Members of the Southeast Europe Digital Rights Network [SEE Digital Rights Network] met in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on December 6 to discuss critical issues related to digital rights in Southeast Europe. The discussion followed the BIRN annual report on digital rights on December 5, 2023.
The report found an increase in the number of cases registered in the BIRN database compared to the last reporting period. The total number of documented digital violations rose from 782 to 1,427, underscoring how challenges in the digital sphere have also increased.
According to BIRN’s report, hate speech and discrimination, digital manipulation, and computer fraud were the most common categories of digital rights violations.
Domestic political developments, regional and international tensions significantly contributed to the increase in rights violations in the digital sphere. Elections and intense societal polarization shaped the digital landscape in Bosnia, Montenegro, Turkey and Hungary, which underwent turbulent elections throughout the year.
Regional and international crises, such as the tensions between Kosovo and Serbia and Russia’s war against Ukraine, fueled digital rights violations in the region, which is susceptible to malign influences. Such an environment allowed online hate speech and discriminatory rhetoric to flourish across the region, especially against vulnerable groups, including the LGBT community, women and ethnic minorities. Monitoring detected a worrying number of cases of gender-based violence in the digital space – from the illegal distribution of pornographic material to the streaming of femicide in Bosnia.
In Serbia, cases of mass shootings also provoked numerous violations, such as the publication of private information, violations of minors’ rights and dissemination of fake news.
A new trend that emerged this year was the use of artificial intelligence to create deep fakes and generate fake news.
The BIRN report further highlighted that governments in Albania, Hungary, Serbia and Turkey continued to abuse digital rights, using various tactics and methods, including takeovers of independent outlets by pro-government businesspeople, paid online propagandists, intervention by government agencies and court actions.
Such governments often used legislation to increase their control over the internet and impose censorship, causing concern among rights groups. Worryingly, these governments’ actions carry the risk of being a role model for other governments in the region. BIRN’s monitoring efforts showed that almost all the countries monitored are preparing new legislation to counter digital threats, particularly disinformation campaigns.
Journalists and online media continue to be the major victims of digital rights violations in the countries monitored, where existing legislation offers little or no protection for journalists who face digital violence. Critical infrastructure in most countries that BIRN monitors remains weak and has proved an inadequate defense against cyberattacks. In seven of the monitored countries, government agencies and services were repeatedly targeted by cyber attackers throughout the reporting period. In seven countries, citizens’ private data was reportedly leaked due to cyberattacks, scams, and phishing activities, mismanagement by the relevant authorities.
Under these circumstances, technological advancements such as the rapid development of artificial intelligence, which carry significant security and digital rights abuse risks, present serious challenges in the coming years.
In light of these alarming findings, the undersigned SEE Digital Rights Network members urge decision makers in the SEE countries to step up their efforts in protecting and advancing digital rights as per the following recommendations:
- Enhance the cybersecurity infrastructure of public institutions by implementing strict cybersecurity regulations and increasing investment in robust cybersecurity technologies and developing institutional capacity for effective response and prevention of digital rights violations, including phishing, scamming and data breaches.
- Strengthen personal data protection measures in public institutions to safeguard individual privacy and sensitive information and implement strict regulations and guidelines for the handling and storage of personal data by both private and public entities.
- Enter into dialogue with relevant stakeholders such as civil society, the media, digital rights and disinformation experts, academia and the private sector, to create a unified regional approach to effective transposition of the regulatory, co-regulatory and self-regulatory mechanisms developed at the EU level to ensure accountability of very large online platforms (DSA, DMA, MFA, CoP) in the region – as well as facilitate a unified and simultaneous entry of the region into the EU digital single market.
- Promote and protect media freedom and freedom of expression and invest in and promote media and information literacy, including educational activities, media and information strategies and public awareness campaigns. Support independent and professional media and ensure transparency of media ownership and media financing from public budgets.
- Pay close attention that any solutions aimed to ensure online safety, security and information integrity do not go against, or are implemented at the expense of, media freedoms and freedom of expression.
- Introduce, safeguard and promote democratic standards in the creation and execution of tech legislation. This involves ensuring open, participatory legislative processes, along with consistent monitoring and evaluation. Guarantee non-selective implementation of tech laws, ensuring transparency and accountability.
- Improve law enforcement’s ability to address digital rights issues by enhancing infrastructure, resources and capabilities. Implement training programs and protocols for registering, investigating and reporting digital rights violations. Establish efficient mechanisms to safeguard citizens’ digital rights and ensure a safe online environment.
- Address digital surveillance – refrain from introducing institutional practices and policies violating human rights and freedom of speech.
- Develop strategic, long-term policies and ensure adequate investments in education across all levels, focusing on equipping future generations with essential knowledge and skills in these critical areas. Embed and integrate comprehensive digital literacy, media, and information literacy, alongside cybersecurity and digital rights education, into national curricula across all educational levels.
- A data-driven approach to inform evidence-based response and policymaking – invest in building comprehensive data collection systems regarding digital rights violations and targeted groups, providing disaggregation based on age, gender, belonging to a minority group and other relevant characteristics of the data subjects, as well as information on motives of the attacks, to allow for research, and analysis.
- Strengthen legislation and its implementation to rigorously protect vulnerable groups from online discrimination, hate speech, cyber violence, privacy breaches and disinformation. Foster an inclusive digital environment by actively promoting policies and practices safeguarding these groups and ensuring equitable access to digital infrastructure, resources, and protections.
SEE Digital Rights Network is a coalition of more than 30 civil society and media organisations. Following undersigned members of the network issued the joint statement:
Committee for human rights Nis
Center for Youth KVART
Danes je nov dan, Inštitut za druga vprašanja
Institute for Democracy and Mediation
Foundation for Internet and Society
Sarajevo Open Centre
Media Development Centre Skopje
Kosovar Centre for Security Studies (KCSS)
Da se zna!