The Kosovar public, especially lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) individuals were shocked by the news of the death of Anna Kolukaj, a transgender woman, who ended her life on July 22, 2022.
The sudden death of Anna, who was an activist and drag performer, was spread quickly by local media outlets.
As is often the case when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, the reporting of this case was unprofessional. Many of them failed to adhere to ethical standards on suicide reporting and reporting on LGBTQ+ people.
To begin with, many media outlets shared details about Anna using sensational headlines, such as: “This is the boy who was found dead” and “Heartbreaking: 22-year-old is found dead.” This misreporting ignored guidelines that call for suicide to be treated as a public health issue rather than an opportunity to get attention, comments and clicks.
Further, many media outlets did not use the name Anna, the name with which she identified. Instead, they used her birth name and reported that she was part of the LGBTQ+ community. Hate speech flooded the comment sections, which were not monitored. As a result, the erasure of Anna’s identity was further reinforced in the comments section.
What does this indicate?
Such reporting speaks to the fact that the media in Kosovo still holds misconceptions when it comes to the use of appropriate pronouns, especially for trans people. Transgender people are underrepresented, and even when they gain public representation, the portrayals are often inaccurate, stereotypical or harmful.
The term transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression does not align with their assigned sex at birth. Transgender people might choose to undergo hormone treatment, prescribed by doctors, in order to have their body match their gender identity; some might also choose to undergo surgery. However, not all transgender people can or will take such steps. Therefore, transgender identity does not rely merely on physical appearance or medical intervention. A person’s choice to identify with a particular pronoun must be respected.
However, many media outlets did not do this. According to the report “LGBT Movement,” published by the Kosovo-based organization Center for Equality and Liberty (CEL) and other partner organizations in the Balkans, journalists in Kosovo are uninformed on LGBTQ+ issues and more interested in sensationalized personal stories than providing necessary information to the public that would contribute to the awareness and gradual acceptance of LGBTQ+ people.
It turns out that Kosovo is a country where LGBTQ+ rights are a topic of controversy, when what should actually be a source of controversy and outrage is the continuing discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. While there have been some improvements in recent years, media coverage on LGBTQ+ issues in Kosovo remains mixed.
Similar to the reporting of Anna’s death, media outlets in Kosovo have been criticized for reinforcing negative stereotypes and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in general. Media reporting about hate speech and discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals is rare. When reporting does take place, it is often framed as an isolated case and does not focus on the significance of these crimes, what the responsibility of institutions are, or the broader context in which LGBTQ+ people live.
A more recent example is from March 2022, when the draft Civil Code was up for discussion in the Assembly. First, many media outlets chose to report only on one article of the Civil Code, saying that article would recognize same-sex marriages, which was inaccurate. The draft Civil Code consisted of 1,630 other articles and one of them simply paved the path for civil unions between persons of the same sex, which would be regulated through another law.
At the same time, some media outlets repeated prejudicial language used in the Assembly during the session that was full of misconceptions and hate speech about LGBTQ+ people. In order to discuss the Civil Code and the possibility of same-sex civil unions, some media outlets invited individuals, public figures, religious leaders and politicians on their TV shows who have previously expressed homophobic ideas and continue to do so.
How media outlets report on certain issues shapes attitudes and behaviors beyond the media space. Misreporting about Anna’s death, the Civil Code and LGBTQ+ issues in general is nothing new. Instances from the past have proven that this type of reporting has the power to take violence beyond the virtual space.
In December of last year, the K2.0 marked the 10th anniversary of the attack on their team and their efforts to cover LGBTQ+ issues, as well as freedom of expression. In 2012, K2.0 was preparing for the launch event of their magazine edition themed on sex when they were attacked by a group of men. This attack was aided by misreporting by the media, which, by providing inaccurate information about the event, fueled misunderstandings and hatred that transformed into violence.
Instead of reporting about how human rights have been suppressed and freedom of speech has been hindered, media outlets sensationalized the theme of the event.
A counter initiative
Despite the difficulties of this exclusionary media environment, there are also media outlets that are actively working to raise awareness, to promote the rights of LGBTQ+ people and to change this discriminatory paradigm. This is being done by integrating new media formats and bringing the narratives of LGBTQ+ people to the surface.
One of these media initiatives is the institute that I lead, the Sekhmet Institute, which together with the Sbunker blog has led a project that offers new and counter narratives about the wide range of experiences of the LGBTQ+ community in Kosovo.
Through a series of six podcasts, titled “Ylber” (Rainbow), LGBTQ+ lives were put at the center of an essential and well-informed discussion. Through this project, we used the podcast format as a space where LGBTQ+ people can speak and tell their stories — something that is missing in the media sphere in Kosovo. In addition, we included opinions and discussions from experts and activists, trying to counter the prejudices that often come as a result of exploiting LGBTQ+ narratives to create sensationalism and attract readership.
It is critical that media outlets engage in opposing the lack of information, non-representation and hateful content which have led to the normalization of violence. Instead, in our podcasts we talked about legal recognition of same-sex marriage, coming out and gender transition, LGBTQ+ sexual and mental health and homotransphobia in the workplace — structural concerns that LGBTQ+ people face. This also served as a call for institutional protection and the prioritization of anti-discrimination efforts.
Media initiatives like this should not be isolated, but become a daily practice of newsrooms in Kosovo. To have informed discussions about LGBTQ+ issues, it is enough to search the internet for guides on how to report on LGBTQ+ issues or even reach out to organizations working in this field.
We are witnessing the powerful influence that the media has, either to escalate violence against a group, or to reduce it. It’s time to make the right choice.
Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla. / K2.0.