When you are a female journalist covering any topic more demanding than merely copying information off the internet, you expect to be met with unfavorable responses from your interviewees or readership every now and then. If you explore issues that are not widely accepted, such as the status of people on the move, you brace yourself to be insulted and targeted even before you get out there to report.
We cannot say this behavior is normal or civilized, but it’s quite common among people in the Balkans.
However, if you happen to be a female journalist and post a straight-from-the-scene photograph on your Facebook profile, which shows you with two migrants, you don’t really suppose you would get death threats. But they do come your way.
By the end of last week, I was threatened with decapitation by an unknown man. He threatened to do it to me, people on the move, and “all the holier-than-thous,” as he referred to everyone showing at least an ounce of understanding for refugees and migrants.
The reason for this was the photo I had taken at the Lipa camp near Bihać. I took the threats seriously, especially after it came to my notice that the person who had made these threats, a male, lived in the same city I did. This compelled me to ask for help from those whose duty it is to ensure that me and other citizens are safe — the police.
In spite of all the negative experiences I have had with the police, and no matter how many times they have tried to stop me from doing my job, I remained convinced that law enforcement would be on my side this time. That’s their duty, isn’t it? To protect citizens from bullies? Because protecting citizens is the reason they are here in the first place?
Oh, how mistaken we all are …
Having explained to the police officer on call why I was there, I handed her a printed copy of the threat — which she did not even bother to look at — only to get a disgruntled “and that’s it?”
Only one death threat and only one off-with-your-heads to me, people on the move and humanitarians. No biggie at all!
After she rang the duty inspector, the officer told me to come back in two days (it was Friday) to report the case. Putting special emphasis on the fact that he lived in the same city as me was of no use whatsoever.
Maybe death threats aren’t reported at weekends because bullies are thought to be taking a break from their regular activities?
In instances like these, you realize that you are utterly alone and unprotected, that the ones who should protect you by default absolutely do not care about your fate. These moments and this very realization are horrifying.
Such a state of affairs prompts you to realize that you have to help yourself. In my case, it’s by making as much noise as you can.
The news of the threats, including the bully’s name and photo, was published on our website eTrafika; an entire support system for me built up on its own in record time.
The information was reported by our colleagues from other media before people we knew and strangers alike reached out to offer us protection, solace, support, or advice. Some of them even offered to pull a few strings with the police in order to “push” the case forward a bit.
After the first such proposal came, I thought that people just went off-piste. They were worried and they wanted to help in any way they could. However, another offer came, and another one, and another one … That made me wonder: Do things really work like that? Do you need someone else’s intervention just to have the police hear you? If so, what on earth do you need to press charges then?
No way, even if the system does work like that. I do not agree to those rules!
Later that evening, the attacker contacted me again, with new insults added to the same threat. He even gave me his phone number to pass on to the police so he could tell them the same thing he had told me.
The noise that the media had made along with their readers forced the police to finally respond and the man was arrested. Soon, however — after giving a statement — he was released.
The next morning, I was called into the police station to give a statement myself, where I was told my rights and responsibilities. So, the whole system was up and running now.
Following a full day of fear, stress, disappointment and public pressure, the system decided to work over the weekend after all. I can’t shake the feeling that all this was brought about just because I am a female journalist.
On the one hand, this is great, since people stood up for an ordinary media worker and her safety. On the other, what if I wasn’t who I am? What if I were a newspaper seller next door, a cleaning lady working at a supermarket or a woman with mental disabilities? Would that Monday ever come?
Whenever you face any sort of problem in the field, regardless of whether it is indecency or even a threat, your response is very important. I dare say the journalist community on the whole is dependent on it.
If you hold back, you empower the attacker, who is bound to take it as a clear signal that “re-schooling” journalists is perfectly fine. Perhaps you will indeed manage to defuse the current situation, but you will cause problems for your colleagues further down the road. The things become particularly complex in case you run a newsroom training for aspiring journalists. To these young people, you are an exemplar and you need to be a good role model.
A colleague of mine recently asked me if I planned to write about the status of people on the move after this.
Is there any other option?
Feature image courtesy of Vanja Stokić.