Silence of the institutions encourages online threats

Writen by Dajana Lazarevska and Lila Karatasheva

 

The institutions have no staff or resources, and the will to resolve the attacks on journalists and media workers is debatable as well. This is a brief summary of what the response of the law enforcement agencies to free speech looks like.

Natasha Stojanovska is an editor in the daily political shows in Telma TV, and is often the target of online attacks due to her journalistic work. The pressure increases when politicians from the higher echelons appear on the shows.

„I feel unprotected and start thinking about self-censorship. I am directly exposed and I am put in a situation to defend myself from the lynch on social networks“ says the journalist Natasha Stojanovska.

After the end of each show, in the afternoon, she often feels like a victim of verbal attacks on social networks. If the show hosts political party leaders, she also receives threatening messages from their supporters. Stojanovska believes that there are campaigns against discrimination against women politicians, but little attention is paid to campaigns for the protection of women journalists.

This tendency is also detected in the annual World Press Freedom Index of „Reporters Without Borders“. Assessment for Macedonia is that senior government officials have a tendency to threaten and insult journalists.

„Why report when there is no reaction? – We are put in a situation to be lynched if the people sitting in the party headquarters and bots don’t like the questions. The most tragic thing is that they do not insult us on a professional basis, but invent stories with which they want to destroy our dignity and damage our credibility only because we are women“ said Stojanovska.

Institutional incoordination and passivity is recognized in the latest report of the European Commission for the Republic of North Macedonia, which emphasizes the need for better cooperation between different institutions to act faster on reported violations and prevent impunity of perpetrators.

„The government/judiciary needs to demonstrate a more active and systematic condemnation of the attacks. Only a small percentage of perpetrators of physical assaults on journalists have been brought to justice,” the European Commission said in a statement.

For three years now, the European Commission has been calling on the institutions to better consolidate their fight against attacks on journalists and to ensure rapid and effective monitoring of attacks.

The number of online attacks, especially against women journalists, is increasing

According to the statistics of the Association of Journalists, in the last 5 years there are a total of 53 reported attacks, including the two attacks reported in 2021.

Table 1 – Gender distribution of attacks on journalists from 2016 to 2021

According to the data from the AJM Register of Attacks from 2016 to 2021, the total number of attacks on groups of journalists is 16, while the number of individual attacks on women journalists is 16, and the number of attacked male journalists is 20.

Table 2- physical and verbal or other type of attacks from 2016 to 2021

The AJM register shows that almost 33 percent of the total number of reported attacks were physical, while the other 67 percent were verbal attacks, threats to life, property damage, arrests, and other types of pressure and attacks on journalists. Verbal attacks on the Internet are on the rise, especially against women journalists.

Verbal attacks on journalists and media workers are registered in the Association of Journalists of Macedonia. The Public Prosecutor’s Office or any other body does not select whether it is an attack on a journalist or any other citizen. Unlike the judiciary, which does not have specific statistics, journalists’ associations keep detailed records of each attacked journalist or media worker.

The Executive Director of the Association of Journalists in Macedonia, Dragan Sekulovski, believes that the Ministry of Interior does not fully use its legal capacities. According to him, there is a risk that verbal attacks can lead to physical violence if no actions are taken in a timely manner.

„The Ministry of Interior should use its competence and at least call the persons who verbally attack and threaten for an informative conversation. They should at least try to demotivate them in any way. If the procedure lasts for six months, should the same person continue to harass the women journalists for all those six months?“, said Sekulovski.

While journalists and the international community are calling for an end to the impunity of cybercriminals and for them to be held accountable for their actions, the lack of legislation and the practice of handling cases by the BPPO leads to no legal resolution for reported cases by journalists in Macedonia. In a period of one year, the Public Prosecutor’s Office has submitted an order for further action for only one report.

„In the period from 2020/2021, 14 reports were submitted to the Ministry of Interior, for all reports notifications were submitted to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, for some reports directions are still awaited, for some answers were received that there are no elements for further investigation and action. „Only for one report there was an order submitted by the Public Prosecutor’s Office for further action“, say from the Ministry of Interior.

Very often, attacks on journalists are associated with hate speech, which ultimately reflects acts of hate speech, such as exposure to public lynching, physical assault and the like.

The executive director of the Helsinki Committee, Uranija Pirovska, says that 90 percent of the comments and attacks on women journalists contain hate speech. She believes that people in our country are not even aware that hate speech is prohibited by law, but that there is no way to find out because no one has borne any responsibility so far.

„The only solution to end the harassment of women journalists is for those who insult and humiliate them to be brought to justice with fines or imprisonment. The state should start maximally implementing the measures available to it and try to stop discouraging women from being involved in society“, Pirovska said.

Sexism, threats against women and institutional shortcomings

Sexist comments, insults and hate speech know no bounderies. On domestic political issues, the circle of public lynching is expanding beyond Macedonia, so the MIA correspondent from Brussels, Tanja Milevska testified that she feels threatened because she personally expressed views on the social network Twitter on current policies related to the refugee crisis in Afghanistan.

„My position that Macedonia should accept a certain population, which at the moment was seriously endangered and in a difficult situation, gave the right to internet bots to threaten, insult me and allude to sexual intercourse with Afghans on my part, which is absurd and inadmissible behavior towards a woman who expresses her opinion“ Milevska explained about her attack on the social network Twitter.

According to Milevska, AJM should pay more attention to this type of threats and insults, and the institutions should start doing their job promptly in order to protect journalists. She believes that a frivolous approach to this type of problem will discourage women, will curtail their freedom of speech, and this will contribute to complete discrimination and impoverishment of public debate.

In the report of the State Department for Human Rights and Freedoms, these attacks on Milevska were also registered. Hence, they still believe that violence and threats against journalists are a significant problem, which threatens society, and the culture of impunity is well embedded in the system and is an obstacle to the safety of journalists.

World experience in dealing with cyber-attacks

Unlike Macedonia and the countries of the Western Balkans, where there is no clear regulation, in some countries in the world there are already laws that register threats and sanction the behavior of individuals in the Internet space.
In Singapore, for example, the Harassment Protection Act (POHA) was enacted in 2014, which prohibits intentional or reckless communication that is threatening, abusive or offensive and causes harassment, intimidation or violence.

In 2015, Canada passed the Online Crime Protection Act, which bans various types of cyberbullying and the unconsented distribution of intimate images, including sending messages under a false name or false information. The Law also sanctions obscene and disturbing communications.

In Finland, harassment via text message, phone, or Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social networking platforms is punishable in the same way as other forms of physical harassment, such as repeatedly calling someone, playing loud music to harass another person, etc.

German legislation recognizes and sanctions doxing as a form of online violence. It is the occurrence of disclosing personal information about an individual online, such as name, residential address, telephone number, private and financial information, without the individual’s permission. Under the German law, the practice of doxing can be classified as data espionage, an offense involving the unauthorized acquisition and dissemination of other third-party specially
protected data stored or transmitted electronically.

The Internet is still unknown in the equation of responsibility for the judiciary

The Public Prosecutor’s Office, from the current practice, has established a need for legal changes that will cover the internet platforms, which are the main source of information for the citizens.

„Changes are needed, which would enable more precise sanctioning of hate speech on the Internet, but would also facilitate criminal prosecution and the provision of evidence for this type of proceedings, said the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

In North Macedonia, the procedure for adoption of the amendments to the Criminal Code is underway, which tightens the penalties for attacks on journalists and media workers and in the future should be punished as attacks on officials.

Hate speech and attacks on journalists are listed as international legal reports on the Republic of North Macedonia as a legal phenomenon, which still cannot be addressed with a sanction.

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