In March 2019, Slovakia is voting for its 5th President since independence and the Beacon project is conducting online media monitoring using its proprietary >versus< media-monitoring tool to gain deeper understanding how the various Presidential candidates are presented, but also to detect and analyze any malign narratives or disinformation campaigns present.. This is first among flash reports written by Beacon Project about the elections.
Despite the limitation of powers and the President’s largely representative role, Slovakia (as well as the Czech Republic) has a tradition of Presidents with strong personalities who often factually influenced governmental decision-making and, for better or for worse, set moral standards for their societies. This has recently been exacerbated by an increasingly polarized political debate following the brutal murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée in 2018, and consequent mass protests across the country. Transparency, personal integrity and decency are values protesting citizens call for, which leads media into intense scrutiny of Presidential candidates. However, are all candidates scrutinized equally, or is the candidate’s gender (and why) used to sway the public debate?
To date, Slovakia did not have a woman head of state. This could soon change as Zuzana Čaputová (lawyer, environmental activist and Vice-President of the Progressive Slovakia party), just received 40.5% of the vote in the first round on 16th March. How do Czech and Slovak media report on the elections considering that, according to past Beacon polling in the country, 24% of Slovaks are more likely to vote for a female candidate rather than male (15%)?
Given the historical interconnectedness of the Czech Republic and Slovakia (including the media space), Beacon looked before the first round at a sample of 33 relevant online articles published in Czech and 200 in Slovak online media between March 1st and March 3rd.
Czech media (as many as 20 out of 33 articles) were fascinated by the possibility of woman becoming a President, for the first time in the history of both countries. 15 articles informed about this prospect in a neutral way and at least 5 were positive. Comparisons have been made between Čaputová and the outspoken Czech President Zeman and words like “decency”, “rebuilding of trust” and “moral example” have been used to define her in contrast to Zeman. Some articles perceived the election of a female President as a milestone in the country’s political culture. However, despite highlighting Čaputová’s accomplishments, 17 out of 33 articles contained gender biases in the form of different descriptions of male and female candidates. In contrast to male candidates, Čaputová was introduced through her age, hair color, and family status (“Preferences of 45 year old cutie” or “Divorced mother of two”) instead of her name. Some articles, even those supporting Čaputová, were expressively evaluating her appearance using expressions like “attractive woman”, “Majka” (Slovak series about small girl from space) or even “a spectacular show with a sexy candidate in the lead role”.
In Slovak online media, 30 out of 200 articles used such diminutive language. However, unlike in the Czech Republic, these articles were largely used as a tool to explicitly undermine public trust (rather than producing entertaining content) in Čaputová‘s professional skills. Of these,17 reported on a statement of Andrej Danko, Chairman of the National Parliament who said that he is amazed to see an unknown young girl owe her success to good marketing. Other articles assigned her success to the marketing of her looks (“Čaputová managed to fool [voters] with her pretty face, smile, and especially a massive advertising campaign”). She was also the only candidate whose partner life was closely examined in media,stressing her divorced status and questioning whether she needs to marry her current partner to be a suitable Presidential candidate for the Catholic country. This narrative was introduced in alternative media and further exacerbated on March 3rd by appearance of the Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini at one of the main TV stations, where he stated that “we shall think twice whether we want to let someone learn for the next 5 years how to be a President” and continued to describe a hypothetical weak candidate naming adjectives previously used by other media to describe Čaputová.
Prior to the first election round, Czech and Slovak media use gender biases to report on a female candidate in both a negative (playing on stereotype that women are less reasonable or less capable leaders) and a positive way (women as a symbol of politeness, fair play and positive change). If it is unintentional, even positive commenting on candidates’ looks (rather than skills) might ultimately harm them. Where intentional, it may not always be disinformative and factually incorrect, but such malign narratives play on people’s emotions, discriminate, discredit, and ultimately harm the political process by opening space for polarization exploitable by anti-democratic forces.