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Cyberbullying And The Threat Against Women: The View From RFE/RL’s Balkan Service

RFE/RL Balkan Service Director Arbana Vidishiqi.
RFE/RL Balkan Service Director Arbana Vidishiqi.

RFE/RL’s Balkan Service serves one mission in three languages in five countries: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. All of these countries emerged from the wars of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, and each is struggling with fragile democratic systems, inter-ethnic hostilities, the scars of war, and basic human rights, even as they all aspire to join the European Union. They also contend with external influences, including Russian misinformation, Chinese investment, and influence from the Gulf and Turkey. According to Freedom House, none of the region’s media is “free.”

RFE/RL’s Pressroom spoke to Balkan Service Director Arbana Vidishiqi about the challenges facing her journalists as they work to provide balanced and independent news for audiences in this complex, divided region. Vidishiqi expressed special concern about the threat posed by cyberbullying.

PRESSROOM: So, what are the risks journalists from the Balkan Service face?

VIDISHIQI: The risks our journalists face are not similar to how journalists are treated in Russia, Pakistan, and Tajikistan, for example. It’s a different kind of pressure, it’s cyberbullying. It’s a threat online because of a story on inter-ethnic tolerance or intolerance, or investigative stories, or a story on religious extremism. The journalists themselves receive threats on their own profiles, mostly – on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube – not through RFE/RL. There is a lot of hate speech on Twitter in the region.

PRESSROOM: Can you explain how, in your experience, cyberbullying works?

VIDISHIQI: My Service has been making an effort to get as many women experts as possible to talk about all the topics we cover. But we have been faced with reluctance, and I think it’s because of cyberbullying. Women fear they are going to get slammed on a personal level rather than a political level. We had a woman who was president for a while, and she was the most bullied person online that I’ve ever seen. You would see media putting on front pages what she wore, what bag she’s supposed to carry, what color her underwear was from her white pants. Nobody was writing about her decision to open a dialogue with neighboring countries. It was more about her personally, and not the position that she held. This bullying is getting more and more intense with social media.

We find that many women avoid going out on public platforms and on social media. You see them on TV because on TV there’s no platform for bullying. You come on TV, you say whatever you have to say. On TV, female representation is higher, whereas it declines on online media, and I think this is directly connected with cyberbullying. There are very few women who are standing up to that bullying in this region. You can literally name them on one hand, it’s so few.

PRESSROOM: Do you think the threat is unique to certain places or issues, or is it universal?

VIDISHIQI: I think it’s a universal problem, but every country has its specifics. It’s encouraging to see people like Nancy Pelosi in such a powerful political position, yet we focus on the way she puts shades on as she’s going out from the White House. I remember President Bush wore shades, flew airplanes, and we know Bill Clinton had a great passion for saxophone, we know that Barak Obama had a great passion for books…I don’t know what Nancy Pelosi’s passion is. We tend to find those virtues in men, but not with women, too. I think it’s a universal problem and of course in democratically challenged countries like in the Balkans that becomes a real problem.

PRESSROOM: What are effective responses? Are there things that governments can do?

VIDISHIQI: Governments need to do more, and local media needs to do more, too. They also focus their content too much on this kind of reporting. Many domestic media outlets in the Balkans have hundreds of thousands of followers. I know it’s difficult to administer an online platform 24/7, but it has to be an effort which we are not seeing. In our case too, we can’t control everything that is posted on our Facebook pages and Twitter, but we try to block hate speakers. When we know beforehand that there is sensitive content, we post a warning message that says, “hate will be deleted, and users will be blocked.”

Government authorities can follow up on direct threats against certain people and take them in for questioning. There is not one case to my knowledge when the authorities have taken measures against a threat on social media. There need to be local regulations on social media platforms. There has to be accountability.

PRESSROOM: Are the social media platforms themselves responsive to threats and hate speech?

VIDISHIQI: They should do more, too. We’ve reported hate speech and profiles that were actually created with the single aim of inciting hate, and to date, they’re not even blocked. I’m talking about genocide-deniers. There are tens of profiles on a daily basis on Twitter that target people who post anything about victims or survivors. They’re full of hate, and still have a huge number of followers. No measures have been taken.

PRESSROOM: Is there solidarity among journalists to respond to incidents of cyberbullying?

VIDISHIQI: No, I don’t think so. Because the journalists sometimes – and I have total sympathy and respect for my colleagues – have families to feed and bills to pay. I find their editors responsible. If journalists are pushed by their editors to get more clicks, get more visitors, to get more marketing products, more sponsorship – to get there, you have to have this kind of content. Serious content, like promoting human rights, doesn’t get that much traction on social media. You can take two countries and make peace between them, but you won’t get as many likes as Kim Kardashian or what the president is wearing today.

Journalism is the most noble profession that I know of and I love it dearly. There are certain standards and ethics that we need to maintain as journalists, and a certain amount of accountability. We’re the ones who are passing through this information. We have to be that bridge.

About The Balkan Service

In 2019, the Balkan Service marked 25 years of reporting in one of the world’s most contested regions, championing professionalism and moderation in a media landscape that is sharply divided along ethnic and partisan lines. It registered a total of 43.6 million video views on its Facebook pages, and 14.5 million views on YouTube.

– – Liz Anastasiadis