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Media Issues for Sex Worker Project in the Region (Generation III of SWAN Groups)

June 3, 2010
By Anna-Louise Crago
Over all the ethical breaches and problems surrounding media representation of sex workers echoed those of previous SWAN groups who did the media sensitization trainings. The fact that Hungary has a legalized system with tolerance zones contributed new dynamics and issues to think about.

1. “Outing”
SWAN members mentioned that media often “out” sex workers by filming them without permission while sex workers are working or being arrested in the context of a police raid. Furthermore, in Hungary, media routinely visit the tolerance zones on the street and film the women creating an obstacle to those women who wish to work in one of the only legal ways available. Criticisms of this practice were rebuffed by media who maintained that the tolerance zones were public places giving them full permission to film.
Gabor suggested that legal recourse should be considered and that in the cases of media accompanying police raids, complaints should be lodged with police commissioners.

2. Sensationalism and Language Use
Sex work issues were generally covered in the crime sections. In Hungary the slur “kurva” or “whore” was used in a number of publications. In other countries “positive” yet somewhat diminishing terms are used such as “night butterfly” that in the end, often discredit sex workers’ seriousness or credibility as interlocutors. A dichotomy seemed to appear between very tragic narratives and almost farcical narratives.
The Hungarians complained that after years of trying to improved media coverage, they were still confronted with the fact that newspapers “will put two naked asses on the cover, rather than talk about the issues”. In Albania, coverage had improved and the term ‘sex worker’ was being used with increased frequency. Outside of crime coverage, sex workers were occasionally presented in “human interest” pieces where they were expected to give shocking, funny or tragic stories that were very intimate- as opposed to speaking to the issues. Since giving these stories was of little personal interest to sex workers in Czech, they now refuse to give interviews unless they are paid by journalists. Facilitators engaged the group in discussing the potential repercussions of such actions for media portrayal (increasingly sensationalistic, sources regarded as less trust-worthy) and on alternatives (setting limits within interviews).

3. Minority Portrayal and Media Interest
Across the region, sex workers suffer from discriminatory portrayal. They are generally mentioned only in connection to crime and violence. Incidents of violence against sex workers are completely decontextualized from the law and policies that engender such violence and the context of systemic human rights abuses against sex workers. The result is that the narrative that emerges appears to blame sex workers for the violence against them. For example articles often read “She was killed because she was a sex worker,” as opposed to “She was killed by a perpetrator who hated sex workers.”
When sex work groups tried to address current issues, they faced fluctuating media interest. In the Czech Republic, one incident tied to political controversy attracted 60 journalists to a press conference while another, positive story, attracted only one.