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Balkans Grapples with Escalating Cyberviolence Against Women

August saw a surge in digital violence in the region, including a shocking live-streamed murder, inadequate content moderation and gender-based digital violations.

Throughout August, an escalation of digital violence was observed across several Balkan countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Albania, and Serbia.

Incidents ranged from a shocking live-streamed murder in Bosnia and content moderation challenges on digital platforms to gender-based violations in Hungary and Albania.

Human rights activists in Serbia faced threats and harassment, underscoring the pervasive nature of online abuse in the region.

Digital ‘spectacularization’ of violence in Gradacac murder

In an incident that shook Bosnia, three lives were lost and several individuals were injured in the town of Gradacac on August 11. The horrifying event unfolded when a man live-streamed himself shooting a woman on Instagram. He subsequently claimed to have killed multiple people. The livestream began with chilling words: “You will see what a live murder looks like.” He then shot his woman target dead. He later revealed that he had also targeted a police officer but was unsuccessful in apprehending him. The shooter was identified as Nermin Sulejmanovic.

The incident highlighted the role of social media platforms, specifically Instagram, in broadcasting violence. The gunman used Instagram during his escape, narrating the unfolding events to thousands of viewers. It took several hours for the platform to remove the disturbing content, leaving countless users exposed to the graphic material. The incident’s impact on the mental health of citizens, especially those closely connected to the victims, has sparked concerns among experts.

A spokesperson for Meta conveyed their concern, emphasizing that they are actively collaborating with Bosnia’s authorities to support ongoing investigations. Meta’s spokesperson stated: “We are deeply saddened by the terrible attack in Bosnia, and our thoughts are with the victims and their loved ones. We are in contact with the authorities in Bosnia to help support their investigations.” They further noted: “We will remove any content that glorifies the perpetrator or the attack whenever we become aware of it.”

The role of social media in cases of online feminicide and the propagation of harmful content cannot be underestimated. These platforms have become powerful tools for both both documenting and sensationalizing acts of violence against women. The rapid dissemination of disturbing content across social networks not only has a profound impact on the mental health of viewers but also raises ethical questions about responsible reporting and content moderation.

People attend a peaceful protest march in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 14 August 2023. Photo: EPA-EFE/FEHIM DEMIR

Content moderation challenges

The proliferation of violent and unsettling content on social media platforms has ignited a debate over the efficacy of content moderation. In a recent development, France’s media oversight body has issued a call to digital platforms, demanding heightened efforts to combat hate speech and violent materials. These platforms must bolster their investments in content moderation, enhance reporting mechanisms and embrace greater transparency to align with evolving European Union digital regulations.

This urgency in addressing online content issues has been magnified in the wake of the Gradacac tragedy, which served as a reminder that different platforms wield varying degrees of effectiveness when confronting such challenges.

TikTok and Telegram, in particular, have found themselves under intense scrutiny due to their perceived shortcomings in content moderation.

Experts argue that platforms like TikTok and Telegram face substantial challenges when it comes to content moderation, often displaying slower response times and less efficient mechanisms compared to industry leaders like Meta. Tijana Cvjetićanin, a media analyst, pointed out that these platforms lack efficient mechanisms for reacting to disturbing materials, citing a past incident where they failed to control the dissemination of content related to a school shooting.

Sections of the live video where Sulejmović discusses the crime he perpetrated continue to persist on TikTok, and the video depicting the murder itself remains largely accessible on the Telegram platform. Shockingly, close to 80,000 individuals viewed the unfiltered recording of the murder within the Telegram group titled “LEVIJATAN – No censorship.” This revelation underscores the challenge of effectively regulating content on platforms like TikTok and Telegram, which appear to take a laxer approach to content moderation than larger social media entities.

The case in Gradacac has exposed not only the weaknesses in content moderation but also the rapid spread of harmful content across the online platforms.

In response to online glorification of the Gradacac shooter, the Interior Ministry in Bosnia’s Federation entity announced an investigation into individuals who glorified the perpetrator’s actions on social media. Ervin Musinovic, from the Federation Interior Ministry, said anyone found to have sent messages in support of the murderer will face criminal investigation.

Online disinformation in the wake of Gradacac tragedy spreads

In the aftermath of Nermin Sulejmanovic’s horrifying live-streamed murder on Instagram, a disturbing trend of digital disinformation has emerged.

An illustration pictures shows a user holding a mobile phone displaying the ‘X’ logo in front of Twitter’s front page, in Los Angeles, California, USA, 27 July 2023. Photo: EPA-EFE/ETIENNE LAURENT

False reports claiming that Sulejmanovic had been secretly buried in a distant location from the crime scene spread across various news websites, amplifying people’s confusion and distress. These unverified claims were denied by Faruk Latifagic, director of the Tuzla Commemorative Center, who confirmed that Sulejmanovic’s body remained in their care.

Adding to the chaos, a call for help circulated on social media, ostensibly aimed at providing support for Nizama Hećimović’s daughter, who had tragically witnessed her mother’s murder live on Instagram. However, the Center for Social Work in Gradacac swiftly denounced this as false and an act of abuse. They emphasized that the child was already under appropriate care and said that any attempt to exploit her identity or share her photo constituted a criminal offence.

Online gender-based violations in Hungary, Albania

In August, online incidents in Hungary and Albania shed light on the alarming prevalence of gender-based violations in the online sphere. These cases also underscore the need for comprehensive measures to protect the rights and dignity of individuals, particularly women and girls, in the digital age.

On August 14, Hungary faced a troubling incident involving a 19-year-old man from Pusztaszer. This individual, posing as a 14-year-old boy on social media platforms, engaged in predatory behaviour targeting underage girls. He lured them into sharing explicit images and videos, all while maintaining a false identity. His cellphone was discovered to contain numerous nude pictures and sexually explicit content involving girls as young as 11.

Two concerned mothers, from Száhahalombatta and Érd, contacted the authorities after discovering that their daughters had received explicit material from this deceptive individual. In addition to coercing the girls to send compromising photos, he reciprocated with explicit images of himself. Investigations revealed that the individual, who had introduced himself as “Bence” and claimed to be 14, was, in fact, an adult named Roland. Subsequent searches of his home unearthed a trove of explicit images and videos featuring girls under 14, some of which were not recent. This indicated that he had been collecting and storing such material for an extended period.

In Albania, on August 30 the online media platform JOQ reported a harrowing case of a girl who fell victim to sexual abuse by her own father. While the news appropriately covered the arrest of the perpetrator, it shockingly revealed the victim’s full name, age, home address, and personal life history. This reckless disclosure added further stigmatization to the young woman’s already traumatic experience, highlighting the importance of responsible reporting and protecting the identities of victims.

Threatening graffiti targets rights activist in Belgrade

In the evolving landscape of digital violence, women across the Balkans are increasingly becoming the focal point of online harassment and abuse. This surge in gender-based digital violence not only emphasizes the need to address this issue but also shines a spotlight on the collective challenges faced by activists, human rights defenders, and individuals striving for progressive causes in the region.

Serbian medical personnel hold a Serbian flag as they protest in front of the soldiers of the NATO-led international peacekeeping Kosovo Force (KFOR) who stand guard in front of the building of the municipality in Zvecan, Kosovo, 31 May 2023. Photo: EPA-EFE/GEORGI LICOVSKI

On August 15, in a distressing incident, the facade of a building in Belgrade’s Borča neighbourhood became a canvas for misogyny and intimidation. The name and surname of Sofija Todorović, the program director of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, were scrawled in threatening graffiti. Adding insult to injury, a sexist and misogynistic message accompanied her name. Notably, the letter “Z” appeared alongside her name, symbolizing support for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

This act, aimed at instilling fear and silencing activism, highlights the plight of individuals who advocate for human rights and progressive causes in Serbia. Todorović’s vocal support for Kosovo’s inclusion in the United Nations had drawn attention and controversy. Her assertion that Serbia had made commitments to facilitate Kosovo’s entry into international organizations had also ignited a contentious debate. In the wake of her advocacy, this incident serves as a reminder of the threats faced by activists in the country.

Bosnia has been covered by Elma Selimovic, Aida Trepanić and Azem Kurtic, Albania by Nensi Bogdani, Hungary by Ákos Keller-Alánt and Serbia by Tijana Uzelac & Kalina Simic.

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