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Murder, Mayhem, And Misogyny

Serbia--"Vreme" journalist Tamara Skroza
Serbia--"Vreme" journalist Tamara Skroza

As a journalist specifically interested in women’s rights and women’s issues, Tamara Skroza is a bit of a rarity in Serbia, where she says the mainstream media often neglects its responsibility to present women in a fair and serious light. Skroza, who writes for the weekly news magazine “Vreme” (“Times”) and is a member of the Press Council of Serbia, spoke with Lady Liberty contributor Majda Banjanovic about how women are portrayed in Serbian media and why it needs to change.

Lady Liberty: What are the most prominent stereotypes of women in Serbian media?

Tamara Skroza: We can see the same stereotypes in media as we see in real life. Women who are overweight and without makeup are unhappy, neglected, and abandoned. Women who are beautiful and attractive are whores. Women who are powerful and successful are witches. There is something wrong with women who don’t fit into a regular behavioral model. The media refer to women as the “fairer” or “gentler” sex, and they are direct or indirect propagators of the idea of the necessity of marriage and motherhood.

Lady Liberty: How are women’s rights and women’s issues treated by Serbian media as a whole?

Skroza: Personally, I'm irritated by reports about women’s rights. It is a hugely important topic, but is not represented as such. There should be stories told through concrete examples that show women who have succeeded at something, about how they did it, and the barriers they overcame. Some such reports do exist, but very few, and they only give a general view. There are many more reports that are discriminatory and underrate women.

One gruesome example is a story about a woman who lost three children in a house fire at the beginning of this year. The media judged her for days because she had left her children at home beside a lit furnace, and, it was claimed, went to see her boyfriend. Only several days later were we given information about how hard her life was and that she was abandoned by everyone. We also found out that she had actually left the children alone to help a neighbor. Why didn’t anyone ask before how she lived and why she was forced to leave her children? Why didn’t anyone ask where the father was on that day? Why was it easier to blame her? The answer is simple: she isn’t a suitable prototype of a good woman, and because of that the media decides she is responsible for her children’s death. [The message from the media is]: ‘If she left her children alone in the house, she must have had some secret parallel life, or if she is divorced, she must have a lover.’ The conclusion is that the media doesn’t pay attention to specific cases, but rather upholds the stereotype of how a mother should behave.

Another example I can give is less obvious, but in my opinion could be dangerous. Several years ago a magazine journalist asked the television journalist Olivera Kovacevic if she would change her surname when she got married, even though she had built a remarkable brand based on her name. I emphasize that the question was ‘when’ she got married, not ‘if,’ which shows that it is not acceptable to stay single even if you have a brilliant career.

Lady Liberty: Do you feel like women are belittled by the media?

Skroza: Women are subjected to humiliation by the media if they are crime victims or if they’re accused of a criminal offence. The media will reveal the woman’s identity, her private details, her physical characteristics, and proceed to judge her. If a woman is killed by her partner, the media upgrade the story with details of torture, which is degrading and a violation of the code of ethics for journalists. Such stories are followed by an explanation of how her fidelity to her partner was in doubt, which could be the cause of the murder. In this sense, the ethical violation is even worse because the media are creating a space for public conviction.

Lady Liberty: Do you think using more gender-sensitive language would improve how women are portrayed by the media?

Skroza: Gender-sensitive language isn’t usually used, except when it is requested by an editor or an interviewee insists. In my opinion, language can’t change the essence of the problem. We need to change our educational system, and this will take a lot of time and effort to carry out. But, yes, gender-sensitive language is one of those changes needed. It symbolizes the acceptance of different roles for women in society and that their femininity can have many aspects.

Lady Liberty: You’ve said that women’s rights are basically out of the question, so what kinds of stories about women are the most common in Serbian media?

Skroza: The media are very interested in women’s topics, but usually they’re not serious topics. Even when serious issues are addressed, it’s not a matter of daily reporting. If we talk about serious social content and current affairs, women are not usually the main characters of the reports. Statistics prove that men are featured at a 50 percent higher rate in this area. And, as I’ve mentioned before, the media are interested in women when they are involved in tragedies, murders, and scandals, whether they are the alleged victims or perpetrators. The public should be introduced to different examples of women’s lives. They should broadcast stories about strong, powerful, independent women who are capable of resisting physical, social, religious, medical, and every other type of violence against women in Serbia.

Lady Liberty: To what extent is the image of women in the media affected by the existence of censorship?

Skroza: Everyone who lives in Serbia is affected by lack of freedom of speech and information. We are denied this basic human right. However, as someone who works actively to improve the picture of women in the media in an educational sense, I believe [a freer media environment] could improve women’s position in the long term.

Lady Liberty: How much responsibility for improving the position of women in Serbian society lies at the feet of Serbian media?

Skroza: Among the many roles of the media is one of education. The topics they chose to report and how they report them influences people’s awareness. Audiences gradually accept the images featured in the media and this can change their opinions and views. In that way, the media have a huge role in improving women’s position which they cannot avoid. However, this is a long-term process that should be backed by other factors--parents can influence their children, and we can all become activists ourselves, informing and warning people about the real issues.

-- Majda Banjanovic