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‘Shame, Guilt’: Can North Macedonia Crack Down on Online Harassment?

Illustration: BIRN/Igor Vujcic.

More than a dozen women in the North Macedonia town of Kicevo were harassed by the same person via phone and social media, yet no one was ever arrested. Can a new law help the country get to grips with online harassment?

Lumturije Qamili was used to being contacted by business clients via WhatsApp, so when she saw a new message from an unknown number one day in late 2021, she instinctively opened it. The sexually-explicit content she was confronted with was offensive, but there was something familiar in the way it was written.

A friend of Qamili and a cousin had both shown her similar messages they had received months earlier, containing the same kind of vulgar content and the same spelling errors. They suspected the same person was harassing them, using a dialect of Albanian that pointed to their hometown, Kicevo in North Macedonia.

On January 4, 2022, Qamili posted screenshots of the messages on Facebook and Instagram, and in no time at all 16 women got in touch to say the same thing had happened to them. The phone numbers were different, but the spelling mistakes were not.

Qamili encouraged the others to go to the police, but they were reluctant – some were married, others engaged. Almost no one wanted to run the risk of being shamed for someone else’s wrongdoing.

The next day, Qamili walked into the police station in Kicevo, armed with the screenshots, and reported that she was being harassed on social media.

“I reported the case on January 5, 2022, after realising that the same thing happened to many other girls,” she told BIRN. One of them was Mona [not her real name], who also went to the police the same day, accompanied by her husband.

Mona had been harassed for months on WhatsApp, Viber and, later, Facebook by an account under the name of ‘Agron’. He called her at work, using the same number that Qamili had been contacted from.

The case, however, has yet to be solved.

North Macedonia has since amended the Criminal Code to better address such cases and keep pace with the changing nature of such threats, but implementation will be key, argue experts, who say such harassment can have a lasting impact on its victims.

“Shame and guilt are often connected, and considering that such experiences often place guilt on the victim, the victim herself experiences guilt that she may be responsible for something like this,” said Kicevo psychologist Valdeta Adili. “Victims are dominated by fear and often show somatic symptoms in disordered eating, sleeping, anxiety, and isolation.”

The town of KIcevo in North Macedonia. Photo by Kicevo Municipality

Protected on paper, but in practice?

In February this year, amendments to North Macedonia’s Penal Code recognised for the first time stalking and online harassment as crimes.

The move came two years after it emerged that explicit pictures and personal information of women and girls were being shared between thousands of members of a Telegram group in North Macedonia called Public Room.

The law now foresees a fine or prison sentence of up to three years for anyone convicted of stalking, harassment, abuse or intimidation, in person or in written form, or misusing someone’s personal data. The penalties are greater if the perpetrator is a current or former intimate partner of the victim or if the crime is committed against a child.

Lidija Petkoska, an MP from the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party who has actively pushed for changes to the law to address the issue, welcomed the amendments and expressed hope that would provide “a certain guarantee and protection for victims who suffer any kind of violence”.

But she voiced concern that state institutions in North Macedonia are still not sufficiently gender-sensitised or have the mechanisms in place to respond in a timely manner.

“No matter how good and well-intentioned the laws are, they have been made in vain if they do not work in reality,” Petkoska told BIRN. “A woman’s safety from harassment, that is, from violence, is extremely important and must be a priority in society.”

Women, however, have little faith in the institutions that should protect them, according to research published in September 2021 by the ‘Ladybug’ Centre for Equal Opportunities, based in the western town of Tetovo. 

Two-thirds of female respondents between the ages of 18 and 25 reported receiving messages from boys or men containing various forms of sexual harassment, hate speech, threats, or insults. They reported feelings of fear, anxiety, self-isolation, and depression after the messages. But only 3.8 per cent of these went to the police.

Immage by Pixabay

Speed is key

A month after Qamili and Mona reported the harassment, Qamili received a letter from the police saying that the number she received the messages from did not exist. Qamili binned the letter and lost hope that the perpetrator would ever be found. She speculated that the police may know his identity, but failed to act. “The letter I got was just a formality,” Qamili told BIRN.

Mona received a phone call, during which a police officer told her they had been unable to trace her harasser because the phone number had been bought without an ID and was not registered.

Under the law in North Macedonia, since 2014 it is possible to buy a SIM card without an ID, but it cannot be activated without one.

“I have no idea who he was,” said Mona. “I left the country a couple of weeks later and didn’t have the chance to continue insisting he be found.”

An IT expert, who asked to remain anonymous, told BIRN that in such investigations, speed is of the essence in determining the geolocation of the device in question. Delay gives the perpetrator time to physically destroy the device or the SIM, and the digital trail can disappear.

Despite what Qamili and Mona were told, the police told BIRN that the case was still active.

“[…] we inform you that immediately after receiving the reports at the police station of Kicevo, in order to clarify the case the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of North Macedonia was notified and a request was submitted for the provision of data for the owner of the phone numbers from which number the harassment was carried out,” the police said in a written response. “Once the case is resolved, we will notify you accordingly.”

Even if the perpetrator is found, the new crimes incorporated into the Penal Code in February this year would not apply, said legal expert Vedije Ratkoceri. But that does not mean another criminal offence may apply.

“Even if the police manage to identify the harasser now, the harasser would not be able to be prosecuted for a criminal offence that has been incorporated into the Penal Code with the amendments of February 2023,” Ratkoceri told BIRN. 

“This means that in order to accuse someone of a criminal offence, the person must be incriminated under a criminal offence in the Penal Code at the time the action was committed.”

Lidija Petkoska, an MP from the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party who has actively pushed for changes to the law to address the issue. Photo by VMRO-DPMNE

Sowing fear

Qamili said that the harasser of her and the other women would often ask to meet his victims, a fact she found even more worrying.

“I’m almost 30 years old, and I know how to deal with such cases,” Qamili said. “I was afraid that the same thing could happen to a young girl who probably doesn’t know how to react in such cases; they could be afraid or even agree to meet the abuser.”

BIRN asked the police whether any female minors had reported being harassed last year but received no response.

Mona said the phone calls were particularly disturbing, occurring as they did when she was alone at work on the late shift. “I was scared because I didn’t know who it could be and didn’t know his intention,” she said.

Adili, the psychologist, said fear is a common response.

“Of course, the same situation does not affect everyone in the same way, and it depends on the personality of the person, on the circumstances in which he/she finds himself/herself, but in essence it remains a traumatic experience,” Adili told BIRN.

The fact that so many victims fail to go to the police reflects a belief that nothing will be done, she said, as well as a tendency to play down the seriousness of such harassment.

“When we talk about trauma, we always revisit it, but this is necessary to overcome it,” she said.

“The reason for not reporting is often the minimisation of harassment or the denial that something like this is not normal. There are also matters of the personal boundaries that we build and keep in relation to the environment in which we live.”

Qamili said she never feared for her own safety, but for the safety of others.

“I think the harasser himself was trying to hide, but I was worried that he could be dangerous for Kicevo.”

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