How to Report on Victims of Human Trafficking

Media play an indispensable part in the prevention and protection of human trafficking victims, but they can also be part of the problem. This article prepared by Belgrade based Atina NGO aims to help journalists to report on the issue of human trafficking, respecting the highest standards of the journalism profession.

Media representatives have an important role, and an indispensable part, in the prevention and protection of human trafficking victims. In practice, we remember cases when the media representatives were the ones who helped discover situations/cases of human trafficking, but also when they prevented the person(s) from becoming a victim of this crime. However, there is a visible trend in the media in terms of the absence of objective reporting of a human trafficking situation, perpetrators and victims, and the use of a sensationalist manner instead.

The media have a higher responsibility not to bring harm and endanger the safety of a person who had experienced human trafficking by raising citizens’ awareness of this problem, and not to place an additional stigma and make the victims even more vulnerable.

Reporting on the phenomenon of human trafficking, which is reduced exclusively to individual cases with the unavoidable participation of the victims themselves, is inadequate. It should be borne in mind that the human trafficking area also includes prevention activities (influencing the causes such as poverty, multiple marginalizations, etc.), comprehensive integration of victims and criminal prosecution of perpetrators and that reporting on these aspects is to reach a targeted result – raising public awareness of the importance of the phenomenon, and providing solidary support to persons who are multiply marginalized in our society. In addition, interviews with victims often lead to secondary victimization and make it difficult to work on assistance and support programs, but can also cause revictimization. The usual, stereotypical explanations of human trafficking and reducing it exclusively to sexual exploitation, with a phrase such as “it can happen to anyone” should be avoided, given that the causes of trafficking are most commonly the existing marginalization, discrimination, violence, poverty, and the like.

How (not) to report on human trafficking

There is no justification for the behaviour of a trafficker, and the sole responsibility lies with the person who committed this crime. Reporting in a way that “the victim contributed or provoked the trafficker” is wrong and justifies the perpetrator’s actions. Also, glorification of the perpetrators and insisting on their anonymity, while revealing the identity of the victims, should not be the subject of reporting on this issue. Preserving the identity of a trafficking victim is the backbone of dealing with this topic and for that reason, it is not enough to omit the name of the person when reporting on what happened in the trafficking situation and to leave all other details that can easily reveal their identity (age, local community the exploitation took place in, where she went when she was recruited, who recruited her, etc.). We remind you that publishing the identity of a child victim is prohibited by law.

To raise citizens’ awareness of the human trafficking issue, it is highly important to use appropriate terms and in this regard be aware that some of them (such as “white slavery”, and “child prostitution”) are sexist, wrong and unacceptable when it comes to preventing this problem in the 21st century. The use of the wrong terminology makes it impossible to achieve the effect of changing society’s attitude towards violence, which should be our goal. Taking into account various forms of exploitation known to our law, human trafficking (and especially child trafficking) for the purpose of “entering into marriage is a criminal offence” must not be interpreted in the light of the presumed tradition of a particular group. Justifying the crime by “tradition” and “customary law” further promotes prejudice against certain groups and makes it difficult for the system of prevention, protection and prosecution to adequately respond. Human trafficking is punishable by the law, which is why it is necessary to point out the penalties imposed or threatened for the act of human trafficking. It is also important to review the work of official bodies and their responsibilities in this area and put pressure on institutions and organizations in order to establish an efficient and effective system of prevention of human trafficking and protection of the victims.

Human trafficking is an issue us all and concerns us all. In this regard, the role of the media is crucial in breaking down prejudices that trafficking is an issue of the victims themselves and that violence is a private matter. 

Human trafficking and other forms of violence in Digital Space

Behind the screens: Analysis of human trafficking victims’ abuse in digital surroundings

For organisation Atina, it is of utmost importance that the voices of girls and women with the experience of trafficking are heard. And not only heard but understood and appreciated as well. That is why organization Atina created this document Behind the screens: Analysis of human trafficking victims’ abuse in digital surroundings, which includes the experiences of 178 girls and women who were using Atina’s support and protection programs in the period from 2015 until 2020.[1] Such a number of respondents in the field of human trafficking victims’ protection is an extremely important sample, and it should be noted that the data collection process was marked by the exceptional motivation of these girls and women to participate in it. It is also important to point out that this analysis was carried out during the pandemic when a large part of global communication moved to the digital space, and the risks of violence and exploitation increased.

The results of this analysis confirm the high prevalence of abuse in digital surroundings these girls and women have been exposed to prior, during and after the trafficking situation. Specifically, 42% of respondents survived some form of digital violence (such as cyberbullying, vengeful distribution of explicit/pornographic content, impersonation, etc.), while for 31% of the digital violence was directly related to the trafficking situation, both for the purpose of recruitment and exploitation. Of the total number of respondents, 65% were also exposed to digital threats, which were most often aimed at intimidation in order to change or withdraw a testimony or statement in criminal proceedings (a total of 59%). In addition to the high frequency of violence in the digital sphere, the analysis also shows that this specific type of violence has become an almost indispensable form of coercion used by perpetrators of violence and traffickers to blackmail, threaten, belittle the victims, unauthorizedly record, or distribute pornographic material including children. In this regard, the purpose of the analysis is to prevent digital abuse from becoming a “new normal” and a phenomenon to which the public, due to its frequency, becomes indifferent to, under the slogan – virtual is less real, and therefore less important.

The main pretension of this analysis, which Atina’s team considers to be introductory, and represents a current situation in practice, is that the fight against violence and abuse in digital surroundings in the context of human trafficking should become a priority on the agenda of all actors who are a part of the official mechanism for support and protection of human trafficking victims in Serbia. The document itself is intended for the interested and professional public, representatives of state institutions working in this field at the national and local level, as well as civil society organizations, the private sector, media and the general public. And not only that, from Atina’s point of view it is necessary for this topic to finally take its own place in all the relevant national documents that will be created in the coming period, particularly in the future National Strategy for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, and accompanying Action Plans, considering that this topic does not have such a place in the current strategy. It is also our wish for this analysis to serve as a basis for further, more extensive research on the topic of abuse in digital surroundings in the context of human trafficking in Serbia, and to shed a light on many of the concepts this paper has only touched on.

Bearing in mind that terminology is crucial in deliberating this sensitive topic, its development should correspond to the essence of the phenomena being described, and emphasize the responsibility of perpetrators, i.e. those causing them. In this regard, it is important, both in our country and beyond, to invest particular efforts in the development of terminology that accompanies this topic, and thus stop the use of archaic, inaccurate and incorrect terms that do not correspond to the essence of the phenomenon, such as “child prostitution and pornography”, considering that a child cannot voluntarily participate in such a thing and that those cases are a matter of sexual exploitation and abuse of children, persons under 18 years of age; thus, in this particular case, it would be more correct to use the terms abuse of children in prostitution, and exploitation of children for pornographic purposes.

We believe that many of you will come across terms in this document that explains various phenomena related to abuses in digital surroundings you have not heard before. For this reason, slighter known forms of abuse in a digital context, such as doxing (targeting), catfishing (luring) and others, are explained in detail hoping they will find use within the professional and general public, and contribute to the identification, reporting and provision of adequate assistance and support to the victims. We hope that this analysis will encourage professionals to further reconsider their roles in the process of victims’ protection in the context of digital abuse and that this topic will become an obligatory part of the approach to the phenomenon of gender-based violence.

Violence in the Digital Space

The majority of global communication has shifted to the digital space, where it takes place through phones, laptop, or other devices.

Every piece of digital content we create and share stays on the internet forever.

The risks of violence and exploitation have not only transferred from the physical to the digital world, but have also significantly increased, as new ways to hurt, intimidate, and harass others have emerged.

Women and girls are the most exposed to violence and exploitation, both in the physical and digital space.

The digital and physical environments are closely tied. In the context of human trafficking, according to the Citizens Association Atina’s research, 55 percent of those who have been abused in the digital space have also experienced stalking, usually by persons with whom the victim had real-world interactions. 23 percent of the respondents were stalked by family members, and 18 percent by partners.

However, these figures represent only a portion of the problemthe majority of stalking cases, between 50 and 80 percent, are never reported. On a global scale, women between the ages of 19 and 29 are most vulnerable to cyberstalking.

The consequences for victims of online violence are far-reaching. They often feel discouraged and fear they will not be understood or supported if they report the violence.

That is why it is critical to believe victims, their experiences, and their statements, and we must work to ensure that their voices are heard, understood, and recognized.

It is crucial to understand that the victim is never to blame for the violence they have experienced.

The Citizens Association Atina works to create safer spaces for women and girls, both physical and digital. By recognizing and responding to violence that takes place in physical and digital spaces, you become fighters for a better society where women and girls are safe and secure.

Join us in that fight. 

Types of violence in the digital space

In order to adequately respond to violence and abuse in the digital environment, we must first recognize it.

There are many different forms of violence and abuse in the digital environment, the most common of which are: 


Impersonation can apply to both the creation of fake accounts and the use of someone’s identity for the purpose of falsely presenting oneself.


Catfishing is when someone uses a fake or stolen online persona to entice someone into a date or interaction. The perpetrator catfishes in order to meet with the victim or get specific information from them, such as their credit card number. 


Doxing involves collecting and publishing someone’s private information, such as their name, address, or phone number, in order to cause damage to them. 


Hacking is unauthorized breaking into someone’s electronic device or network. The hacker’s intent is to steal an individual’s personal information or simply violate their privacy. 


Cyberbullying involves threatening, shaming, or humiliating individuals in a digital environment, with the intent of degrading them and damaging their reputation, character, and dignity.


Cyberstalking involves constant texting, calling, and voice-messaging, in order to instill fear, anxiety, and humiliation in an individual, as well as cause mental and emotional harm. Cyberstalking may not always entail direct threats.

How to protect yourself?

Use the internet and other digital devices safely: use complex passwords, avoid publishing personal information, set up multi-factor authentication for your accounts, avoid downloading files from untrustworthy sources, and regularly update your software.

If someone is harassing you, or sending violent or unwanted content, use the block option. Also, preserve evidence through screenshots of the texts you have received.

Inform yourself about children’s rights as well.

Image-based sexual abuse

An increasingly common type of digital violence directed at women and girls is the vengeful publication of explicit pornographic content, also known as image-based sexual abuse (’revenge porn’). It most often occurs after a partner relationship has ended, although this type of content can also be shared by someone who has only acquired it, without having any prior contact with the victim. 

Pornographic content is widely found on specialized websites, but it is also increasingly being shared via social media and messaging apps.

In March 2021, over ten groups were discovered on the Telegram app, where tens of thousands of men from the Balkans were sharing various types of pornographic content – including intimate photos and videos of former partners.

One of the largest groups had 36,000 members, and there were even groups for individual cities in Serbia.

Testimonies of girls who found out from friends that their accounts were shared in groups and/or that their explicit photos were shared by their former partners also appeared in public. 

It is the responsibility of the competent authorities to recognize image-based sexual abuse  as a crime that is prosecuted ex officio and to do all in their power to protect the victims and prevent their further abuse and exploitation. 

Victims should not be urged to stop communicating online and delete their accounts, since this would just isolate them further and shift the blame to them. Physical and digital spaces must be safe for everyone, and violence cannot be stopped by the victim withdrawing or deleting social media accounts, but rather by the institutions’ adequate response.

Human trafficking in the digital space

The digital sphere has had a significant impact on how human trafficking is committed today. As many as 30% of human trafficking victims have been recruited online.

The victims are usually recruited through false ads, fake business offers, financial help offers, and the similar, which in the following phases turns into the victim’s exploitation to achieve personal or financial gain.

The majority of the traffickers were persons known to the victim – 51%, while unknown persons were involved in 42% of cases. Close friends recruited victims in 5% and partners in 2% of cases.

50% of victims state that the person who trafficked them possessed content that they used to blackmail and force them into various forms of exploitation. The victims were threatened that the content will be sent to their families or made public on the internet. 63% of human trafficking victims reported non-consensual recording and distribution of digital content, with the majority of content containing elements of pornography.

Ways to find a victim, as well as ways to force the victim into exploitation, have increased in the digital space. It is important to remember that the victim’s consent, which in the context of trafficking is obtained through coercion or fraud, does not negate the perpetrators’ accountability and does not make the victim responsible for the situation they found themselves in.

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