Women in Journalism in East and Southeast Europe
The main storytellers of our time, journalists, tend to be predominantly female and though they are outspoken, they tend to be discriminated.
When you walk into an Eastern European newsroom, you might notice there are mostly women there. When you see who is holding a microphone in front of politicians, it is usually a woman. This situation in many countries in East and Southeast Europe can be seen as a huge paradox. We spoke to women from Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, and Turkey and it was remarkable how similar their observations and experience were; women predominate in this profession because it is low paid, yet their dominance does not mean that discrimination and unfair treatment are absent. Furthermore, they are still often judged by their appearance while having to face the challenging reality of media nowadays — less freedom of speech, more political influence, and a broken business model.
In probably most countries in Southeast Europe newsrooms are composed predominantly of women, but senior roles are reserved for men.
Women work, men get promoted
According to an article by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, “Fighting Words: Journalism Under Assault in Central and Eastern Europe”, it is more common to find female journalists in Eastern Europe than in other parts of the world. Yet this news is not all good. One of the likely explanations for being predominantly female is that this profession is known for its low salaries. Thus, men, who are stereotyped as the “breadwinners” in families, are often not willing to work for such low wages.
Lora Fileva, a Bulgarian journalist at the online publication www.dnevnik.bg, has over a decade of experience covering the judicial system, human rights topics and lately, the media environment. She quotes a publication by Foundation Media Democracy from 2017 where the small salaries are pointed out as exactly the sad reason behind female domination in newsrooms. She adds that another reason might be the fact “that journalism is related to TV — it’s glamorous, beautiful and prestigious. Journalists are close to the people in power and they are famous. For young girls, this could look like an easy escape from reality in the small town.”
The Russian situation is “colourful”, as investigative journalist Anastasia Sechina puts it, since the country itself is huge. “The situation in Voronezh and the situation in Chechnya are incomparable. In Chechnya, it is very seldom that women are journalists, but if we put aside the Caucasus region, Chechnya, Ingushetia, etc., there are many women journalists”, she says and adds that female journalists face the same discrimination women might “enjoy” in other fields — employers promoting men as opposed to women since the latter might give birth and go on maternity leave.
The same goes for Romania. Cristina Cileascu is a producer of the Diplomatic Passport program (Pasaport diplomatic) on television, Digi24. Her program is a high-quality production about foreign policy. She has noticed that newsrooms might be mainly made up of women, yet senior roles are reserved for men. She blames that on society’s superficial understanding of female nature. “Maybe this is because age marks a female body more and the mentality in this part of the world is that a woman who appears in public must be beautiful and beauty is normally a quality of the young. We still care more about looks and less about brains and experience”, she says. Teodora Trifonova, a successful reporter at one of the national TV channels in Bulgaria, also points out that men are preferred for managerial roles and that is the “bitter reality” which “is ridiculous, having said that most of the reporters are already women.”
In the past ten years of my journalistic career, I have been assigned to cover hardcore stories like clashes, protests, natural disasters, etc. Areas, which were once considered dangerous and inaccessible for women, are now being covered by them. And it’s absolutely normal. I think this is a blessing in disguise in times when we witness women having to fight for their right to equal opportunities.
Does the female voice count less?
If we try to remain positive, the fact that men are put off by the reporting profession gives enough space for female journalists to have an opportunity to develop. Teodora Trifonova adds that, “In the past ten years of my journalistic career, I have been assigned to cover hardcore stories like clashes, protests, natural disasters, etc. Areas which were once considered dangerous and inaccessible for women, are now being covered by them. And it’s absolutely normal. I think this is a blessing in disguise in times when we witness women having to fight for their right to equal opportunities”.
Yet this good news has its own limits. Burcu Karakas, a journalist working at DW Turkey, has noticed an even more puzzling phenomenon. “There are these men-dominated TV programs [where] only the presenters are female. They even talk about women’s rights. Six men talking about women’s rights on TV. It’s just ridiculous!”, she laughs bitterly. “Although journalists in Bulgaria are mainly female, very often there is a lack of important topics about the problems faced by women in media. The conversations are more focused on the lifestyle, rather than rights”, Lora Fileva observed. Burcu Karakas believes that since women make up half the world’s population, their perspective needs to be tackled in the media, as they have their own experience when it comes to health, education, or even the pandemic. We might expect this to be highly important in societies with more conservative views.
Topics related to female security, health or life or simply a women’s perspective is somewhat missing, even though women are the majority of reporters.
It is usually men who are given the chance to talk about “serious” topics. “For example, during election night when everybody waits for the results, women are rarely the ones who comment on the results [on TV]. They are usually in the field, to report something in short [clips], but the deep analysis is made by male journalists”, Romanian journalist Cristina remarked. “There is still good news, in foreign politics the number of female senior journalists is growing. Maybe, again, because we still think that what happens in the rest of the world is less important than what happens inside our country”, she points out ironically.
Sexism from superiors at the workplace is also not a myth. Teodora remembers that a colleague of hers was promoted instead of her even though she had produced more reports and better-quality ones too. Burcu Karakas had a similar experience: “[A while ago] I worked for an online media platform. Of course, the boss was a man. He is a respected journalist in Turkey. I worked there for more than a year and I never got paid. I knew they had no money, but at some point, the platform started to make money yet I still had no salary. After a while I said I would quit and would get other jobs from other platforms. I told my boss he had not paid me and I had worked there for more and a year. He replied: Well, but you are married. You don't pay rent.”
This abuse of women circles back to the extremely sexualised language used by politicians when attacking the press.
Strong men and the problem of accountability
Turkeys - this is what Bulgarian female journalists were compared to by the Bulgarian prime minister in February 2020. Not many professionals can brag about being insulted by their country’s leader, but reporters working in the field are among them. Yet Lora feels that politicians have treated her in a certain way. “I have felt neglected by the men in power when I have asked them questions because I am not a certain type of woman: I am not dressed provocatively, I am not flirtatious, and I do not work for television. I have been abused, although that is a strong word, and I have seen men in powerful positions (such as a former prosecutor general) abuse women reporters. As an argument not to answer (my) questions, they have used facts from our personal lives; who our parents are, who we are living with, and how our salary is earned”, she explains.
As a Council of Europe report summarizes, the drop in newspaper readership, the loss of viewers of public TV channels, and the changing “forms of news consumption” are the new reality, but they are more phenomena of the media’s new business model. However, censorship and political influence over journalism also stains the media. “Many journalists who criticize the government or officials become the object of smear campaigns in tabloid media outlets. The reason why is that this is the way the people who should answer questions avoid them and neglect important issues and journalistic work”, says Lora Fileva. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism observed that insults thrown at women reporters are a key issue in this field, since women “often bear the brunt of these online attacks”. “This abuse of women circles back to the extremely sexualised language used by politicians when attacking the press”, the article continues.
The media in Romania is freer than the media of the countries surrounding us. I haven’t heard about somebody being fired or forced to resign just because they wrote something about a politician or businessperson since the 90s. But there is also something fake in this freedom because most powerful people have a tendency to become less communicative when the media is not friendly. There is an improvement in freedoms, but there are also new ways to pressure the media.
While Bulgaria’s media freedom has been deteriorating, as observed by Reporters without Borders, Romania has been doing better. “The media in Romania is freer than the media of the countries surrounding us. This is the way I see it, since I do cover foreign affairs and I normally work more with colleagues from various states. I haven’t heard about somebody being fired or forced to resign just because they wrote something about a politician or businessperson since the 90s. But there is also something fake in this freedom because most powerful people have a tendency to become less communicative when the media is not friendly. The effect is not the journalist being fired, but that the media is avoided in the next informal meeting or important conference, etc. Or even simpler, the spokesperson doesn't answer the phone at all, etc. There is an improvement in freedoms, but there are also new ways to pressure the media”, Cristina Cileascu shares.
Outside the EU the situation might be more difficult. As Anastasia Sechina mentions, Russian legislation, the “so-called abolition of propaganda of LGBT-values, the law about foreign media agents, and the law on the justification of terrorism”, create obstacles for working journalists. “These laws are written in such a way that if they want, they can convict you, they will find a reason if they really want to. There are no clear criteria and the application is selective. When we talk with my colleagues about these topics, we all understand that in any one moment, one of us could be charged under one of the articles of these laws and you don't know who that would be. This is our reality now and there aren't any methods to minimize these risks”, she says.
We, as women in the media, are going to struggle for our rights but we are not going to give up on our lives and rights.
Turkish journalist Burcu Karakas is concerned about the way the “political weather” influences media freedom in her country as well. “We, as women in the media, are going to struggle for our rights but we are not going to give up on our lives and rights”, she confidently concludes.
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