News Box

Serbian School Shooting Has Tested Limits of Public’s ‘Right to Know’

Photo: Pixabay

In revealing unverified information about the school massacre, the head of Belgrade police violated the rights of the massacre’s youthful victims – which is a crime.

The mass shooting at the Vladislav Ribnikar Elementary School in Belgrade on May 3, in which ten pupils and one employee were killed, is one of the most tragic events in Serbia’s recent history.

While the parents of the children were waiting minute by minute for information about the fates of their own children and other children, the media began to publish unconfirmed information about the number of victims of the massacre.

The majority of the media clearly estimated that the public’s right to know the about the number of dead and injured, even unofficial and unverified, outweighed the interests of families and minors in protecting their rights to private and family life.

At the official press conference, several hours after the massacre, the Chief of the Belgrade Police presented the details of the pre-investigation procedure.

One of the first pieces of information from the judicial authorities was that no criminal charges could be brought against the perpetrator due to his young age.

To inform the public about the crime, the Chief of Belgrade Police took the initiative to disclose crucial details that would typically be presented in the criminal charge to the prosecutor if a criminal proceeding was able to take place.

He presented the public with a list of potential and planned victims of the minor perpetrator.

And while the public might feel that the media’s unofficial and inaccurate information represented a disturbance of the right to family life, in regards to the presentation of official information by the competent authorities, the red light of concern began to flicker, resonating within the hearts of the parents whose children attended Vladislav Ribnikar Primary School.

By publishing a list of potential and planned victims, those “potential targets” became actual targets of the media and internet bullies, which brought the already distraught children additional fear and pain.

And that brings us to the main question: Did the public have the right to know who the potential victims were?

Rights of minors should prevail over ‘right to know’

Ambulance cars stand ready at the site as police officers block a street near the Vladislav Ribnikar elementary school in Belgrade, Serbia, May 2023. Photo: EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC

The right to privacy and protection of minors are two main rights that collide with the right of the public to know, given that in this crime, both the perpetrator and the victims were minors.

Therefore, the answers to all questions should be sought in the regulations that protect the rights of minors.

Minors enjoy special protection: whether we speak about the perpetrator of a crime (whose data protection also protects the data of the victims in this case) or about the victims. Although before a criminal court in Serbia, the victims are deprived of most of their rights and are not the centre of the proceedings, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child mandates that child victims must be given special status, because any form of violence against children is deemed a violation of their right to life, survival, and development.

Hence, the Constitution of Serbia is the first line of protection for minors. Namely, although criminal proceedings are public (as a guarantor of the right to a fair trial), it is stipulated that the public can be excluded from all the proceedings conducted before the court or from part of the proceedings in order to protect the interests of minors or the privacy of the participants in the proceedings.

The interest of minors is an explicit reason for excluding the public from hearings in court by Serbian Criminal Procedure Code. A special Law on juvenile offenders and the criminal protection of minors upholds the mentioned constitutional right through detailed provisions and a specific institutional base.

Although this regulation applies to minors – older than 14 years – not specifically to children, logic dictates that children enjoy even more protection. Police powers towards minors are regulated by special police regulation.

On the other hand, the Law on Police stipulates the public nature of police work. The Ministry of Interior should regularly and fully inform the public about its work. But there are exceptions. The ministry cannot violate the regulation on data confidentiality and the dignity of citizens, or threaten the right to personal freedom and security.

The Law on public information and media regulates public information provided through the media. The specific rule is that minors must not be recognisable in the information that may harm their right or interest.

All these regulations and institutional guarantees uphold the golden rule that the protection of minors prevails over the public’s right to know.

Police should have known the ‘golden rule’

People leave flowers and light candles for the victims of a shooting in front of the ‘Vladislav Ribnikar’ elementary school in Belgrade, Serbia, May 2023. Photo: EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC

Who collected the personal data of the children? First of all, the data was obtained by police officers in the preliminary investigation procedure when exercising their powers regarding a criminal offence.

According to the Law on Data protection, processing of data carried out by competent authorities for the purposes of investigation and detection of criminal acts presents processing for special purpose. At the moment when they found out that the perpetrator was a child, special provisions of the Law on Police were activated for implementation: in such cases, a special police officer for minors acts, with special knowledge of children’s rights. That police officer had to have known the golden rule.

Who communicated the personal data of the children? The Chief of Belgrade Police, as official representative of the Ministry of Interior, showed the information to all media present in the live broadcast. In doing so, he said that while his actions were probably illegal, he did it for the sake of the public’s right to knowledge.

But in doing so, he committed a crime of “unauthorized collection of personal data” – the most serious one, as he acted in the name of Ministry of Interior. The role of prosecution in this case has to be more proactive. Such an obligation is stipulated by the special protocol on the actions of judicial authorities in the protection of minors from abuse and neglect.

In doing so, the Chief of Belgrade Police opened the possibility of a misdemeanor charge for illegal processing of data through the right to privacy was breached.

Who can be held responsible for these actions?

Apart from the criminal responsibility of the Chief of Belgrade Police, a misdemeanour charge can be brought against Minister of Interior, Bratislav Gasic. The minister is the one accountable for misdemeanour conduct within the ministry. The Data Protection Commissioner can initiate the procedure. Moreover, the Ministry of Interior is responsible for the nonpecuniary damage that minor victims and their families have suffered by these illegal acts.

Police chief opened a Pandora’s box

The Chief of Belgrade Police acted unlawfully, against the rights of children. With that, he unleashed Pandora’s box of targeted secondary victimization that spread through the Internet and social networks outside Serbia’s borders and beyond the reach of Serbian laws and authorities.

The Serbian public saw the Chief of Belgrade Police for the first time on television. A terrible event forced closed and captured institutions to open up and show all of their weakness and, above all, an incomprehension of human rights and boundaries that protect the right to private life, which, when crossed, threaten safety, security, and peace of mind.

These are the very values that the police should be safeguarding.

Katarina Golubovic is a Belgrade-based attorney at law specialised in the human rights field.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

BIRD Community

Are you a professional journalist or a media worker looking for an easily searchable and comprehensive database and interested in safely (re)connecting with more than thousands of colleagues from Southeastern and Central Europe?

We created BIRD Community, a place where you can have it all!

Join Now