December 1, 2011
By Margie Thompson
Worldwide an estimated 65% women and girls have been victims of physical and/or sexual violence, including 40% of women in Latin America & the Caribbean region (1). Between January & June, 2011 there were 195 femicides (murder of women for being women) in Honduras, and 695 (395 documented officially) femicides in Guatemala (2).
In seeking justice for women survivors of violence, media coverage is critical to combat this major public health problem and seek redress for serious violations of women’s human rights. It is also a major responsibility of media under the human right to communication and information, declared Roxana Arroyo, an international human rights lawyer and president the Justice and Gender Foundation.
More frequent and in-depth coverage of the problem is needed by both mainstream media, but also new digital media including social media networks to bring more voices and perspectives into the dialogue and debate, said María Suárez Toro, a feminist journalist and activist with ESCRIBANA. In this way, the media serve as a vital conduit between the justice system and the public, so the amount and nature of coverage of violence against women has a major impact on shaping public opinion, and also helping to bring justice to victims.
These were some of the statements made by speakers at the XII Conference of Magistrates on Justice and Gender entitled, “Communication and Access to Justice for Women,” which focused on the role of media and the judiciary in the struggle to end violence against women. Fifty-one women Supreme Court judges from Latin America met for three days in Quito, Ecuador with journalists, lawyers and other observers to explore these issues.
The event was sponsored by the Justice & Gender Foundation, UN Women, the Justice Council, and the UN Secretary General’s Campaign UNITED to End Violence Against Women.
While the frequency of media coverage of cases of violence against women has increased over time, a majority of the stories are “news briefs,” which provide only a short summary of the “facts” but less often address the broader context or implications of the case. And when the “facts” list what the victim was wearing or where she was at the time of the attack, viewers who naturally look for reasons for the crime will have only this basic information and easily conclude that it was the victim’s fault.
This inadequate coverage by media may contribute to perceptions of the public that the issue is not a serious problem, and may even seem a “normal” part of gender relations. It may also contribute to a lack of confidence and public mistrust of the justice system, said Ana Isabel Garita, an international human rights lawyer from Costa Rica. Garita is her country’s coordinator of the global UN Secretary General’s Campaign UNITED to End Violence Towards Women.
Garita also noted that this distorted media coverage serves to silence women who fear coming forward because they feel isolated and fear they will not be taken seriously by police or the courts.
More frequent and in-depth coverage including the voices and perspectives of women survivors of violence, as well as women from the anti-violence movement would help make women aware of other women who have suffered the same crime, and also learn about support networks and the overall movement.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for the media to informally judge a legal case in the press before it has been brought to trial, which also serves to erode the process of justice, noted Arroyo.
Globalization including globalization of media has had a major impact on media and communication during the past 15 years, according to Suárez. Most of the mainstream media in the world including the Latin American region are owned by 7-9 mega-conglomerates, whose main concern is earning huge profits for shareholders.
These pressures, along with lack of in-depth understanding on the part of many journalists about the complex nature of violence against women often result in superficial and even sensationalized coverage, or what has been called “info-tainment.”
Suárez suggested that digital media including social media networks provide an opportunity for expanding the media agenda and framing of violence against women, including encouraging justices to contribute their own voices and analysis of the issues in blogs, or sites such as Facebook or Twitter.
The final declaration of the conference notes that under Article 8 of CEDAW (UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), changing socio-cultural patterns of conduct of men and women and eliminating sexist stereotypes that demean and degrade women are important steps toward eradicating violence against women.
While the media may cultivate or reinforce these destructive patterns, the Supreme Court justices urge the judiciary to establish links and networks with both traditional media and new social media networks to promote higher quality coverage and more positive images of women.
The final declaration of the conference also calls on the judiciary in Latin American countries to establish specialized communication units within the courts that work to transmit and share information about legal cases and issues from a gender perspective.
Judge María Laura Garrigos de Rebori of Argentina told ESCRIBANA how judicial officials in her country have developed their own strategies to expand coverage of legal issues related to violence against women. She described an online news agency called the Center for Judicial Information located in Buenos Aires, which was created by the Supreme Court.
The agency employs journalists who write articles and produce videos and other media in collaboration with the Supreme Court judges and other officials of the judiciary. Garrigos explained that the Magistrates are well aware of the inadequate coverage of the judiciary, which they attribute in part to a lack of knowledge of the judiciary by many journalists, including issues related to violence against women.
The news agency is designed to inform both the public and journalists using a more common language to explain legal issues and cases, and also offer different perspectives and analyses by the judges.
Garrigos also talked about a legal project to collect testimonies of victims of sexual violence during the brutal dictatorship in Argentina during the 1970s and ‘80s that utilizes Skype, an online communications program.
This innovative approach has been very successful, providing a more comfortable setting for survivors who can give their testimonies without having to travel long distances, and also are less intimidated than they would be speaking in person to a panel of judges. This has also saved the courts considerable funds for the cost of travel, etc..
(2) Ana Isabel Garita, Central American regional coordinator for the UN Secretary General’s Campaign UNITED to End Violence Against Women.
Photo “Women’s terror is not a movie — stop FEMICIDE” from: dianarussell.com.