The need to understand should overcome the hunger for sensations

Frédérique Hazeova

Frédérique Hazeova

Press freedom and free speech are terms that involve complex intricacies even in our modern and democratic societies. There are whole communities of people who do not benefit from these freedoms as fully as they should. And we still keep our taboos.

I was raised in a catholic family. I studied at a catholic high school. My upbringing was thus full of taboos and topics that were not really open for discussion.

When I reached puberty, I started to question things. I tried to challenge the opinions I didn’t understand, to debate about the arguments that didn’t make sense. Fortunately, my mum who raised me as a single mother was mostly open to discussions, even though we didn’t always agree. The priests and catechists were mostly a whole different story. Additionally, as a sixteen year old I felt a lack of solid arguments and skills.

So I joined the debating team and later on stepped into the sphere of human rights. But some topics, with some people, were still taboo.

Today I am a journalist. And due to lack of free time and the working routine that swallowed me whole for a while, I haven’t thought as much as I would like to, about the topics that are still taboo.

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According to the most recent World Press Freedom Index (2017), the state of press freedom in Slovakia has gotten worse during the last year. This is also thanks to our prime minister who described several journalists as “filthy anti-Slovak prostitutes” during the investigation of a corruption case in 2016.

Nevertheless, with the total of 15.51 points (0 being the best and 90 the worst) we find ourselves at the 17th place in the ranking. Generally speaking, the freedom of speech and press in our country has gone through a successful change and has reached a high level from the communist era. We don’t have to face the dangerous consequences that many journalists in other, less democratic countries must live with each and every day.

But we still have flaws and we are not the most open society. Many topics challenge our approach to press freedom and cause some journalists to rather keep silent and thus end up being under- or miscovered. And by miscovered I mean covered with mistakes and without understanding.

One of those topics can be the issue of migration, especially refugees. This problem is one of the louder ones that rings out through our society, shaking its xenophobic grounds. Let’s hope these grounds will finally shift towards a more open-minded Slovakia.

There are also issues that are more silent and hidden, but nevertheless important, filled with xenophobia and personalized by real people who suffer from the rejection of our society. One of them somehow came into my life after that period in which I forgot to look around for taboos that should not be kept silent. It came through specific people. People, who were assigned the wrong gender at their birth and had to work through that their whole lives.

“My parents told me I should try to find another way. As if there was any other way,” said a trans man (whose name I will not publish due to his concerns to come out publicly) to me during an interview this year. He was born into a catholic family and his mother tried to “convert” him many times and in various ways. But there is no conversion of this kind with transgender people. Or with anybody else for that matter.

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Slovakia is a strongly catholic country. No, not like Ireland. We had a referendum on banning same-sex marriage two years ago, even though there wasn’t a real discussion even about registered partnership in our government, let alone about marriage. Thankfully, the referendum was not successful and that proved that homophobia is not a as much of a taboo for the press as it used to be.

But the LGBT+ community doesn’t involve only gays and lesbians, but many others, including transgender people. I never really saw any relevant articles in the mainstream press about this topic, maybe just the sensational ones in tabloids.

These are just some of the tabloid headlines about transgender people in my country. The style is naturally influenced by the character of the media, but more importantly, many of the articles published on Slovak tabloid sites were portraying negative examples of transgender people (such as murderers, prostitutes, sadists etc.) or used a shocking and unnatural framing — with some exceptions.

But this isn’t only the case of tabloids and it isn’t the only problem. The number of articles explaining the transgender issue is certainly lower than for example the ones involving gays and lesbians. And if the newspapers choose to write on this topic, they can make many mistakes, often due to unfamiliarity with the topic, or simply ignorance.

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“I was the first to publicly share my story in the media, on my own name” says Christian Havlicek, a trans man and one of the founders of TransFuzia, the first NGO working with trans people in Slovakia. “We prepared for it for months in our team and didn’t know what would happen. There was also a concern about my safety, but I used my face to support other transgender people. So they would know they can go through a transition in Slovakia, that they can be themselves, live a normal life, find our NGO and have the access to information, support and a community.”

Various trans people later told him that these articles changed their lives and they kept some of them to this day. In the beginning, the articles were not up to the standards that Christian and his colleague Romina Kollarik hoped they would be. “Even though we talked to journalists about the trans topic and the standards of how to report about it, it wasn’t enough.” They referred to Christian as a woman, even though he asked them not to, they used terms that didn’t describe his experience.

“Journalists are usually experts on form — how to write various types of texts. But they are also usually amateurs in the topic — which they write about. That’s why the results tend to be so miserable,” criticizes Christian’s colleague Romina. After years of experience, she says that most journalists tend to focus on the sensational part rather than on the accuracy and quality of their work.

Romina thinks this phenomenon is widely caused by the pressure of their employers, the pressure of the public who are hungry for fast and sensational news and sometimes also lack of sensitivity and will to understand not only the topic, but also the possible consequences. And sometimes it can be just the unfamiliarity combined with the need to quickly produce another daily article.

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Christian’s public coming out happened in a time, when almost nobody understood the transgender issue. “We knew that the discourse was just starting to form. And since we had to repeat the same to every journalist, we decided to sum up the basic principles and advice in a manual: Standards of trans-inclusive space in the media.” The manual summarizes basic mistakes, such as transforming transgender people into some kind of exotic cases, the usual tragic notion assigned to their lives, disrespect to privacy or non-discrete and insensitive questions.

Romina adds that in time they understood publicity was a business. Something in exchange for something else. For a short period of time they tried to tolerate the journalistic flaws and misinterpretations, in exchange for the spread of at least some information and their NGO’s contact to people who might need help. But after a while they could no longer continue and decided to stop. “From some point on we started to talk only to people who wanted to dig deeper and understand the topic, not just create a sensation,” says Christian.

Despite the bad experiences, situation in Slovakia got a little better, even though we still have a long way to go, and trans people are still exposed to hate speech and misunderstandings. Christian thinks that media and their journalists are in many cases finally using right terms that don’t simplify, deform or pathologize the topic. “That happened thanks to people who took their job seriously, studied, listened and weren’t afraid.”

Christian keeps a database of articles that interviewed or cited him and his colleagues at TransFuzia. In them we can see the change of the path chosen by the journalists who walked through the land of transgender topics.

Freedom of speech and of the press are not only a democratic privilege, but also a responsibility. We, as journalists and storytellers, should think about the possible consequences of our words. And even in this hectic time try to find time for understanding. Because it is our job to explain. And for that we first must understand.

Text: Frédérique Hazeova

The author is a journalist from Slovakia.