War in the focus of the media

Kosovar refugees fleeing their homeland.

How sexualised violence is reported, as demonstrated by regional examples

The media take on a key role during wars and in their aftermath. This holds true, on the one hand, for war propaganda, which legitimises violence and builds public approval for belligerent acts. At the other end of the scale, radio, television, newspapers and social media condemn war-related violence and help build peace. Media coverage of sexualised war-related violence falls somewhere between these two conflicting priorities.

In the early 1990s, reports of mass rape in the former Yugoslavia startled Western Europeans. Scores of policy decision-makers justified consenting to military interventions by claiming that they wanted to put an end to the suffering of women. Rape ceased to become perceived as a by-product of war, especially since it was occurring in Europe. By the late 1990s, reports of acts of rape being committed during wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo forced the United Nation’s hand. In 2000, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1325. This internationally significant agreement, along with the subsequent resolutions, condemn acts of violence against women in wars, and call for women to be protected and the perpetrators to be brought to justice; under the resolution, every party engaged in war that commits an offence should be made accountable.

The above contexts formed the backdrop to an expert talk organised by the Gunda Werner Institute in the Heinrich Boell Foundation (GWI), which took place on 29 October 2013. The expert talk focused on how sexualised violence is reported, and used examples from the former Yugoslavia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to highlight this. It followed on from previous panel discussions and international conferences on women’s, peace and security policies. Other points of reference included the GWI’s expert talks on militarised masculinity and transitional justice in post-conflict societies. The event was co-hosted by the German Association of Women Journalists (Journalistinnenbund).

Gender-based war-related violence in the media. Examples: Zagreb and Bosnia
Media experts from Zagreb and Sarajevo examined how gender-based violence was reported during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Vesna Kesic, a journalist, explained how the media in Croatia raised public awareness of acts of rape. Their main aim, however, was to link the humiliation of women to nationalistic propaganda and to villanise the Serbs as a brutal enemy. The sensationalist media coverage deployed pornographic imagery and ethnicised and/or nationalised the violent assaults. This provoked Croatian men into action. Kesic put these media practices into a historical context. She mentioned, for example, that the change in the political system that the former Yugoslavia underwent in the early 1990s led to the emergence of many private media, which took their place alongside national television. Their owners above all included the local elite who demonstrated their allegiance to the regime through nationalistic propaganda.

Lejla Turcilo, a media and political scientist at the University of Sarajevo, illustrated how the media in Bosnia also reflect the power structure there. This applies to the owners of numerous newspapers, magazines, television stations and news agencies just as much as it does to the content of the media coverage. Turcilo elaborated that scores of media had been founded for propaganda purposes during the war in Bosnia and had barely changed since then. She also stated that, to date, very little had been reported on the fate of women who had been raped during the war and that even female journalists avoided this topic. Many of these journalists felt emotionally overwhelmed about this subject, said Turcilo, and that the extent of the work load compared to their low wages also hampered any form of detailed research. In Lejla Turcilo’s opinion, media coverage lacked professional standards and witnesses/victims frequently could not be guaranteed protection. Only a handful of media owners were more open to women’s issues, she added. Her wish: they should be invited to take a more involved role in the debate on content as well as taking stock of the situation. Much like in Croatia, the nationalistic media, which are under the influence of the political and religious elite, have dominated here until now.
For both countries, it became apparent that the media in no way question militarised masculinity or the resulting acts of gender-based violence.

“Embedded feminism” as shown by examples in Kosovo and Afghanistan
Gender expert, Ms Andrea Nachtigall, also made reference to the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. She reported on how the German media used distorted portrayals of violence against women to justify participation in wars and conflicts. At the time of the Kosovo war, female victims were turned into icons of an ethnicised conflict. During the war in Afghanistan, the imagery shifted over the course of time: media coverage, which Nachtigall characterised as “embedded feminism”, initially propagated women’s liberation, with the burka being upheld as the symbol of oppression. When the international forces announced their withdrawal plans, the media lifted their veil. Their lack of interest in women’s liberation was borne out by their disinterest in the goals being pursued by female Afghan politicians and the work of women’s organisations there.

Using the Democratic Republic of the Congo as their example, documentary maker, Susanne Babila, and Judith Raupp, media trainer at the University in Goma, delved into the issue of the German media portraying women above all as victims of sexualised violence during wars and conflicts. Susanne Babila outlined the concept of her film “Im Schatten des Bösen”, which focuses on individual female rape victims who were receiving medical and psychosocial help. Babila reported that the women found it important that the world should learn of their fate. Judith Raupp, herself an Africa correspondent for many years, took things a step further. She highlighted the patterns found in German media coverage of the Congo, which, to her mind, exemplifies the template-like perception of Africa. Clichés and gender stereotypes were frequently amplified, Raupp said, adding that the difficulties in obtaining data as well as the limited infrastructure also led German journalists in the country to constantly interview the same non-governmental organisations or peacekeeping forces. At the other end of the scale, Judith Raupp called upon them to work with local informants to check sources and depict broader links and contexts. In her opinion, the objective should be to cover the complex reasons that lie behind sexualised violence and perhaps also to reveal the boundaries of comprehension. Raupp rejected shock journalism and called on German reporters to develop an appropriate lexis, for example for describing what survivors of sexualised violence are going through. Turning to the Congolese society, Raupp explained how the many years of war and conflict had destroyed the country’s values and she underpinned that it was therefore all the more important to work on overcoming racism through education and training.

Outlooks and insights
Where and how changes could begin to be made in the media’s perception were spelled out by Gitti Hentschel from the Gunda Werner Institute and Joanna Barelkowska from the Heinrich Boell Foundation, using the “Vision News” website designed by journalist Ute Scheub. The website contains numerous illustrative reports written by journalists from a variety of countries in the southern hemisphere, presenting, for example, innovative women’s peace projects which could also spark changes in Germany. A well-written selection of articles has been compiled into a very readable anthology entitled “Gute Nachrichten”.

With this media coverage focus documenting concrete transformation processes, the event organisers moved on to the media lab organised by the Association of Women Journalists. During this event, which was open to the general public, renowned female German correspondents, camerawomen and women photographers provided insights into their working conditions, their viewpoints as women in war-torn countries and how they coped with their war experiences. They made themselves available for follow-up questions in small groups.