FEMFACTS
20 Dec 2018

When a backlash against propaganda exposes misogyny

People using social media to criticize government propaganda is usually a positive thing. But justified criticism of a disinformation campaign in Serbia was too often mixed with sexist and misogynist attacks.

Lidija Pisker
Lidija Pisker NewsMavens, Balkans
When a backlash against propaganda exposes misogyny - NewsMavens
Bloody Shirt Protest Belgrade, YouTube

On December 8, a protest march took place in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. The protest was provoked by a physical attack on opposition leader and founder of the political party “Serbian Left” (“Levica Srbije”) Borko Stefanović and his colleagues, which took place on November 23 in the Serbian city of Kruševac.

Stefanović said that the government was behind the attack and held up his bloody shirt while talking to the press. The march was thus called “Stop the Bloody Shirts” protest (“Stop krvavim košuljama”) and several thousand protesters gathered in a peaceful outcry against political violence and the oppressive government regime. No political symbols were displayed and no incidents reported, according to the majority of media reports.

That was, however, not how the protest was presented to viewers of the Belgrade-based TV station Studio B by its reporter Barbara Životić. According to her report, the protest drew a “very small number of citizens”, it was badly organized and a violent incident occurred (namely, people “fighting with umbrellas”).

Životić stated as a fact that the protest was “financed” and organized by government opposition leaders and was attended by “only allegedly politically inactive citizens.” She also claimed that participants of the protest called for violence, lynchings, rapes and a coup, which she called “an act of large hypocrisy since it’s coming from supposedly anti-violence protesters.” Her coverage didn’t include any footage of the event, verifiable sources or verified data. The reporting was part of Studio B’s evening TV show “Panorama,” edited by Studio B’s director and editor-in-chief Ivana Vučićević.

Životić’s untruthful reporting upset a large part of the Serbian public. The video quickly went viral on social media in Serbia and the region as a shameful piece of governmental propaganda. Despite the criticism, Studio B maintained that the coverage was accurate and based on facts. Many journalists and political commentators have condemned the report as unprofessional and unethical, and the fact-checking platform Raskrikavanje.rs analyzed it and exposed its obvious misleading facts and bias.

But in numerous instances, the criticism went beyond content and focused on the reporter and the editor, targeting their looks, behaviour and “sexual morals”.

WHAT WERE THE CLAIMS?

At first, social media users simply shared the video of the controversial report. But they were soon upgraded with “witty” tweets, video and photo edits and even private photos of Životić accompanied with disgraceful comments on her appearance. The intensive posting, re-posting and commenting lasted for several days.

While much of the produced content was benign, some social media users used derogatory labels to discredit both Životić and her editor Vučićević. Životić’s false claims about protestors calling for “violence, rape and lynching” in the streets, thus ironically gained some post-factum truthfulness -- not from protestors in the streets, but from those behind their computers and phone screens.

Here we will present some, among many, such examples:  

Reporter is a whore (in Serbian: "kurva", "fuksa")

(“Barbara, you are an old whore, a worn out one,  and what you need is a good dick to be the real one, Barbara. Kosovo is Serbia!”)

(“Little Barbara but a big WHORE, she will be promoted soon, she might reach the position of deputy of Minister of culture after a few blows")

(“The fact that Barbara is young and has a family doesn’t mean she is not a piece of shit and a whore. Let’s call things the right names. #StoptheBloodyShirts”.)

Reporter is a "gold digger" (in Serbian: "splavarka")

(“Poor Barbara, young and humiliated woman. The word ‘talented’ is missing. She is an illiterate gold-digger who has graduated from some no name private university and she is not humiliated, but honored to be part of the cruel government and whose father is part of it, just like herself”)

(“We should listen to the lies of a gold-digger who was brought to Studio B and be quiet like monkeys from SNS [Serbia’s governing party]. Barbara without the microphone”)

(“If Ana Brnabić [Serbia’s lesbian prime minister] sees Barbara of Studio B licking the can, [reference to a photo of Barbara holding a can close to her face with her tongue out that was widely shared on social media] she will immediately become a member of the reconstructed government")

Editor is a "blonde" (in Serbian: "plavuša", "plavojka" -- used in a derogatory sense to imply being stupid), a "fat blonde" (in Serbian: "debela plavuša") and a "lying whore" (in Serbian: "lažljiva kurva").

(“‘I’m not a whore, I am a mother’, the Studio B's blonde cried on Pink [another TV station]. Nice. But you should have been aware of it before you opened your mouth to lie shamelessly like a whore”)

(“Let me join the gang, editor of Studio B madame Vučićević is a lying whore and Barbara, an attempted journalist is a slut") 

(“Fat blonde of Studio B took 800,000 from citizens of Belgrade, made a debt of 1,5 million Euros, she has no shame indeed”)

WHAT ARE THE FACTS?

Journalism in Serbia has been compromised for many years and this is certainly not an isolated case of government propaganda being broadcasted on local TV channels. Such incidents have been happening and will continue to happen in the future, considering that media freedoms in Serbia are dwindling.

But this case provoked far more severe reactions than usual. On one side, it can be related to the fact that it was a lie broadcasted “live from the scene” of protests, making it blatantly obvious and equally irritating. However, vast part of the criticism was targeted as Životić and Vučićević as individuals -- and women. They were treated less as a part of a rotten system where journalism has been misused in a similar way for years, and in many cases portrayed as the first and only culprits.

Even if it sounds like a worn out question, it is one we need to ask -- would comments on similarly unfair and untruthful reporting be so harsh if it was produced by a male reporter and a male editor?

This case of unprofessional reporting, which could have been an opportunity for a much needed debate about current Serbian media landscape, has instead been used as a fertile ground for sensationalist headlines, clicks and shares. Some media outlets have tried to divert the discussion from what has become the “Barbara case” to a wider debate on breaches of professional journalism standards in Serbia. But some, unfortunately, decided to jump in on social media storm. Fights and insults between Vučićević and some of the celebrity commentators who went for the same sexist approach became the story of the day(s).

CONCLUSION

The above presented claims are self-explanatory illustrations of double standards applied to judging women compared to men in the public eye. Judging the reporter/editor based on their gender, colour of their hair and the way they dress, are not examples of civic engagement or political criticism. These are unacceptable and harmful campaigns of online harassment, which can encourage real life violence against women. Reaching for terms like “whores” and “gold diggers” as go-to expressions of disagreement with someone’s public performance, is also an example of sexual objectification of women.

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