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In North Macedonia, Crime of Online Stalking Still Goes Unpunished

Photo by BIRN

On the back of the ‘Public Room’ scandal, North Macedonia made stalking a crime in February – but so far only one charge has actually been filed.

In the past few years, online sexual violence has exploded in the Balkans. In North Macedonia, the most scandalous case was the case of “Public Room”, an online chat group on the encrypted application Telegram with over 7,000 members, where explicit photos, social media profiles, personal data and child pornography were shared without consent.

The group was shut down in 2020 but no one was formally punished. A year later, another such group appeared with the same name and purpose and on the same application, again with thousands of male members.

Appalled by the violence, hundreds expressed their revulsion and support for the victims through multiple protests.

The sheer size and nature of “Public Room” sparked huge reactions from the public. “Because the case had to do with child pornography and things that we want to turn a blind eye to, there was a bigger turnout for these topics,” Kalia Dimitrova, editor-in-chief of the Macedonian feminist platform Meduza, told BIRN.

In March 2022, the creator and administrator of the Telegram group were sentenced to four years in prison for the production and distribution of child pornography.

One 22-year-old member of “Public Room” was also indicted for the same crime, and the Public Prosecutor’s Office says that some other activities in the group are being investigated.

The Prosecutor’s office said it requested data from Telegram about the identities of users of “Public Room” but has not yet received an answer. Without this, it says, the Public Prosecutor cannot act.

Several protests against the online violence have been organised in Skopje. “Inaction is Complicity” the banner reads. Photo by BIRN

Laws changed but action lags behind

 As a result of public pressure over “Public Room”, changes to the criminal code were passed that introduced the new crime of “stalking”.

This crime anticipates a fine or imprisonment of up to three years for persons who follow or attempt to make unwanted contact with another person without authorization in the physical, but also in the digital, space.

This crime came into force in February this year and the Ministry of the Interior says that ten victims of the crime of “stalking” have been registered so far; in two of the ten cases, the crime was committed over the Internet. The Public Prosecutor’s Office says that only one charge has been filed for this crime.

A potential alleviating circumstance after “Public Room” is that victims no longer have to physically go to the police station to report the violence. This can now also be done online through the official email or on the online platform Red Button on the website of the Ministry of the Interior.

Although these changes have been welcomed, many believe that North Macedonia’s institutions remain sexist towards the victims. Dimitrova particularly emphasizes the importance of the police, because that is “the first point of the victims’ demand for justice and every second policeman is sexist or maybe a perpetrator of violence himself”.

Even when faced with an inadequate institutional response, activists continue to urge victims to report violence. But Dimitrova hesitates to back this advice, suggesting that there is a high probability that the victim will be judged and doubly victimized when seeking justice.

“We hope that micro-steps are taken and some institutional memory is created on how to deal with these cases in future. But it is sad that this ends up happening on the backs of the victims,” Dimitrova said.

Katerina Koteska, a lawyer from Bitola, also believes that victims often face condemnation, inappropriate questions and double victimization from institutions when seeking help. At the same time, Koteska says many obstacles also come in the form of prejudice by society at large.

Koteska represented a victim from the so called Bitola “Public Room” whose intimate screenshots from a video call were shared in a Facebook group. The victim was well known in the town and this was reflected in the court process itself. Hoping for greater understanding, Koteska wanted to hire a woman as the professional responsible for assessing the psychological state of the victim.

“However, she rejected my request on the grounds that she did not want to get involved in this case, as she would be gossiped about, and it would be something that would be heard around town. In other words, I think she didn’t want to get involved in such a scandal,” explained Koteska.

Natasha Boshkova, a lawyer from the Skopje-based human rights umbrella organisation called “Coalition Margins” expected a more responsible attitude from the institutions after working on a case related to “Public Room”, which was rejected by the Prosecutor’s Office after almost three years due to lack of evidence.

“I believe that this approach is harmful and contrary to the obligation of institutions to act with due care, i.e. to promptly and efficiently take everything within their jurisdiction to find the perpetrator, collect evidence and punish him, and to give the victims compensation for the damage they suffered,” Boškova told BIRN.

Kalia Dimitrova. Photo by Zarko Culic

Greater public awareness, but problem far from solved

Because of “Public Room”, online sexual harassment and violence have become more present in public discourse and awareness of this problem has increased among the public and institutions and, according to Dimitrova, among the victims themselves.

“Something very important happened, and that is the victims recognizing themselves as victims. [“Public Room”] gave more women and girls the opportunity, especially younger ones, to realize that some of the things that happen to them were normalized, and that, in fact, they are not normal and should not be.”

However, mere recognition of violence by the victims is not enough to eradicate the phenomenon. It is also important to change the behaviour of perpetrators, which is why experts believe that preventive measures and education of young people are needed.

Koteska says young people should know what intimate communication between two people is, and be aware that resending explicit photos is not only a breach of trust but also a crime punishable by law.

Dimitrova says North Macedonia’s institutions still do not realize that online and physical identities are practically equal, and still inadequately treat cases of online violence.

“As younger generations, we should insist in our efforts that there is no border between the real world and the digital world,” she said.

For Dimitrova, the problem lies not only in institutions but also in social values, as well the fact that aggression is often present in homes and at school. That is why violence is often perpetuated in all relationships – romantic, friendships and family – both during one’s youth but also later in life.

“When we talk about violence, it is externalized from reality and we approach those problems in a demagogic way. As a society, we need to face the fact that violence is a part of our lives, without exception, and we need to bring it down to that level,” Dimitrova concluded.

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