A women's rights march in Belgrade on January 21, 2017. Women journalists in Serbia say they face threats of sexual violence and online abuse over their critical reporting. (AFP/Andrej Isakovic)
A women's rights march in Belgrade on January 21, 2017. Women journalists in Serbia say they face threats of sexual violence and online abuse over their critical reporting. (AFP/Andrej Isakovic)

Two-fold risk for Serbia’s women journalists as attackers target their work and gender

“In the past five years I was publically called many things. I was an old hag, a sterile, cheap Soros’ prostitute, a hooker, not f***ed enough, in need of a good prick, and destroyer of the Serbian Orthodox Church,” said Tatjana Vojtehovski, a Serbian television journalist with a large presence on social media. “My response was always to publish all insults on social media. I truly believe that the best protection I could have is from the public.”

Vojtehovski is not alone when it comes to being trolled on social media over her reporting. The TV reporter and other women journalists with whom I spoke said that often the insults have a gender slant, or threaten sexual violence. Most of the abuse comes after the journalists report on corruption, or politics.

Dunja Mijatovic, the former Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s representative on Freedom of the Media, said that female reporters are usually assaulted twice–as journalists and as women. “It takes a lot of courage to go public,” Mijatovic said. She added that journalists need to feel supported by their employers, state bodies, and women’s groups. But, Mijatovic said, that kind of solidarity is mostly missing in the Balkans today.

Vojtehovski, who works for Prva TV, said that she brushes off threats sent via social media. Her worry, she said, is when the virtual world becomes real. Vojtehovski, who is critical of President Aleksandar Vucic, said she is often targeted by pro-government tabloids, usually when she reports on corruption and abuse of power, or uses Twitter–where she has over 200,000 followers–to share and comment on her reporting.

A death threat, pictured, directed at Tatjana Vojtehovski and full of derogatory terms, was pinned to a tree in a place visible to the critical journalist. (Tatjana Vojtehovski)
A death threat, pictured, directed at Tatjana Vojtehovski and full of derogatory terms, was pinned to a tree in a place visible to the critical journalist. (Tatjana Vojtehovski)

“When someone prints that I want the president dead, I have to call my mother and my daughter, and to calmly explain things,” said Vojtehovski. She said that she fears that fake news stories written about her could lead to physical violence. She said that in April, a handwritten death threat addressed to her was pinned on a tree in a place where it was clear she would see it. “Somebody had to buy a pen, paper and pushpins. There was a clear intent, and this is what is frightening,” said Vojtehovski.

Antonela Riha, an independent journalist, said that Twitter attacks can be toxic, but they have become part of what Serbian journalists expect. Riha, along with two other female journalists, was most recently the target of a smear campaign on September 19. The attack was related to their reporting on the presidential elections, and their questioning of allegations made against Natasa Jeremic, a former journalist and wife of presidential candidate Vuk Jeremic.

Riha said the abuse is different for female and male journalists. “When men are publically attacked, they are still given ‘serious’ roles,” Riha said. “They are spies, or foreign agents whereas for women, there is usually a sexist connotation. We are often ‘old bags,’ or ‘ugly,’ or ‘bed mothers’.”

Dragana Peco of KRIK, an investigative outlet that is a part of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, echoed that view. She said that after her apartment was burgled in July, some people on social media downplayed the incident, saying that it must have been the action of a lover rather than an attempt to intimidate her. Peco, who covers politics and corruption, said that although she reported the burglary, and despite journalists’ associations calling for swift action and for her work to be considered as a motive, she has not received any official updates about the investigation, which left her feeling vulnerable.

For some Serbian journalists, threats are not only made online. Riha said that while watching the Serbian Assembly on TV earlier this year, she saw a representative waving an enlarged photo of Riha as “proof” that protests were anti-government. Riha said she also saw a poster showing the image of the son of another journalist, Olja Beckovic. Journalist groups and associations have compared this act to “drawing targets on foreheads.”

Riha said that she did not plan to file a lawsuit. “I am a freelancer, and I have no time to fight this,” she said. Last year, she was part of a group of prominent journalists and public figures that sued the tabloid Informer and TV Pink for alleging that they were plotting to overturn the government. A lower court ruled that there was no basis for the lawsuit. “After this decision, going to court seems pretty pointless,” Riha said.

Attempts to offer Serbia’s journalists protection have not been immediately effective. A Special Commission for Security of Journalists was established in December 2016, but the joint work of the country’s prosecutor’s office, police, and journalists’ associations in swiftly resolving cases has yet to give tangible results

At least two other Serbian investigative journalists say there has been little result after they reported attacks. Marija Vucic, of the investigative news portal Cenzolovka, said that when she received death threats in June via a Facebook user with a fake profile, she reported the case to the newly established Special Prosecution Office for Hi-Tech Crime, but to date, it has not been resolved. “I got follow up threats from different accounts, but I did not report those to the police,” said Vucic. “I never heard back [when I reported the first threat], so I have no reason to believe that this time it would be any different.”

Lidija Valtner, of the Belgrade-based daily Danas, told me that she is also still waiting for an update from police. Valtner said that while she was covering the inauguration of President Vucic in June, a man tried to grab her phone to prevent her filming a clash and, when she resisted, two men dragged her toward a park. Photographs of the incident were published but, Valtner said, “The prosecutor’s office still waits for additional information from the police in order to press charges.” Marija Vukasovic, from the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, said that during the same event “at least three female journalists reported assaults, but did not want their identities to be revealed, most likely for fear of further reprisal.”

The only progress made in a case this year, involves an attack on two women journalists from the pro-government TV Pink. Gordana Uzelac and Mara Dragovic were attacked during a protest on September 16, organized in part against the way their media outlet reports. The alleged attacker was apprehended the same day and a judge ordered that he be detained for 30 days pending investigation, according to the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, which monitors attacks on the press.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The last paragraph of this blog has been updated to correct the name of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia.]