalist patriarchal modernity”13 to erase certain identities and knowledge. 

Perhaps the analysis of gendered differences in and of itself is an exercise dictated from outside the Western Balkans context, and one that fails to holistically capture the experiences (and needs) of journalists and for independent media. For many women we spoke with, this begs the question, does identification as “women”, given existing narratives and the realities of women’s historical and current participation in the region, weaken their positions in the newsroom/media space? This is a crucial, albeit complicated question, and one that requires necessary scepticism about colonial and reductive narratives that underlie existing global standards and development goals. Gender equality initiatives, also within the media, have benefited many women, but certainly not all. Jelena Jovanovic is very clear where she stands: “What is gender? I’m a journalist, and I work in the existing context, not a theoretical one. Gender issues are the pearls of well-established democracies.”

What works: a compilation of findings, insights and advice:

  • Intersectionality: Women are not a monolith. They have a diversity of knowledge, perspectives and experiences based on multiple and intersecting aspects of their identity;
  • Diversity is a virtue: The complexities of womanhood and differences between men and women are valuable resources that can contribute to expanding notions of knowledge and existing narratives that impact press freedom, media plurality and development more broadly;
  • A holistic approach to gender and media: Initiatives to improve participation and representation of women must take into account those patriarchal structures upon which society generally and media culture have been built, and that limit opportunity for women in the newsrooms and beyond;
  • More than ticking a box: International and donor organizations14 should re-evaluate existing indicators for gender equality to better reflect women’s lived experiences and support work being done (usually by women themselves) to expand opportunities for and meaningful inclusion of women.
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