Judging by the media landscape, ordinary women barely exist in Serbia – in an election year like 2020 or any other time.

In the era of COVID-19, an epidemiologist making the news is no shocker. But in the case of Dr. Darija Kisic Tepavcevic, deputy director of the Institute of Public Health of Serbia, the surprise stemmed from the subject being covered.

Kisic Tepavcevic – a familiar face in Serbia from her daily briefings broadcast by nearly all of Serbia’s TV stations – found herself in the news in April not for her expert response to COVID-19, her tireless work at crisis headquarters, or her visits to virus hotspots across Serbia. Rather, her newly dyed hair took center stage. How had she managed a visit to the hairdresser, given the restrictions on salons? An epidemiologist’s hair had become breaking news in the midst of a global pandemic.

Kisic Tepavcevic’s hair affair exemplifies a problem that is hardly new in Serbia: a media landscape dominated by men and reflecting wider societal oppression of women. 

Darija Kisic Tepavcevic. Image via Facebook.

Serbia is a man’s world – and the media isn’t about to let anyone forget it. Here’s exhibit one: Some 3 million viewers (nearly half of the country’s approximately 7 million people) watch the evening news on Radio-Television Serbia’s RTS1 channel. Other networks bolster that viewership with their own news programs. These programs essentially serve as the primary influence on public opinion, since TV stations in Serbia have the broadest reach among people of all ages, educational backgrounds, social status, ideological beliefs, religions, and ethnic backgrounds.

According to the results of media monitoring by the Novi Sad School of Journalism, approximately 80 percent of those given the chance to express their opinion, explain the results of their work, or represent social power on those broadcasts are men. That skewed media representation has barely budged in 20 years, which is how long the Novi Sad School of Journalism has been monitoring the media in Serbia.

The situation further deteriorates during campaign season, when women make up less than 15 percent of subjects on news and informative programs. In an election year, these programs are almost entirely focused on campaigns and showcasing the activities of political elites in all spheres of life.

The 2020 parliamentary election campaign was no exception. The only women routinely shown on these national programs are women whose current political positions make them omnipresent in daily political life: Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, Minister of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure Zorana Mihajlovic, and President of the National Assembly Maja Gojkovic. Their function within the government essentially makes their inclusion in informative programs mandatory. During the pandemic, some female doctors, like Kisic Tepavcevic, have been shown thanks to their active role in responding to COVID-19.

The only other prominent women given regular coverage were the leader of the ultranationalist Zavetnici (Oathkeepers) party, Milica Djurdjevic, and the controversial parliamentarian Gordana Comic. A longtime member of the Democratic Party (DS) until she was excommunicated for acting in breach of party decisions, Comic qualifies for media representation solely due to that scandal, rather than her nearly three decades of public service and activism for women’s rights.

In short, one of the most important journalistic sectors in Serbia – informative national news programs – only seeks out women’s voices when they meet one of three conditions: occupying a position of power that is inseparable from media visibility, serving as experts who are part of a female-dominated profession such asmedicine, law, or education, or representing rule-breakers and scandal-makers.

The Role of Parties

Elections are the cornerstone of a democratic society. Thus, the way the media reports on elections reflects general societal beliefs and trends, as well as the professionalism and freedom of the media.

Research reveals that the representation of women – or lack thereof – shows up in three areas during elections: the invisibility of women on candidate lists both before and after elections, the exclusion of women’s voices, and the dismissal of women in the language that the media uses in their reporting.

The Novi Sad School of Journalism has monitored every election in Serbia since 1996. According to its reports, the leader of the political party in power – nearly always a man – dominates election coverage. When women are given time and space to speak, their remarks are generally limited to statements in support of those leaders. When reporting on campaigns, the news media favors men to quote directly, interview, and cite as credible sources of information. The screen time dedicated to the elections in key news programs features men exclusively, whether they are the top candidate or further down the list, with the exception of the aforementioned nationalist Zavetnici party leader.

The political parties themselves bear a significant portion of the blame for women’s invisibility. An analysis of paid political advertising spots confirms that women are vastly underrepresented in this medium. The promotional spots that parties create to post on YouTube and other social media channels – and which eventually are broadcast on TV – feature primarily men, lending credence to the suspicion that women only appear on party candidate lists to comply with the legal requirement that one-third of all candidates for office be women.

Ultimately, the goal of the parties should be that all of their candidates get enough visibility and recognition to attract voters to choose their list on voting day. But traditional Serbian society holds that politics is a man’s job and that women have no place in it. The message from the media and the parties remains that female politicians exist to meet required quotas, not advance agendas.

When women do succeed in attaining positions of power, they tend to follow their party leader obediently. Last spring, the opposition seized on this to attack the (female) prime minister when a video from her party’s convention was shared. In the video, Prime Minister Brnabic is speaking to President Aleksandar Vucic, who is also the leader of the ruling party to which she belongs. Opposition social media channels took this opportunity to slate the prime minister for being a weak woman, characterizing her tone as subservient and meek as she openly calls Vucic “boss.”

Head of the Serbian Household

According to the Statistical Office of Serbia, women make up 51.3 percent of the population of Serbia, but men are predominantly named as “heads of household.” Judging by the media landscape, the whole country could be viewed as one big household, with men in the driver’s seat.

Female parliamentarians account for 37 percent of its members, but the female voice accounts for only 31 percent of the words broadcast in media reports. Simultaneously, aside from women’s representation in sheer numbers, data on women’s influence or on any real improvement of the standing of women in politics and society as a whole are barely available.

Most Serbian women don’t get a chance to make an impact, or feel unfit to do so. Even their own parties won’t give them an equal opportunity to speak publicly and advocate for their, or their party’s, position. It’s no wonder the news media also shows little interest in the stories of women – unless hair color or other “scandals” are involved.

Women already dominate several sectors of the Serbian economy. More than three-quarters of employees in the health sector are women, with an almost equal 73.4 percent in the education sphere. Women make up 63 percent of the financial services sector, and also hold a high proportion of jobs in the judiciary and, perhaps ironically, the media.

Taken together, it seems women have accomplished quite enough to be able to represent relevant subjects in a way that would meet Serbia’s exacting media standards. So, where are they? The only explanation that seems realistic is that Serbian society remains stubbornly “traditional.” That is just another way of saying that Serbia is still a man’s world, at least for now.

Dubravka Valic Nedeljkovic is the president of the executive board of the Novi Sad School of Journalism, a civil society organization founded in 1996 to develop and professionalize the media in Serbia. Before her retirement, she was a professor and head of the media department at the University of Novi Sad.