Ever since we started to develop media programs at the BeFem feminist cultural center, as average media consumers, we focused on an issue that many in Serbia notice: the media feature women’s faces, but few women’s voices. We did not need to do a review or analysis of the press to reach this conclusion. Even before carrying out any research, we knew that we had to get to work, which meant increasing the number of women in the media.
Seeking ways to bring about this change, we worked on a number of projects through the years, the crowning effect of which was the publication this spring of the Feminist Media Declaration, the first of its kind in Serbia.
We today have the results of the Global Media Monitoring Project and we can see that no significant developments have taken place since we first started working on media programs seven years ago.
A successful recipe
The results of our research show that there has been no progress in the last 15 years in terms of women’s general media representation, which remains at 20%. Their presence in online media is only slightly higher at 21%. The only media space that is left for women to dominate lies in content related to gender equality, but it is important to bear in mind that such content makes up 1% of all Serbian media content. In addition to that, women are more likely to appear in the media when discussing personal experiences.
The research also shows that women still make very rare media appearances as expert speakers and this is the area of activity we wanted to aim our attention at.
Fortunately enough, BeFem was co-founded by Christina Wassholm, a Swedish journalist and researcher and long time Belgrade resident. She made it possible for us to have guests from Sweden in order to get familiar with the most successful tools for fighting the patriarchy. It was through this connection that we found out about the Equalisters movement (Rättviseförmedlingen), whose goal is to boost women’s media representation.
Research shows that women still make very rare media appearances as expert speakers.
The approach of these enthusiastic women was simple. They noticed that some television shows in Sweden would invite men as expert speakers on “serious” topics. For years, almost as a rule, whenever the topic of discussion was politics, economy or security, the Swedish media’s pundits of choice would all be male. Male – only panels now have their own name, manels.
After a male-dominated broadcast, the Equalisters would ask the media outlet why no women were invited as panelists given that they comprise half of the population. The media outlet would say that they were unable to reach any women or that they declined, so the Equalisters’ next step would be to ask their social media followers for the names of women experts in the given field. With their followers’ answers, they would draw up a list conceived as an expert database before sending it to the media. This initiative spread across Scandinavia and the media were happy to get lists of potential interviewees.
Fascinated by the success of this brilliant initiative, BeFem aimed to apply the same principle. However, we were facing obstacles on both sides: the media and potential women panelists themselves.
The birth of our declaration
We quickly encountered media outlets that weren’t interested in our lists if we didn’t include contact information, which we could understand. We were aware of the so-called “lazy journalism,” where journalists invite the same person over and over again — usually a man. This is how middle-aged men have become the “holders of opinions,” supposed absolute experts in everything, always eager to speak with confidence on any topic even if they have no expert knowledge.
In 2017, we officially kicked off the Bureau for Equality Program. Our mission was to collect the names of women that media outlets can invite to speak on various topics, especially the “male” ones. Since we needed consent from every woman that was to be included in our list, reaching out and asking their permission was also an opportunity for us to undertake a brief investigation into why these women do not speak in the media.
Apart from expected answers — such as the claims that they do not feel competent enough (there were cases of women who even with a decade of experience or research felt they should develop more before public speaking) or lack public speaking skills (which creates a cycle because these skills are developed through experience — there were also many peculiar ones.
Some women told us that media appearances are often scheduled outside their working hours and that after work they are the ones who tend to children and elderly members of their families, so they do not have time. Others do not view their media presence as an opportunity to take part in public policy-making. Furthermore, women’s media presence was affected by the “glass ceiling” — journalists often wanted to interview predominantly senior executives who are frequently men, even though these men would sometimes put forward their women colleagues who are more competent in certain areas.
Another factor women mentioned was the greater social capital held by men, who are more involved in various circles connected to journalists. On a related note, in a recent Facebook post, politician Biljana Đorđević talked about women’s representation in the media and how the media ignored her despite being a co-leader of the “Ne davimo Beograd” (“Don’t Let Belgrade Drown”) movement.
The Feminist Media Declaration is based on a number of core principles, above all "equality, responsibility and solidarity."
Following our meetings with women experts and media organizations (most of which were already sensitive to the issue), we realized that we had common ideas and positions that we wanted somehow to lay out formally. We decided to bring together women from different walks of life including journalists, editors, professors specializing in the media and gender as well as activists to draft a document that would primarily serve as a call for cooperation and knowledge sharing. This decision led to the birth of the Feminist Media Declaration, which is based on several core principles, above all “equality, responsibility and solidarity.”
“We advocate for publications that make visible in their content the experience of women and marginalized social groups.
We oppose tabloidization, objectification and exploitation of girls and women in the media.
We advocate for free and timely access to information.
We advocate for reporting that is ethical, factual and professional.
We oppose censorship, self-censorship and the abuse of the media by political and economic powers.
We oppose the propagation and dissemination of all forms of violence through the media.
We call for a shift in media narratives away from an atmosphere of violence and fear and towards content that fosters a culture of diversity, liberty, solidarity and emancipation.
We advocate for the continuous promotion of media literacy and feminist education.”
The guiding principle of the declaration was to form an alliance between those who possess knowledge and those who possess the channels of influence. Through this document, we as a group of women mainly wanted to show what feminist values are and how we apply them within the media.
This is why we deemed it important for the title of the declaration to contain the word “feminism,” a political and clear term unlike the concept of “gender equality,” which is co-opted and used in self-interested ways ranging from right-wingers who want to signal that they are not conservative to those who want to skim off EU funds by advocating policies that do not empower women.
Feminist education is indispensable in the future.
For us, it was also important to say that this is not about a mere aesthetic category of there being a lot of women when you take a look at reports or pictures from some event, but about women truly promoting the interests of all women and marginalized groups.
Feminist education is indispensable for the future I desire: one where women speakers feel empowered and where journalists know why the status of women they invite to their shows is the way it is and what laws require them to report in a non-discriminatory manner. A future where institutions and NGOs are able to provide knowledge, and where journalists’ associations recognize when to react with complaints and when with praise.
The declaration calls for free and timely access to information as well as for ethical and professional reporting, while also opposing censorship, self-censorship and the abuse of the media. Through the declaration we can point out the status of the media, the financial insecurity faced by independent outlets and the attacks directed against journalists in general and women journalists in particular.
Women are increasingly speaking out in public and we as public actors need to have a plan about how the media landscape can be more secure and empowering. The Feminist Media Declarion, serving as a call for a common struggle, is one of the ways we are doing this.
Feature image: Media Center Belgrade.