Digital Rights Violations Surged in Balkans in 2023: BIRN, Freedom House

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In a joint X Space event, BIRN and Freedom House digital rights research teams reported a worrying a spike in digital rights violations in the region this year, comprising different types of online threats and methods.

Illustration: Igor Vujcic

Speakers from Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN’s digital rights programme and Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net project said in a joint X Space event on December 21 that digital rights violations increased in the region this year.

“We saw a rise in different types of violations. This year, we determined 1,427 different types of violations compared to last year’s 782,” Ivana Jeremic, Balkan Insight’s Deputy Editor and one of the editors of BIRN’s recent BIRN Digital Rights Violations Report, said.

Jeremic added that the most common digital rights violations were hate speech and discrimination, digital manipulation and computer fraud.

“Some of the key findings were that regional and international crises increased digital rights violations in the region, such as the war in Ukraine and the ongoing Kosovo-Serbia dispute, which led to a lot of misinformation but also to attacks based on someone’s ethnicity,” Jeremic said.

Jeremic highlighted the need for effective legislation to counter digital violations that most countries in the region lack.

Hamdi Firat Buyuk, a Balkan Insight journalist and one of the editors of BIRN’s recent BIRN Digital Rights Violations Report, said Turkey is using draconian laws to target free speech. “Turkey is one of the countries that passed draconian laws and regulations to target freedom of speech and internet freedoms,” Buyuk said.

Gurkan Ozturan, from the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom and Turkey country author at the Freedom on the Net report of Freedom House, said Turkey was regressing fast in terms of digital rights.

“Unfortunately, I am here to talk about one of the first countries in terms of regression in the field of digital rights and liberties in the past decade” Ozturan said, recalling that only a month after Turkey’s disinformation law was passed in October 2022, authorities limited access to social media platforms following a terror attack.

“Then there were earthquakes [in February] and then the election period [in May] which brought Turkey further down in Freedom House’s internet freedoms index. That was a horrible year,” Ozturan said, underlining access blocks, misinformation campaigns and data leaks from government agencies on citizens’ private data.

Tijana Uzelac, a BIRN Serbia journalist and country monitor of the BIRN Digital Rights Violations Report, said there were more than 100 registered digital rights violation cases in the reporting period from September 2022 to September 2023.

“The most frequent targets of these violations were citizens in more than 50 cases,” Uzelac said and added that the majority of violations in Serbia fell under “threatening content and endangering security”.

Uzelac said a massive school shooting in Serbia had also marked the year. “The number of digital rights violations spiked drastically in May after two mass school shootings in Belgrade and in villages near Mladenovac,” Uzelac added.

Mila Bajic, from SHARE Foundation and Serbia country author at the Freedom on the Net report of Freedom House, said the election campaigns provided an example of the climate in online media in Serbia.

“The online media ecosystem is essentially just an extension of the traditional media and the majority of the things we have been seeing is everything we can see on the public broadcasters and in the printed tabloid media. It is essentially copy-pasted to the online environment, which means that the online environment is very biased and in favour of the ruling majority [led by President Aleksandar Vucic],” Bajic said.

Bajic underlined that a lot of intimidation tactics online were deployed against journalists and civil society members, including an attempted spyware attack on civil society using Pegasus-like spyware. “That was thankfully not a successful attack but it does indicate that it was a state-sponsored attack,” Bajic said.

Azem Kurtic, Balkan Insight’s Bosnia correspondent and country monitor of the BIRN Digital Rights Violations Report. In Bosnia, said: “The most common victims [in Bosnia] are unfortunately citizens due to a quite specific ethnic, historic and current political context. For instance, during the commemorations of the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica, you saw a surge in hate speech and discrimination but also genocide denial, which is a criminal offence in Bosnia.”

Kurtic added that an online femicide had also shocked the country and the region. “We had a shocking femicide in August when a man killed his ex-wife in a livestream on Instagram. The video stayed online for more than three hours and it was seen more than 70,000 times,” Kurtic added.

Cathryn Grothe, from Freedom House, underlined a new emerging threat: the malicious use of Artificial Intelligence, AI.

“One of our big findings is generative use of AI supercharges online disinformation space. For decades governments have been deploying methods to manipulate online discussion, whether through pay commentators or automated Twitter bots or trolls or things like that kind, or more of those traditional forms of spreading disinformation, and with the growing power of AI tools those tactics are able to be automated and they are able to spread so much further,” Grothe said.

The joint X space organised by BIRN and Freedom House can be listened to on this link.

More about digital rights violations in the Balkans can be found at BIRN’s Digital Rights Violations Report 2022-2023, “Digital Rights In A Time Of Crisis: Authoritarianism, Political Tension And Weak Legislation Boost Violations” and in Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2023 report, “The Repressive Power of Artificial Intelligence”.