BIRN: Journalists Chief Victims of Digital Rights Violations in Serbia

Source: BIRN/Maja Živanović

Journalists and online media bear the brunt of digital rights breaches in Serbia, and opposition politicians are also beginning to be targeted, according to SHARE. Journalists, in particular investigative reporters, are the most frequent victims of digital rights violations in Serbia, according to a report on the “dark parts” of online life in the Balkan country issued by the watchdog SHARE.

SHARE’s latest report documents almost 500 cases of information security breaches, information privacy and personal data breaches, online pressure, manipulation and propaganda, blocking and filtering of content and other violations of digital rights in Serbia between May 2014 and August 2019.

In 135 cases, journalists were the victims. The vast majority passed without any legal repercussions.

“A clear trend can be seen,” SHARE Foundation director Danilo Krivokapic told BIRN. “Strange things happen when stories showing corruption and misuse of funds in Serbia are published.”

Out of a total of 481 registered cases of digital rights violations, 115 involved threats and endangering security. There were 95 cases of insults and unfounded accusations.

The report noted there had been more arrests of late of people accused of threatening online space, but few have been sentenced while those who were received relatively mild punishments.

It also noted the lack of adequate protection offered to victims, particularly journalists.

Leaks of personal info

One major case came in March 2017 when regional broadcaster N1 published a leaked database used by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, SNS, and containing the personal information of 400,000 Serbian citizens, including social status, health conditions and financial circumstances.

One such description read: “Voted for Democratic Party until now. Not anymore. Disabled person. Children – ages 20 and 22. Wife unemployed, works in a pub…”

SHARE classified the incident as one of the most severe breaches of personal data in Serbia.

It also highlighted the leak of health records belonging to a Serbian woman, Marija Lukic, who had accused an SNS official of sexual harassment, and the case of opposition activist Dragan Murar, whose phone was seized during his arrest by police in 2017 and his Twitter and Gmail accounts accessed.

The common targets, however, were online media outlets. The report underlined that attacks aiming at disabling or disrupting access to content were “very often connected with certain social events”, for example major flooding in 2014 when the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, expressed concern about media censorship and the removal of content from the Internet.

In April 2015, the opposition website Teleprompter was completely disabled.

“For the first time, in 2015, there were two attacks in the subcategory of destruction and theft of data and programs – on one occasion the victim was an online media outlet and the second time it was investigative reporters [from KRIK] whose equipment was taken away and their materials deleted”.

Politically-motivated attacks

In 2016, when Serbia held a snap parliamentary election, SHARE registered the first cases of politicians being targeted, all of them from opposition parties.

The trend of politically-related attacks continued in 2017, when presidential elections were held. One presidential account was the target of a hoax social media account.

In 2018, SHARE registered a new category of attack – manipulation and propaganda in the digital environment – with the appearance of unattributed PR content on online media. The watchdog also noted five cases in which media content that was critical of the government was removed or changed.

SHARE’s tech director Andrej Petrovski said: “The role of the social networks in Serbia is growing in the political sense and mostly those who don’t have access to traditional media are switching to socials.”

“But experience suggests that those who start using it in a creative way, instead of targeting people, will have more success.” Petrovski concluded.

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