Colonial, patriarchal portrayal of women in the media

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As controversy rages over the proposed “law against racism and all forms of discrimination” – controversy fuelled by journalists and media – I wish to ask the Bolivian people which is more important: freedom of expression or human dignity? It seems that no one understands that this law will define discriminatory practices for all of Bolivian society, with the aim of putting an end to the racist and discriminatory practices that for centuries have pervaded everyday life throughout our country, in homes and institutions.
An inclusive law
In order to include everyone, the bill specifically covers several groups whose right to information and communication has been violated, such as women, indigenous peoples, sexual and gender minorities, people of African descent, people with disabilities, senior citizens and young people. Thus, everyone, including the media, is responsible for their opinions, actions and behaviour, as the law aims to build a harmonious society based on plurality and respect for differences.
The news media remain a prime source of information, and are of key importance when it comes to disseminating ideas and information for the majority of people in the world. It is a vital element of the public and private spheres – for individuals, societies and nations. A nation or society that is unsure of its identity cannot fulfill the hopes of its citizens. Who or what appears on the news is a matter of importance, as well as how the people and events are presented. Another important element is who is left out, or what events are not covered at all.
Gender and the media
On 29 September, a report entitled the Global Media Monitoring Project 2010 concluded that throughout the world, gender inequality and discrimination against women are cultural in nature, and are reinforced by the media.Bolivia is one of the 100 countries that send in reports on what newspapers, television channels and radio stations cover.
Overall, the Bolivian report confirms that the results of the GMMP 2010 point to the significant discrimination against women in the media, in the topics covered, the subject of the report, the image that is constructed, the position and importance of female presenters and the stereotypes that are produced in the media space.
When compared to the GMMP 2005, considerable differences can be seen: women are more visible in certain journalistic fields which were traditionally male-dominated positions, such as the coverage of political, security or legal affairs. However, these slight improvements do not have a sufficient impact on the trends that are still marked by the dominant colonial and patriarchal codes.
To sum up, the report states that we are still exposed to the silent invasion of the media in our homes and minds, and they carry the stereotypical message that the woman is mother, reproducer and carer for all, self-sacrificing and long-suffering.Aesthetically speaking, the image of the “Western woman” continues to be the ideal, as seen in beauty contests based on foreign models.For the rest of the subject matter covered, women are practically absent, the report says.
Media context
In Bolivia, 93% of the big media companies are private.The ownership model of the majority of these media companies is characterised by the protection of vested interests, which has increased since 1985, when the neoliberal free-trade model was applied.Bolivian media company owners, the entrepreneurs, have stakes in other sectors of the economy and politics; not only are they media businessmen, they are religious leaders, landowners, bankers, deputies or senators, large estate owners etc. Therefore, the social purpose of communications gets lost in the search for discursive dominance to promote their areas of influence.
Even though Bolivia has a long tradition of alternative communication (minority, local and native radio stations), the conditions implied by neoliberalism make it impossible for other media to emerge that speak out for the excluded groups in society, such as women, indigenous peoples etc.During Evo Morales’ first term in government, which began in 2006, the State initiated a network of community radio, restructured the national radio station and launched the newspaper Cambio, as alternatives to the dominant discourse.
Since then, political polarisation began to be felt throughout the big media companies, which was reflected clearly in the informative process and the levels of journalistic coverage.The big media companies, as political players, showed their stance by actively participating in the encouragement of racism, discrimination and violence, and by defending impunity of the power groups they represent (Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination/CERD report).
A Female Shadow
The GMMP report warns that women are slowly but surely being erased from society via the media. It states that powerful groups are the focus of media attention. Women emerge as news topics almost exclusively in cases of violence. During this period, the media discriminated against two groups: women and native women. A fitting case to mention here is that of the Asamblea Constituyente, where a large section of the media set out to create conflict, and to date they have not done justice to the importance of the Assembly, its members and its debates.
At the opposite side of the spectrum, women tend to be sources of information when reporting on violence with robbery, homicide and other such degrading practices. In this way, their presence is synonymous with the stereotypical image of a woman as a sexual object.
The report continues to say that in recent years the mass media have ignored the fact that female participation in political life in Bolivia is growing as a result of the struggles and women’s movements and the new Constitución Política del Estado, which was passed in February, 2009. Although they have managed to occupy higher positions, they are not visible enough in comparison to men who always occupy positions of power. The media are of no support in this process; they do not inform the public of women’s actions in public life, nor of their contribution to the country. It appears that only when it is essential do they refer to women in news reports on political affairs, since there are some female authorities on specific aspects of national politics or foreign policy.
On the other hand, the report says that it is important to note that in themes connected to trade union organisation and other corporate issues, women do feature in the news, but not on the same level as men. This is worth noting because in current Bolivian political life, the social organisations are the ones that bring change, and in urban areas, it is the trade unions that are responsible for this change. It is also important because these areas were traditionally dominated by men, and insofar as women are attaining higher positions, they are likely to become subjects of news reports, which makes their position at the core of the social sectors invaluable. Their convincing actions make their rights even more undeniable. This also explains their presence in reports on protests.
The stereotypical image
The report states that women are the ones who are seen most frequently seeking solutions to poverty, as if they were the only ones affected by it. Similarly, they feature in reports on health, the environment and natural disasters and family tragedies. In other words, they are often linked to housekeeping in a unilateral manner, without a home environment or partner and often as victims.
Finally, it points out that women feature in entertainment events like special attractions, with distinct stereotypes of their bodies, preferences and practices. Similar to how words portray their subjects, images also contribute to the social imagination, so much so that men appear in photographs of a larger format. This method used by the printed media forms a part of the journalistic style: just as important as featuring in the news is the way in which a person is presented. The appeal of a gesture is an iconographic, communicational method that can determine social behaviour. Again, women cannot make use of this form of communication. Their limited appearance is a part of the colonial and patriarchal code in the news mechanism.
Changing from within
According to the GMMP report, it should be added that with relation to the 2005 monitoring, the political environment in Bolivia has changed significantly. Today, the country has a new constitution, the Constitución Política del Estado (CPE), which establishes a series of rights for women and men, individuals and groups. New laws have been derived from the CPE, and one of them – recently approved by the Chamber of Deputies of the Legislative Multicultural Assembly – is the law against racism and every form of discrimination.
This law regulates, among other things, the emission of racist or discriminatory messages by the media, as well as assigning them a special role in prevention and education. Having a legal tool of this nature is indispensable, in a setting where the state and society are in the process of getting rid of colonialism and patriarchism.
For this reason, the end of racism and discrimination is non-negotiable. The law comes as an act of justice to the Bolivian people, who for centuries have been oppressed, dominated and discriminated against. The reaction of certain media and journalists against this law again confirms the protection of business interests and groups in power, protected by the concept of freedom of expression.
- Claudia Espinoza is a member of the Centre for the Promotion of  Gregoria Apaza Women and the Bolivia Indymedia Collective.
Red contra el racismo
The 2010 GMMP was coordinated by the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC), an international NGO that promotes communication for social change, in collaboration with Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), South Africa, which was responsible for analysing the data.
The GMMP 2010 data was gathered by the collective efforts of volunteers from hundreds of organisations, including activists in the field of gender and media issues, general groups in the communications field, academics and students in communications, media professionals, journalist associations, networks of alternative media and various church groups. Report available at :
Report on Bolivian civil society submitted to the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), 2009.
(Translated from the Spanish by Niamh O’Brien)

Original text published 2010-10-05.
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