In-depth | Media

Women rewriting the rules in journalism

By - 22.04.2020

The investigative journalists defying structural gender barriers.

Journalism in Kosovo, similar to in other countries in the region and beyond, continues to have a major gender representation problem. 

This is confirmed with just a quick glance at the programs and reports in all forms of media. The vast majority of interviewees, whether they are sources or experts in the field, are still men. Newsrooms neglect women’s experiences, and in doing so communicate images of the sexes that perpetuate unrealistic, stereotypical and limiting perceptions. 

But the first interventions in relation to working toward adequate gender representation seem to be coming more from women journalists themselves than from particular editorial policies.

Last October, three journalists — Saranda Ramaj, Serbeze Haxhiaj and Ardiana Thaçi — won top awards for Investigative Journalism in the Western Balkans and Turkey. All three journalists have a long history of investigative journalism, putting women in authorship of investigative articles on organized crime, abuse of power and corruption, something that has traditionally been the domain of men.

Thaçi, who works as a journalist at KTV, has reported on a variety of issues, from war crimes and topics in the security sector to corruption affairs since she began her career 15 years ago.

In recent years, in the field, she has seen that men are largely exposed to corruption as gender inequality affects participation in decision-making, where the opportunity for corruption is greater. However, she says that “corruption has neither age nor gender.”

The focus on abuse of power is also at the heart of her reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Thaçi, the biggest dilemma surrounds the use of gender-sensitive language when women, as a result of nepotism, are involved in abuse of power cases. She says that journalism must strive to go beyond the mindset that defines women in their relationships with men but that sometimes she has no choice but to do so.

“While reporting, I have often felt bad about stories about nepotism because on many occasions I’ve had to mention how the ‘wife of someone’ was hired. But, it was [an issue] of public interest, more than an [issue] of gender,” she says. “In such circumstances, one’s wife, sister, daughter can be labeled because the position they acquired is due to the position that they have within society and the family.”

The focus on abuse of power is also at the heart of her reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Toward the start of the pandemic response, she revealed that state flour reserves are being stored inside a warehouse owned by a Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) official, a decision taken by the past government.

Over recent years, she has found online social networks have made it easier to work with many sources who may previously have been harder to get access to without having established connections.

“The growth of social networks has had a huge impact on helping us create different sources within institutions, because before we couldn’t obtain information without directly meeting our sources,” she says. “But in terms of access to sources, I think people’s trust doesn’t have to do with gender, but with how professional you are and how you do your work.”

Thaçi says that during her experience as a journalist, she hasn’t personally encountered obstacles inside or outside the newsroom related to her gender, but she claims that various stories suggest that newsrooms in Kosovo are rife with stories of gender discrimination.

Serbeze Haxhiaj, a news editor at Radio Kosova, says that during her work as a journalist in various media in Kosovo, she and her colleagues have been discriminated against by their employers.

“When it comes to delegating the hardest stuff, they don’t hesitate to do it, but not when it comes to valuation,” she says. “There is a kind of distrust [when hiring to] managerial or senior positions, a reluctance to include women.”

A simple calculation of the names of the owners and editors of media outlets, suggests that men are at the forefront of media and editorial policies.

Haxhiaj links the composition of newsrooms to wider workplace gender discrimination, where senior positions are dominated by men. 

In Kosovo, there has been no study that breaks down the number of journalists, including senior positions, according to gender. But a simple calculation of the names of the owners and editors of media outlets, suggests that men are at the forefront of media and editorial policies.

Just like Thaçi, Haxhiaj has focused her journalistic career on topics that talk about the abuse of power by powerful men. She made her first stories about the parallel education system in 1998, during the war, and for over two decades it has been precisely the legacy of war that has characterized a good portion of her coverage.

Since the protagonists of her investigative stories are often former soldiers who have turned themselves into politicians, or people relating to political parties emerging from war, blackmail and threats have accompanied Haxhiaj for many years. Just some of the standard messages sent in her direction include: “You are a Russian puppet,” and “Your head is in Serbia.”

She has also publicly stated how her trust in the police and prosecutors was shattered years ago, when, after reporting a threat to the police, one of the police investigators changed the factual situation during the investigation process. She had to go through two court proceedings to win the case.

In one instance, Haxhiaj received death threats while investigating abuses by war veterans. In another case, two years ago, after writing about the post-war killings, her car was twice painted in red by unknown persons. 

Although she received the support of national and international organizations, such as the Association of Journalists of Kosovo (AGK), Reporters Without Borders, and other colleagues, RTK (her employer) has never condemned the threats against her. The latter has been repeatedly criticized for having political inclinations toward PDK, the longest-serving party in government in the post-independence period.

To date, there has been no publication in Kosovo that explores gender differences in the nature of threats toward journalists.

Meanwhile, the discussion about women journalists being frequently confronted with sexism in their work is completely absent, both inside and outside the newsrooms. Similarly, sexual harassment by male journalists and editors continues to be a hidden topic within media walls. Haxhiaj says that one of the reasons is the fear of those who speak up losing their jobs.

Various global research and studies show that harassment on social platforms, ranging from unsolicited sexual messages to threats of violence, are an increasing concern for women journalists today. 

“You think about the complexity of all this and just don’t report it.”

Serbeze Haxhiaj, journalist

In Kosovo, no study has been conducted with women journalists to look at the scale of online harassment, but stories from outside the virtual world point to journalists facing harassment in the field.

Haxhiaj says that she has experienced sexual harassment from powerful men, especially those in politics. For her, the saddest experience happened a few years ago, inside the Assembly of Kosovo, where she claims a deputy attempted to sexually assault her.

“There is a prevalent culture of impunity, especially when it comes to sexual harassment. Then you think about the complexity of all this and just don’t report it,” she says. “Especially when on one occasion a politician was sending me messages — there were no smartphones or screenshots available at that time.”

Shqipe Gjocaj is another journalist whose security on the ground has been violated. During her research in different places, ranging from the women’s prison to the hospital in Peja, she says she has often faced sexist vocabulary and harassment.

“You notice some kind of threatening environment,” she says. “[Men in positions of power] have internalized the sexist approach of sexually harassing. They do not recognize sexual harassment either as unprofessional or inappropriate behavior, let alone as a criminal offense recognized through the Criminal Code. On the contrary, what they say is a compliment according to them.”

Gjocaj has become known for unveiling institutional sexism and misogyny, either through analysis and opinions, or through research. Working as a freelance journalist for several years, she has published researched stories on topics that have not previously come to public discussion, such as maternal deaths and marital rape.

The work and success of Thaçi, Haxhiaj and Gjocaj show that recent years have marked a new phase of journalism in Kosovo.

As a women’s rights advocate and regular reader, the use of feminist literature is inevitable for her, as a trigger to do underreported stories that highlight women’s rights abuses.

“For example, ‘marital rape’ is not a topic explored in the journalistic genre, nor had women’s rights NGOs worked or advocated for stopping this form of violence coming from an intimate partner,” she says. “While researching this topic as a journalist, I had the opportunity to speak with institutional persons, gender experts, and activists to highlight how this problem, about which I read in many academic feminist books, manifests itself in Kosovo.”

Gjocaj belongs to the group of journalists who oppose the traditional way of reporting on the principle of impartiality and neutrality. According to her, activism for a cause, such as human rights, and journalism, must go hand in hand.

“In addition to the pleasure that this process of writing gives me on a personal level, it is also a very important part of my feminist activism. I don’t limit myself to just giving opinions, but there are topics that I want to investigate, too,” she says. 

“Recently, I have started talking about my work on television, which I have never preferred doing before. I now find it necessary because some very big problems, some very sensitive topics, some aspects of the violation of women’s rights, are being closed within a certain audience of readers.”

The work and success of Thaçi, Haxhiaj and Gjocaj show that recent years have marked a new phase of journalism in Kosovo, rewritten by women journalists themselves. 

It also reveals the urgent need for the media and the community of journalists to make the fight against gender discrimination a day-to-day issue inside and outside the newsrooms, in order to protect the integrity and security of women journalists.K

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.