Responsible Reporting on Gender-Based Violence to Protect Victims’ Privacy

Photo: Canva

Gender-based violence is receiving more and more media coverage in Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, the basic principles of ethical journalism are often violated for the sake of  publishing more sensational content, which often results in the re-traumatization of victims and their families.

Gender-based violence is one of today’s most pressing issues and is rooted in centuries of adherence to the patriarchal value system. For this reason, the largest number of victims of gender-based violence are girls and women. Gender-based violence is being receiving more and more media attention. According to research conducted by UN Women in 2016, most media reporting on gender-based violence is published in short-form content. 

“The media do not initiate topics of violence against women but rather report on those cases in brief covers once they get information from their source, most frequently police source or non-governmental organizations. Photographs used to illustrate GBV articles do not mainly contain bloody details and are not unethical, but one in five published stories is accompanied by a clear photo of the story actor’s face be it a woman who suffered violence, a perpetrator or an activist in that field. The most present topic in the stories is physical violence, as seen in almost half of the articles that were subject to this analysis. While physical and sexual violence against women is present in news articles and recognized as a problem, other forms of violence are almost not mentioned at all,” according to the UN Women study.

Journalistic ethics prescribes a specific approach to victims of gender-based violence, said Borka Rudić, Secretary General of the Association of BiH Journalists. She went on to explain that victims should be approached carefully, with compassion, and in a way that will not contribute to new or additional victimization through media content.

“All journalists should report on this topic, taking into account whether the public should know some details of abuse or violence, or not. I emphasize that it is not necessary, because by presenting details and describing the actions of the perpetrator, additional damage is inflicted on the victims. Insisting on details is not the task of the media, but of the judiciary and the police,” Rudić said.

According to Rudić, the sensationalist approach, which can be seen in everything from the title of the text to the photographs or vocabulary used by journalists, is a “violation of the dignity of the victim” and is contrary to professional and ethical journalism. 

“There are many examples of disrespect for the victims’ privacy, but the most drastic is when the information on victims is published right after incidents, before the police or other competent authorities do so,” said Marko Divković, president of the Association of BiH Journalists.

Undisputed Right to Protection

Divković explains that when it comes to gender-based violence, violations of general professional principles in BiH media is not uncommon, even outside of tabloids, ownerless news portals, and the like. 

“The fundamental principle that the victim has an indisputable right to protection, although well known, is often violated. The importance of this issue is shown by the fact that in the Statute of the Federation of Journalists of Yugoslavia, there was a provision that required special attention when reporting on the infirm, the elderly, children, and the sick during accidents and similar situations,” Divković explained.

Discrimination and public portrayal of any person in an insulting, degrading, or humiliating manner in the media is prohibited by the Law on Gender Equality in BiH, Code of Press and Online Media, Code of Audiovisual Media and Radio Services, Code of Honor of BiH Journalists, and others. 

“A journalist is obliged to respect everyone’s right to private and family life, home, health, and expression. Publishing information that violates someone’s privacy, without someone’s permission, must be justified in the public interest,” states the Code of Honor of BH Journalists.

Safet Mušić, an expert on security issues, explains that there are cases when publishing photos of victims in the media significantly complicates the already difficult period that the victim is going through. The consequences for the victims, he said, are particularly pronounced in rural areas, where over 70 percent of gender-based violence occurs. 

“The media rarely talks about the causes of gender-based violence, ways to help victims, or the consequences of violence. More often, the media reports on individual cases and testimonies of victims without specific messages and so on,” said Mušić. He also suggests that journalists should avoid interviews which directly showcase victims of violence, while always keeping in mind that victims are dealing with a difficult situation and are often suffering from psychological consequences. 

As examples of good practices, Mušić recommends that the media should give more space to professional perspectives, such as sociological and psychological approaches to addressing these problems as well as the views of security and legal experts. The media should also include input from representatives of relevant organizations who can provide specific data as well as resources for victims on how to seek help and information on the prevention of gender-based violence.  

Unethical Reporting

To protect victims of gender-based violence in public space, psychologist Čedomir Novaković explains that it is important to use a differential method which accounts for the skills, education level, ability, and personality of the individual journalist. Novaković notes that basic social, national, and cultural characteristics of the media are important, as is the milieu which victims belong and what kind of trauma they experience. He adds that the individual, group, and cultural consequences that may arise should also be taken into account. 

“That affinity of a fine description, a fine differential analysis is necessary for very experienced journalists as well. However, today we have very uneducated journalists in the area of general reporting, especially when it comes to empathy and personal psychology towards the victim being written about and towards all possible aspects of assessment,” Novaković said.

Cases of unethical reporting and violations of codes and laws, as Rudić explains, can be reported to the Communications Regulatory Agency, in the case of electronic media, or to The Press Complaints Commission, in the case of print and online media. He also points out that charges can be filed with the Human Rights Ombudsman of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Gender Equality Agency, at the gender centers in the Federation of BiH and Republika Srpska. Also, it is possible to file criminal charges against responsible persons in the media for violating the Law on Gender Equality, Law on Personal Protection of Data, and the Law on Prevention of Discrimination.

Alem is a trained Balkan Diskurs correspondent from Goražde. He received his bachelor's in International Relations and Diplomacy and is currently pursuing a master's degree in Security and Peace Studies at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Sarajevo. He is active in the NGO sector and is especially interested in photography and media.

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