"Do no harm!" – how journalists cover domestic violence in Armenia
In the first half of 2020 alone, the Investigative Committee of Armenia launched 395 criminal cases of domestic violence.
The hotlines of the Coalition against Violence against Women received 13,924 calls in 2020, and 5,000 calls in 2019.
Experts believe that the coronavirus pandemic and prolonged quarantine, followed by the second Karabakh war and post-war stress, contributed to an increase in incidents of domestic violence.
Human rights activists say that the way in which journalists cover domestic and gender-based violence is of crucial importance, as media is one means of influencing public opinion, raising awareness, identifying pressing issues, and finding ways to solve them.
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Child Murder Case
Yet another domestic violence case has recently become known to the public – one that involved the brutal and cold-blooded murder of a 1.5-year-old child who was beaten to death in the Ararat region. Charges were brought against his mother, stepfather, and grandmother.
The Investigative Committee released all the details of the horrifying story. Law enforcement officers said that the toddler was physically abused for five days in a row, and the beating that took place on February 6 resulted in death.
The murder of the child has already caused shock and sparked controversy among the general public, a feeling that was further exacerbated by the fact that the parents of the deceased infant were accused of the murder.
In addition, the report of the Investigative Committee, the uncensored version of which was reprinted in about 80 media outlets, contained gruesome details of the physical damage inflicted upon the child.
Experts believe that from a legal point of view, there was nothing wrong with the way in which media chose to cover this case, however, one should have considered the advisability of publishing the uncensored version of the final Investigative Committee report, and whether or not it was ethical to do so.
There was a clear choice of either reprinting a shorter, censored version of the report without the graphic details of the child abuse or release an uncut and uncensored version, with little regard to the amount of psychological distress it could have potentially caused to readers, especially minors.
The final say in this case will always be up to the editorial board itself.
Despite the recent surge in confirmed cases of domestic violence in Armenia, they continue to be treated as a ‘taboo crime’ as victims themselves tend not to speak out about it.
Women may fear repeat abuse and often depend on the abuser economically or psychologically. When it comes to violence against children, the situation is even more complicated, as they are afraid that no one will believe their story or that someone will judge them. In addition, children usually do not know who they should approach to report the abuse.
Domestic violence is further stigmatized by society which, to this day, believes that such incidents should only be discussed within the family itself.
Despite this, in 2020, the number of reported cases of domestic violence increased significantly, which means that more victims are now able to turn to law enforcement for help.
Common errors in domestic violence news coverage
Human rights activist Zaruhi Hovhannisyan believes that coverage of domestic violence cases can help shape the way in which society perceives this problem and change the public’s attitude towards it. Thus, journalists charged with reporting such cases should be well-versed in its intricacies:
“It is very important that the journalist who is charged with covering this topic has a clear understanding of what gender-based violence is. The coverage of such topics encompasses a lot of nuances that one needs to account for, and if a journalist is not aware of them, their work can do more harm than good.
One of the most common mistakes journalists make is double victimization of the victim, or, put simply, emphasizing the causes of violence that are directly or indirectly associated with the victim. While covering gender-based violence, it is important to remember that [abuse] is only a manifestation of strength and domination over another for the purpose of subduing them”.
Another common mistake is emphasizing extenuating circumstances. This means publications that indicate that the violence was committed out of jealousy or in a state of passion, meaning that there was a reason for violence to occur.
“One should also remember that merely reporting the incident of violence is not an end in itself. Such cases shock the public, lead to a state of despair and raise the question of what needs to be done in order to prevent violence from recurring, as no woman is safe from it.
In this sense, it is very important for the journalist to be well-versed in the matter enough to be able to inform about the relevant services or other forms of state support. A journalist should also be able to show ways out of the situation, help overcome the post-traumatic stress or the state of shock”, says Zaruhi Hovhannisyan.
Protection of identity
When journalists cover domestic violence, especially that involving children, they often make the mistake of revealing personal data and identifying the victim, directly or otherwise.
“In any case, when journalists deal with a person’s personal details, they should always keep in mind the recommendations on the protection of privacy in media coverage, including consensual collection, storage, and publication of one’s personal details. The publication of any personal or family information must have a specific purpose, legal basis, and comply with the principle of proportionality.
That is, data processing must pursue legitimate goals, and the means of achievement must be acceptable, necessary, and proportionate. Only the minimum amount of personal data necessary to achieve legitimate goals should be released”, says Gevorg Hayrapetyan, head of the personal data protection department of the Armenian Ministry of Justice.
Gevorg Hayrapetyan says that one must remember that by releasing personal data, a journalist makes it public property. He adds that for the journalists, the reasons for releasing personal data may differ, but the most common one is the prevalence of public interests:
“This can be justified in investigative journalism when the protection of public interest is at stake. However, even then, the journalism intervention has to be proportionate. If the publication of personal data goes beyond such limits, the journalist should decide to not go through with it. In all other cases, the person’s consent may be the basis for the disclosure of personal data.
When it comes to children and people under complex circumstances, even once consent is obtained, the burden of deciding on whether or not to publish personal data often remains with the journalist. They must decide whether it is possible to achieve the aim of their report without having to disclose personal data. If the coverage can still transfer its message without releasing personal data, then this is the best solution”, says Gevorg Hayrapetyan.
Gevorg Hayrapetyan believes that this dilemma is very relevant right now when everything can be accessed easily on the Internet and all territorial and time limits are blurred:
“When working with vulnerable people and children, you need to think about whether it is worth publishing data that will identify specific individuals, and whether it is worth making the details of these people available to everyone. Journalists themselves must decide whether they have a right to interfere in a person’s life like that”.
Guide to action
In order to ensure that the coverage of domestic and gender-based violence is both professional and useful, the Council of Europe developed a special handbook on gender equality and violence against women.
The handbook was created within the framework of the program entitled “The path towards Armenia’s ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on the preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence”.
The manual offers journalists, editors and advertisers the opportunity to report violence in a professional and non-sensational manner.
“Violence against women is a violation of human rights, and the media have an ethical obligation not to make it the norm with content that may lead to further violence or make the issue irrelevant. […]
Media resources can also play a key role in preventing or combating violence against women”, reads the manual.