The best defense is a good (sexist) offense – an attempt to hide the truth
The traditional role of journalism has remained unchanged over time: journalism should hold individuals and institutions accountable, by uncovering what some might wish to remain hidden. It is an extension of the liberal democratic ideal of limiting power and influence, as an informal check on the illegal or questionable activities of well-resourced actors. Secondly, it should also draw attention to passive shortcomings in public policy that affect the public. It has a guardian role, where laws, regulations, and the operation of significant public and private bodies are scrutinized for effectiveness and their fulfillment of the public good. What has changed is the environment in which journalists are performing their duties. Life in the fast lane, turbulences and hostilities arising around the world and new channels of communication have all led to an adaptive mode of human behavior: “feeding frenzy” and rigorous enrichment on one side, and extreme poverty and misery on the other.
In such an environment, remaining neutral in reporting on issues of concern has become almost impossible, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina. While global trends in journalism dictate an ultimate dive into affairs, spectacular disasters and stories of bloodshed, remaining focused is a must. Still, professional reporting, in terms of respecting standards and avoiding taking stands is still respected by those who believe their role is to provide information and to help democracy blossom.
Investigative reporting is a team sport – it involves months of intensive research and checks, collection of documents, continuing education and fact-finding on issues important to people. The process of story development is not quick and easy, but rather a painful and rigorous battle for the truth. Each story is fact checked upon documents and statements, every word scrutinized in order to verify the truth – a single mistake would ruin the work of a group of people, and each member of the team is responsible to him/herself first. This meticulous approach to work is, after all, a tribute to readers, a respect paid to those depending on our work, eager for information. At the end of a day, the right to information is a basic human right, guaranteed by the Constitution, and journalists are simply a medium in helping citizens being informed.
Power relations and gender in B&H public discourse
The recent attack on a (female) reporter of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN) is yet another example of how fluid fundamental freedoms really are. After publishing a story looking into political corruption in the health sector in Sarajevo Canton, the lead reporter found herself under an extreme attack orchestrated by the main actor of the political scandal. While not being able to dismiss the findings of the story, he used the oldest approach men feel “entitled” to: sexual discrimination against a woman. While he identified the reporter, who conducted an interview with him during the research, as the sole culprit for bringing out the truth he would have prefered to hide, he used his private Facebook profile to discredit her as a woman (“providing her services as a way to get money used to fund the operations of CIN, same as her other female colleagues”) and diminish her intellectual capacities (“with an IQ of 65, she can’t do anything but flip burgers in a corner grill”). Once stirred, his imagination, manifested as a series of blunt insults, could only go further. His aggravated menace, supported by a gang of loud (online) spectators, unleashed a whole range of rather descriptive actions and situations the (female) reporter was the main star of. And yet, not a single word dismissing the findings of the story.
While this occasion is not unique in the B&H (and wider) media landscape, it raises a question: how far could one go in expressing his/her grief over journalistic findings? Are there some universal boundaries in using personal communication channels, limiting interference with other people’s personal spheres? Who is responsible for checks and balances in the online world? If insults spread through personal profiles are unpunishable, are we really progressing or regressing in civilized coexistence?
Internet as a public space
As a public space, the Internet is open for participation of all. Regulation of the Internet has been a subject of vivid discussion worldwide, with rather polarized outcomes: one side is against any regulation, allowing everyone to apply their own ethical norms in regulating their own public performance. On the other side are those who believe the Internet, as any other communication stream able to affect public sphere, should be regulated by a strict set of regulations and sanctions. The truth is, probably, somewhere in the middle: strict sanctions have proven to be counterproductive in many cases, so applying them in the contemporary world of cyberspace would be challenging, to say the least. On the other hand, it has been a common knowledge that ethical norms are rather fluid depending on the society they are applied to, as well as one’s personal sense of right and wrong.
Post-war B&H society, burdened with ethnic tension, division and lack of socially accepted values is a fruitful soil for aggressiveness. The traditional and mainly patriarchal society sees the role of a woman in a submissive slavery to the pater familias: this role division is still supported not only by the majority of men in B&H, but a rather large number of women, recognizing themselves as the “prettier and softer” members of society, unprepared for “heavy lifting”. Here, aggressive behavior, readiness to engage in a fist fight at a glance, is still seen as a desirable characteristic: he will know how to defend his female.
Missing the bigger picture
It is, therefore, easy to understand why such behavior of a distinguished doctor is deemed acceptable, and his attack on a reporter commendable. What I see as a problem in this picture is the fact that our society is sinking even further down by accepting it. The doctor was mentioned in a story for his involvement in a criminal activity; his actions were uncovered by an extensive, thorough, in-depth research of a (female) reporter. Facts have proved that he had been stealing from this society through a set of friendly connections with the ruling political party. The issue here, despite the miserable attempt to discredit it, is not dependent on someone’s ethnicity, education or good-looks, but the fact that one has been involved in a criminal activity and should be punished for it. While we, as a society, are losing time questioning the motives of a reporter to go after a specific story, we are missing the bigger picture: money is being stashed away and our system stripped by those we have defended from “being attacked by news articles”. Investigative reporting, at least the kind practiced in CIN, is not an enemy of the rightful people, but those that deserve to be exposed.
Journalism is meant to tackle various issues and report its findings. The use of public funds is one of the ultimate topics in focus of CIN’s research – it matters to people and, therefore, it is our obligation to constantly prod institutions on the issue. This particular event, or any other form of intimidation and pressure, will not prevent us from working. On the contrary, it will give us additional strength to continue looking. “If you are not provoking a reaction by your story, you’re not doing it right” is an old journalistic saying, and it has been proven right throughout years of our work. For everything else, we have the judicial system and legal remedies. In support of this statement, the Cantonal Prosecutor’s Office in Sarajevo has initiated an investigation against the doctor, his clinic and the suspicious deals he has made with the General Hospital of Sarajevo.