Public Room: How the Macedonian Media Missed the Opportunity to Shed Light on Gender-based Violence

As the “Public Room” case remained unsolved for two years after its discovery, media coverage led the public in N. Macedonia to mistrust the country’s authorities.

By Elena Gagovska

This article was originally published on Reporting Diversity Network 2.0

Gender-based violence is one of the several forms of violence where victims are often blamed. In other words, girls and women who are  often the victims of gender-based violence are partly or completely blamed for what happened to them by social and media discourse. Sexist matrices and patriarchal values ​​that justify sexual violence and view the victims with suspicion because of their gender play a big role into such discourse.

The scandalous sharing of explicit content

“Public Room” was a chat group in the encrypted Telegram application with thousands of (male) members that first appeared in 2020 and then reappeared in 2021.Private photos and videos with explicit and pornographic content, social media profiles, telephone numbers, and other personal data of women and girls from Macedonia were shared without their consent. In November 2021 a report about the media coverage of LGBTI community and gender-based violence was published. It included a case study about the “Public Room” in which I made a comparative analysis of the media coverage of “Public Room” in 2020 and in 2021.

The case of the “Public Room”, apart from being criminal, was  a scandal about gender-based violence in the country, but not everyone perceived the case as such. Social media were full of problematic narratives condemning the victims of the “Public Room” for the way they photographed themselves, the way they posted their pictures, why they had open-type Instagram profiles, etc. In other words, many blamed the victims for being victims and the media coverage of the case often did not help to dispel these harmful narratives.

Media sensationalism

In 2020 there victim blaming narratives dominated the media. Those who reported on such cases did not use accurate terminology when talking about the “Public Room”, they did not describe the activities in that group as  crimes, and they did not have clear boundaries as to whom the perpetrators and whom the victims were. Instead, in 2020 many of the articles relied on sensationalism and capitalized on the social taboo about sex and pornography. This means that the 2020 articles lacked terminology such as “gender-based violence”, “sexual harassment”, or the fact that the materials were shared without the consent of the victims. Very often, even the word “victim” was absent from these articles, while the focus is on the scandal of the case.

Articles from 2020 also focused on the juvenile victims and the child pornography shared in the group, almost ignoring the adult victims and the victims who had only had their personal data misused. The absence of the voices of the victims is also noticeable. Because in 2020 the gendered component of the violence was generally not mentioned and there was no clear line between who the perpetrators  and who the victims were, the media provided moralistic and ahistorical explanations for the alleged deviance of younger generations as the reason for the emergence of the “Public Room”.

There are two intertwined narratives that explain this alleged deviance, with more emphasis generally placed on the latter: (1) the uncontrolled use of social media among young people, and (2) a lack of family values. Instead of finding systemic solutions to this serious type of violence and demanding appropriate action by Government institutions, many articles blamed the parents, placing the blame within the private sphere of the family. An example that perfectly illustrates these moralizing narratives is an interview with the pedagogue Vesna Velkova what was published in “Women Magazine”. When asked for a recommendation on how to “protect young people from ending up in another ‘public room?’”, she says:

“If you ask me, telephones in schools should be banned by law, even though we have places where they leave them. My message is to the parents. Build strong foundations in the family so that we, in the schools, can build floors on top of that foundation. From my experience, I want to say only one thing to the parents. The children demand attention – everything else is less important to them.”

Evolution of media narratives in 2021

Unlike 2020, in 2021 the blame for the “Public Room” is not in the private sphere, but in the public sphere and the competent Government institutions. The narrative that implicitly accuses victims is almost non-existent in 2021 because girls and women whose images or personal information have been misused are properly framed as victims. Although it must be noted that, in addition to the inclusion of the word “victim”, the media in 2021 again rarely use other relevant terms, such as “gender-based violence”. This positive change in the reporting relies on the anonymous and public statements of some of the adult victims in the “Public Room”.

In 2021, in the first text about the new “Public Room”, the voice of one of the victims is now heard; there is a statement of an anonymous 22-year old girl who got in touch with the Sitel TV editorial office. The same article includes a quote from an expert from the civil sector, Irena Cvetkovikj, the executive director of the “Margini” Coalition, who correctly identifies the victims of the “Public Room” as victims and designates the activities in the Telegram group as a crime. In 2021 there have been few articles that moralize or sensationalize the case  , as the focus is on the voices of the victims, the activists, and the civil sector.

By giving an opportunity to people like Ana Koleva, a 28-year old girl from Kavadarci and a victim of the “Public Room”, who spoke publicly about her experience, the media implicitly sided with the victims. In 2020, by ignoring the gendered component of the violence and framing the “Public Room” as a problem of the young people that was happening due to a “lack of family values”, the media subtly shifted some of the blame onto the victims.

However, in 2021, when victims like Ana Koleva and lawyer Marta Gusar were interviewed by the media, a clearer narrative was presented to the audience. This narrative is one in which the perpetrators are the ones who were sharing the pictures/personal data and sexually harassed the victims, while victims are the ones who experienced this type of cyberbullying. It is also a positive thing that in 2021, in addition to condemning the behavior of the perpetrators, government institutions that do not act and do not protect victims are also condemned.

A positive example that includes the voices of the victims and the civil society is an article by Republika about the “Public Room” protest held on 3 February  under the heading “Violence against women is not a personal problem of every woman, but an obligation of the institutions”. With such a title, this article emphasizes that this type of violence is a systemic problem and points the blame towards the inactive state institutions, instead of condemning the individual behavior of the women victims:

“More than 500 citizens protested under the slogan “Public Room is a crime” at yesterday’s march organized by the Platform for Gender Equality, expressing disappointment with the system and the inaction of the institutions in the “Public Room” case, which is a crime in which countless women are victims of gender-based violence.”

The ‘time factor’ plays an important role in creating this narrative that moves guilt and responsibility tothe public sphere, as “Public Room” was re-introduced for the second time without any person being responsible for the crimes committed. The fact that the case remained unsolved for year after its first appearance led to public mistrust towards the authorities.

The lack of response from the authorities led to protests on 3 February and 8 March, with guerilla actions, as well as press conferences the Gender Equality Platform aimed at the Ministry of Interior and the Public Prosecutor’s Office. These public actions received adequate media attention and contributed to the creation of a new media narrative that targets state institutions rather than private lives.

The way gender-based violence and specifically the “Public Room” case are being reported in 2021 have improved compared to 2020. The media provided a platform to activists and victims and the blame has been redirected towards state institutions instead of women who are abused. However, journalists and media workers still pay less attention to the terminology they use in discussions about gender-based violence and sexual harassment. Although it is positive that the media implicitly sided with the victims, they missed the opportunity to educate the general public about gender-based violence as a systemic problem stemming from sexist and patriarchal values.

If reports related to “Public Room” had focused on the gendered element of violence and correct terminology was used in order to describe what happened in that Telegram group harmful discourses on social media would have been prevented.  

With the use of accurate terminology, the media could have framed the “Public Room” case as a symptom of systemic gender-based violence stemming from deep-seated sexist and patriarchal values ​​that permeate all spheres of our society. As a result of such framing, many people who consume media content could have been at least partially acquainted with these topics and sympathize not only with the victims of the “Public Room”, but also with future victims of gender-based violence.

Photo Credit: wichayada suwanachun / Shutterstock