Over 150 Digital Rights Breaches During COVID-19 Pandemic

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During the coronavirus pandemic in Central and Southeastern Europe, more than half of the digital rights violations were related to propaganda, disinformation, falsehoods and the publication of unverified information, four months of monitoring reveals.

From January 26 to May 26, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, and SHARE Foundation uncovered 163 cases of digital rights breaches in Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Romania and North Macedonia, of which 68 were linked to manipulations in the digital environment, while 25 were related to publishing falsehoods and unverified information with the intention to damage the victims’ reputation.

According to these monitoring findings, more than half of the digital rights violations were related to propaganda, disinformation, falsehoods and the publication of unverified information, while citizens were the affected parties in almost 80 per cent of the cases.

In almost 25 per cent of all cases, the state itself or state officials were described as the perpetrator of certain guaranteed rights and freedoms violations.

During the reporting period, many governments imposed new rules and regulations to curb the spread of COVID-19, but the nature of this legislation clearly showed these practices were not tailored to achieve their objective, while having the adverse effect of damaging certain guaranteed rights. Of which, the most obvious examples being the endangering of media freedom in Serbia, Hungary and Romania amid the coronavirus pandemic.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, the newly established practice of mass arbitrary arrests and fines for disseminating false information on social media quickly became the most common measure for fighting the spread of fake news and panic. In order to stop the spread of the disease, citizen’s personal data were often violated while their digital rights and freedoms were abused on many occasions. Health and personal data breaches were noticed in 18 cases.

Cybercriminals have taken advantage of the current situation created by the COVID-19 epidemic, with 11 occurrences of computer fraud taking place during the reporting period, while the destruction and theft of data and programmes came about in three instances.

In comparison to the cases of online violations reported before the COVID-19 outbreak, our monitoring noted a significant rise in the number of the cases in which the attackers could not be determined; in 45 cases the perpetrators were unknown.

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As the collected data highlights, journalists, free-thinkers, migrants and refugees, women and quarantine citizens were particularly vulnerable groups, who were often exposed to insults, discrimination and threats.

The monitoring database is being updated on a regular basis, covering the state of digital rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Hungary, North Macedonia, Romania and Serbia. The regional database can be seen here. All cases of violations associated with the COVID19 outbreak can be found on our live updates page on BIRN Investigative Resource Desk (BIRD).

To read the full report “From Cures to Curses, Digital Rights During Pandemic”, click here.