Can North Macedonia fight sexual harassment online? Advox from Global Voices

Protesters holding signs in Macedonian reading ‘You are the rapist’, ‘The state that does not enforce the law is the state that rapes’ and ‘[Woman] you are not to blame.” Photo by Walker Gawande via Unbias the News. Used with permission.

This article was originally written by Elena Gagovska, edited by Tina Lee and published in Unbias The News. An edited version is republished in two parts by Global Voices under a content sharing agreement.

When semi-private messengers like Telegram are used to deliver revenge porn and other abusive content, existing laws seem inadequate. In North Macedonia, activists and survivors have taken to the streets to demand justice online. The high-profile ‘Public Room’ case shows how rarely online sexual harassment is addressed by authorities in North Macedonia and the Balkan region, resulting in serious victimization of women and little (if any) legal implications for authors.

“I didn’t know what to do, I panicked, I was scared, I’ve never experienced anything like this. I went to the Cybercrime Department [The Computer Crime and Forensics Unit] to report what happened. I showed them the photo, I showed the messages and the calls, that I have the names and surnames of the people who wrote to me and called me. When they learned that I was an adult, they said that the law of our country could not do anything, because it only applied to minors,” said Ana Koleva, a 28-year-old woman from Kavadarci, in North Macedonia.

In a viral Instagram video posted to her account on January 27, 2021, she opened up about the harassment she suffered after her Instagram profile and personal phone number were leaked to a Telegram group.

Protesters hold a sign that reads ‘Failure to act makes you complicit’ and is directed at government institutions that have failed to resolve the case from the public hall. Photo by Elena Gagovska via Unbias the News. Used with permission.

Koleva was among an unknown number of victims of online sexual harassment by members of a popular Telegram channel called Public Room. In the online messaging channel, men from North Macedonia (and possibly some from neighboring countries) shared child pornography images and videos, private nudes, social media profiles and private phone numbers countless women and girls from all over North Macedonia – without their consent.

Ana Koleva is one of the only victims of Public Room to have spoken about their experience without hiding their identity. His Instagram video has nearly 400,000 views and has played a key role in raising the profile of the case in 2021.

Sexual harassment on Telegram

The story of Public Room, however, did not start in 2021, but rather in January 2020 when the first Telegram channel with 7,400 members was discovered. The non-profit media RadioMOF first reported the group’s existence on January 25, 2020 after being alerted by concerned high school students.

It was discovered that photos of open social media profiles – and private nudes – of underage teenage girls were shared on the channel, but media outlets reported that there were also images of adult women. A1on reporter Meri Jordanovska also reported that there were well-known businessmen and politicians in the group. Authorities suspected the creator of the initial public room was a teenager, but it’s unclear if he was ever officially charged with anything.

While the age of sexual consent is 14 in the country, Nataša Boškova, a lawyer for the human rights NGO Coalition Margins, explained to Unbias the News that according to the Macedonian penal code, a child victim of the offense of distributing child pornography is considered a minor until the age of 18.

Screenshots of Telegram group “Javna Soba” (Public Room) and associated group “Hm…”. from January 2020. Image by Meta.mk, used with permission.

However, the distribution of child pornography is not the only crime allegedly committed in Public Room. There has also been the non-consensual sharing of private nudes of adult women and the misuse of personal information, such as the non-consensual sharing of social media profiles, private addresses and phone numbers, all of which have resulted in widespread online sexual harassment.

Moreover, in 2020, after its discovery, the group was almost immediately shut down by Telegram at the request of the Macedonian Ministry of Interior (MVR), which also encouraged victims to report such crimes. Yet even this swift action was insufficient since no author was punished for their involvement in Public Room.

Thus, it was no surprise that a similar group with an identical name emerged in January 2021.

Public Room 2.0

As in the previous year, the group was shut down almost immediately after its discovery at the request of MVR to Telegram, and four people connected to the chat were interviewed on January 28, 2021. On the same day, the then Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev has controversially threatened to completely ban Telegram from Macedonia.

Irena Cvetkovic, activist and executive director of human rights organization Coalition Margins, told Unbias the News:

“The crime is not in the use of this app but what is done on this app is the crime. Zaev’s statement is a subtle shift in responsibility from Telegram, a private entity, from the actual responsibility of the police and the prosecution.

The Telegram ban never materialized, but such a move could have set a dangerous precedent for online freedom of expression in North Macedonia, an EU candidate state.

Given that the GDPR regulates the misuse of private information, it is clear that Ana Koleva should have been able to file a complaint on these grounds at least with the Personal Data Protection Agency, and that the Department against cybercrime could have directed Koleva to this government agency. but failed to do so.

“According to the law on the protection of personal data, all persons who believe that their privacy has been violated by the misuse of their photos on social networks can request protection from the Data Protection Agency. personal,” Nataša Boškova told Unbias the News.

“The Penal Code also provides protection against the misuse of personal data, and most victims of the ‘public room’ can seek protection under this provision. The Home Office’s Computer Crime and Forensics Unit can help the prosecution obtain the identity and evidence of perpetrators so they can be prosecuted and punished more effectively.

A feminist awakening?

In 2020 and 2021, sexist and judgmental narratives engulfed Macedonian social media feeds, with some people alleging that girls and women were to blame as they only sought attention by taking revealing photos, while d others tried to blame it on men. /boys and women/girls.

Sex educator and feminist activist Natalija Krstevska spoke on student podcast Justinijan Zbori about victim blaming the social media trend for posts that urged citizens to “educate [their] children.” Krstevska said the trend shifts blame away from boys and men who perpetuate sexual violence and, instead, suggests that girls and women also have a responsibility to learn how to protect themselves from this type of violence.

“Double victimization occurs from close social/family circles, down to the level of institutions and great care must be given to unlearning this phenomenon, as these types of comments represent the relativization of violence and taking the side of predators sex,” Kalia Dimitrova, editor-in-chief of Macedonian feminist platform Meduza, told Unbias the News.

“The public always has an idea of ​​what the girl or woman should or could have done to avoid becoming a victim, and very rarely has any idea what can or should be done with the person who harassed them. , hurt or humiliated. After all, sexual violence is probably the only crime where the victim is blamed for something someone else has done.

On February 3, 2021, hundreds of feminists and other supporters took to the streets to protest the inaction of Macedonian institutions and the lack of punishment for perpetrators. Protesters marched through the streets of Skopje from the Interior Ministry to the Prosecutor’s Office, holding them responsible for the state of impunity.

This is the first part of the report. The second part will be published tomorrow.

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