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Illustration by Walker Gawande shows Masked protesters hold signs on the street in Macedonian

Private Abuse in Telegram’s “Public Rooms”: Can North Macedonia Fight Online Sexual Harassment?

For new forms of gender-based violence, activists demand new solutions

When semi-private messengers like Telegram are used to spread revenge porn and other abusive material, existing laws seem to be inadequate. In North Macedonia, activists and survivors have taken to the streets to demand justice online.

“I did not know what to do, I panicked, I was scared, I have never experienced anything like that. I went to the Department Against Cyber Crime [The Computer Crime and Forensics Unit] to report what happened. I showed them the picture, I showed the messages and the calls, that I have names and surnames of the people who wrote and called me. When they heard that I was an adult, they said that the law in our country cannot do anything, because it is only for minors,” said Ana Koleva, a 28 year-old woman from Kavadarci, North Macedonia.

In a viral Instagram video posted on her account on January 27, 2021, she spoke about the harassment she experienced after her Instagram profile and personal phone number were leaked to a Telegram group.

The high profile “Public Room” case shows how sexual harassment online is rarely addressed by authorities in North Macedonia and the Balkan region, resulting in women’s severe victimization and few (if any) legal implications for the perpetrators.

Masked protesters hold a red banner that says "Failure to Act Makes You Complicit" in Macedonian Cyrillic letters.
Protesters hold a sign that says "Failure to act makes you complicit" and is directed towards the government institutions that failed to resolve the "Public Room" case. Photo by Elena Gagovska.

Koleva was one of an unknown number of victims of online sexual harassment by members of a popular Telegram channel called “Public Room”. In the online messenging channel, men from North Macedonia (and possibly some from neighboring countries) shared images and videos of child pornography, private nudes, social media profiles, and private phone numbers of countless women and girls from across North Macedonia — without their consent.

Ana Koleva is one of the only victims of “Public Room” that has spoken about her experience without hiding her identity. Her Instagram video has almost 400,000 views and played a key role in the increased media coverage of the case in 2021. 

Sexual Harassment on Telegram

The story of “Public Room”, however, began not in 2021, but rather in January, 2020 when the initial Telegram channel with 7,400 members was discovered. The non-profit medium Radio MOF first reported about the group’s existence on January 25, 2020 after being alerted by concerned high school students.

It was discovered that pictures of open social media profiles, as well as private nudes, of underage teenage girls were shared in the channel – but media reported that there were images of adult women as well. A1on journalist Meri Jordanovska also reported that there were also known businessmen and politicians in the group. The authorities suspected that the creator of the initial “Public Room” was a teenager, but it is unclear if he was ever formally charged with anything.

While the age of sexual consent is 14 years in the country, Natasa Boskova, a lawyer for the human rights NGO Coalition Margins, explained to Unbias the News that according to the Macedonian Criminal Code, a child victim of the crime of distributing child pornography is considered to be a minor up to 18 years of age.

However, distribution of child pornography is not the only crime that was allegedly committed in “Public Room”. There was also non-consentual sharing of private nudes of adult women and misuse of personal information, such as non-consentual sharing of social media profiles, private addresses and phone numbers, all of which resulted in large scale online sexual harassment.

Moreover, in 2020, after its discovery the group was almost immediately shut down by Telegram upon request of the Macedonian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVR), which also encouraged victims to report such crimes. Yet, even this swift action was insufficient since no perpetrator was actually punished for their involvement in “Public Room”.  

Thus, it was hardly surprising that a similar group with an identical name sprung up in January 2021. 

Public Room 2.0

Similarly to the year before, the group was shut down almost immediately upon discovery at MVR’s request to Telegram and four people connected to the chat were taken in for questioning on January 28th, 2021. On the same day, then-Prime-Minister Zoran Zaev controversially threatened to ban Telegram from Macedonia altogether.

“The crime is not in the use of that application but what is done on that application, here is the crime. Zaev's statement is a subtle shift of the responsibility of Telegram, a private entity, from the actual responsibility of the police and the public prosecutor's office,”

Irena Cvetkovic, activist and executive director of the human rights organization Coalition Margins, told Unbias the News. The Telegram ban never came to fruition, but such a move could have set a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression online in North Macedonia, an EU candidate state. 

Shortly after the initial “Public Room” was discovered, the new Law for Protection of Personal Information in accordance with GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) was passed on February 16th, 2020; the full implementation was finished on August 24th, 2021. It is unclear if “Public Room” played any role in the law’s implementation; however, since the law regulates misuse of private information, it is clear that Ana Koleva should have been able to file a complaint on those grounds at least with the Agency for Personal Data Protection i.e., the Department Against Cyber Crime could have directed Koleva to this government body but failed to do so.

What is GDPR?
The General Data Protection Regulation is a set of EU laws meant to enhance people's control over their personal data. It states, "The protection of natural persons in relation to the processing of personal data is a fundamental right."
Read the Law
Right to be forgotten
Part of GDPR is a right to have inaccurate, outdated or non-consensual personal information removed from data processors at its owner's request - even Google, at least for EU countries.
Burden of Proof
Unfortunately, the protection afforded by GDPR has turned out to be difficult to access for victims of revenge porn and other non-consensual internet content. Getting the content taken down often requires a lawyer and substantial time and costs.
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“According to the law on personal data protection, all persons who believe that their privacy has been violated through misuse of their photos from social media can seek protection before the Agency for Personal Data Protection,” Natasa Boskova told Unbias the News. “The Criminal Code also provides protection for the misuse of personal data, and most “Public Room” victims can seek protection under this provision. The Computer Crime and Forensics Unit at the Ministry of Interior can assist the public prosecutor’s office in securing the identity and evidence of the perpetrators of the crime so that they can be prosecuted and punished more effectively.”

A Feminist Awakening?

In both 2020 and 2021, sexist and moralizing narratives engulfed Macedonian social media feeds, with some people alleging that the girls and women were to blame since they were only seeking attention by taking revealing photos, while others tried to put the blame both on the men/boys and the women/girls.

Sex educator and feminist activist Natalija Krstevska spoke on the student podcast Justinijan Zbori about the victim blaming social media trend of posts that urged to “Educate our children”. Krstevska said that the trend dispersed the blame away from the boys and men who are perpetuating sexual violence, and instead, suggests that girls and women also have a responsibility to learn how to protect themselves from this kind of violence.

“Double victimization occurs from close social/family circles, to the level of institutions and a huge focus must be given to the unlearning of this phenomenon, because these types of comments represent the relativization of violence and taking the side of sexual predators,” Kalia Dimitrova, the editor-in-chief of the Macedonian feminist platform Meduza, told Unbias the News.

“The public always has some idea of what the girl or woman should or could have done to avoid becoming a victim, and very rarely has any idea what can or should be done with the one who harassed, hurt or humiliated her. After all, sexual violence is probably the only crime where the victim is blamed for something someone else has done.”

Kalia Dimitrova, Editor-in-Chief of Meduza

On February 3rd, 2021, hundreds of feminists and other supporters took to the streets in protest of the Macedonian institutions’ inaction and lack of punishment of the perpetrators. The protest began in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVR) — which oversees the police — and ended in front of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. The protesters carried signs with explicitly feminist messages such as “The rapist is you” (a reference to the Chilean feminist movement), “Failure to act makes you complicit” (directed at the state institutions), and “It’s not your fault”.

A masked woman holds up a hot pink sign at a protest that reads "Beyond pissed off" in Macedonian cyrillic
Protester with sign reading "Beyond Pissed Off". Photo by Elena Gagovska.

Failure to act?

However, essentially no action was taken by the institutions. Several guerilla actions and two press conferences by the Platform for Gender Equality — a broad coalition of civil society and non-governmental organizations — took place after the protest resulting in a hostile official reaction from the police syndicate after the first press conference in front of MVR. Part of the statement read: 

“As a syndicate, we will not allow individual cases to be generalized and — through those generalizations — for police officers to be insulted and belittled as being unprofessional, unethical, or not sensitized to gender issues, or that police officers are guided by prejudice and stereotypes when performing their duties.”

However, it is more than clear that the Macedonian police not only has a history of not taking gender-based violence seriously, but also that they did not properly conduct an investigation when it came to the victims of “Public Room”. 

“Had the police been serious about pursuing an investigation, there would be no need to get Telegram involved,” Irena Cvetkovic told Unbias the News. “A real investigation would have involved either police officers infiltrating the group or the police actually listening to the victims, since they are the ones who know best to whom they sent their pictures. In other words, by taking witness testimony from the victims, the police could have found their first suspects.”

The trial of the two accused creators and administrators of the Telegram chat began on July 22nd, 2021 – they have only been charged with production and distribution of child pornography, but have not yet been convicted.

A problem throughout the Balkans

Meanwhile, similar groups to “Public Room” appeared regionally with even less of a reaction from authorities. Radio Free Europe reported that in March, 2021 it was discovered that private photos, videos and contact information of an unknown number of women were shared in a Telegram channel called “Ex YU balkanska soba” (Ex-Yugoslavia Balkan Room) to over 35,000 members. It was reported that the group was shut down and that the administrator of the group was arrested, but it is unclear if the victims have received any further justice.

Balkan Insight also recently published a comprehensive article about the prevalence of revenge porn and online sexual harassment as a Balkans wide problem that has been inadequately addressed by authorities.

Because activists saw this kind of online sexual violence as a Balkan-wide problem, on April 15, 2021 138 civil society organizations issued a joint statement against online sexual violence demanding authorities to prosecute the perpetrators. 

Could the New Stalking Law bring “Public Room” victims justice?

Other than demanding a thorough investigation of the “Public Room” case, criminal persecution of the perpetrators, and professional handling of cases for gender-based violence, the Platform for Gender Equality also demanded that a new law be added to the Criminal Code which specifically addresses sexual harassment online.

 A day before the 8th of March protest, then- Prime Minister Zaev wrote a Facebook post in support of the victims and announced that the government is starting a process to introduce two new laws relating to sexual harassment and stalking. On July 27th, 2021 the Minister of Justice Bojan Maricic announced that a new criminal act called “Stalking” that will take into account sexual harassment online has been added to the Criminal Code. While the criminal act still has to be voted on in the Parliament in order to officially enter the Criminal Code, it was largely seen as a positive first step, even though it came too late. 

"A person who without authorization follows, persecutes or otherwise interferes in the personal life of another person, or establishes or tries to establish unwanted contact with them, by moving in the space where that person is, by abusing personal data, by using the media and other means of communication, or is otherwise psychologically abusing, harassing or intimidating them, will be punished with a fine or up to three years in prison."

Minister of Justice Bojan Maricic

However, Natasa Boskova of Coalition Margins believes that “Public Room” could have been investigated by the responsible institutions even through the current legal frames. “The absence of a separate crime in the Criminal Code is just an excuse for the authorities not to act effectively in the “Public Room” case. If there really is a will, there is a legal framework under which the current actions in the “Public Room” case can be included,” Boskova told Unbias the News

“Amendments to the Criminal Code in accordance with the Istanbul Convention are currently in preparation. But, as a law practitioner, I think that not much can change in the protection of the victims of gender based violence solely by adopting the legal changes if work is not being done on changing the attitudes and transforming institutions in the direction of understanding the power relations and gender dynamics in our society,” added Boskova.

Towards prevention: The start of the sex-ed pilot program

Another discourse that both feminists and other supporters have put forth is the need to not only punish the crimes that have already happened, but to also work on prevention.

Many believe that the key to such prevention is to institute Comprehensive Sexual Education (CSE). HERA (Health Education and Research Association), a local non-governmental organization which is a part of the International Planned Parenthood Organization (IPPF), has been spearheading the campaign for sex-ed in Macedonian public schools and together with the Ministry of Education has launched the first pilot sex-ed program in the country.

 

Starting in September a new year-long sexual education pilot program has been implemented for ninth-grade students in four schools in Tetovo and Skopje (both in urban and rural environments) where CSE is currently taught as an elective subject. 

“The fact that “Public Room” happened, as well as the spike in domestic violence since the pandemic began, is just proof that we desperately need to implement CSE in schools as a prevention method,”

Katerina Ivanova, an experienced sex educator with HERA and law student who helped train the public school teachers who are teaching CSE in the pilot program, told Unibias the News

"In order to become an emancipated society in a sexual, gendered, and health aspect, we must have equal access to all this information. That is why I believe that the start of this institutional implementation is so important."

- Katerina Ivanova, sex educator with HERA

However, the CSE pilot program has been met with a lot of opposition from emerging reactionary forces. Namely, a far-right organization called Od Nas Za Nas (which translates to “From Us For Us”), which has spread anti-vaccination and anti-Planned Parenthood conspiracy theories in the recent past, has been undermining the CSE program for months through the spreading of fake news and moralistic, transphobic fear-mongering around the fact that the CSE program will teach students about the concept of gender.

The organization’s president Gordana Godjo is also a notorious QAnon believer and anti-vaccination activist who encouraged demonstrators at an anti-Covid measures protest on August 15, 2021 to cut up their masks. Godjo has become the de-facto leader of the anti-sex education movement and on August 29th, 2021 she publicly expressed gratitude to a Kuceviste middle school that invited her to speak to parents about sex-education, presumably spreading misinformation about the actual program to parents. “The parents were in disbelief,” wrote Godjo

With the authorities still moving too slowly on and ignoring cases of gender-based violence and a reactionary anti-sex education movement becoming more organized, it is unclear if another “Public Room” can be prevented in North Macedonia in the near future.

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