Western Balkan Countries Unprepared to Combat Human Rights Violations from Technological Advancements, Experts Warn

Experts at BIRN’s annual Internet Freedom Meet, in Skopje, North Macedonia, warned that the Western Balkan countries do not have the proper legal framework to protect human rights from misuse of technological advancements.

Human rights violations have become more likely and the manner of achieving those violations has become more varied as a result of recent rapid technological advancements, highlighting the urgent need for Western Balkan countries to adopt updated regulatory measures in response. According to experts, the anonymity of apps such as the Telegram messaging app and the algorithms of social media platforms make it easier for users to fall prey to disinformation. The lack of proper legal frameworks and prosecutorial capacities to fight cybercrime has put sensitive personal data at risk.

Naum Lokoski from the Skopje, North Macedonia branch of the European Policy Institute told BIRN’s annual Internet Freedom Meet, in Skopje, that disinformation is a daily occurrence in the country, creating “social media bubbles.”

According to Lokoski, “Information from the EU sometimes isn’t enough to convince people, which aids those with ill intentions in creating these social media bubbles” which have recently been amplified on Telegram.

Citizens “choose to enter willingly into these groups because the influence there is stronger,” he added.

Vladimir Petreski, editor-in-chief of North Macedonia’s local media outlet Visitnomer.mk, explained that “since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, we’ve seen significant foreign influence, and we started working on countering Kremlin disinformation in the Western Balkans”.

Petreski also identified fake news dynamics in the numerous attacks against the EU and pro-European forces in North Macedonia.

Taner Abazi, chairman of the board at the Albanian Cyber Association, highlighted that Telegram’s anonymity and operational methods have contributed to its growing user base and large groups joining it.

Marina Pesevska, chief investigator for cybercrime at the Internal Affairs Ministry in North Macedonia, spoke about the challenges of combating disinformation. She explained that “there are three types of data you can request from Meta: content data, traffic data, and subscriber data, ” adding that electronic evidence “can be hidden, damaged, and investigators must act quickly”.

A panel at BIRN’s Internet Freedom Meet, Skopje, North Macedonia. From left to right: Vladimir Petreski, Naum Lokoski, Tanzer Abazi, Marina Peshovska, and moderator Irvin Pekmez, journalist, BIRN BiH.

Security Cameras in Public and Private Spaces

Panellists explained that with technological advancement comes the need for an updated legal framework on personal data, especially for security cameras in public and private spaces.

Ena Bavcic, a BIRN digital rights researcher, explained that there are various types of cameras in cities with AI technology capable of detecting many features, and stated that “mass surveillance should be prohibited on a large scale as it targets specific attributes without clear legal frameworks for their use and no evidence if it prevents crime”.

Mensur Hoti from the Department of Public Security in the Kosovo Internal Affairs Ministry claimed that cameras in Kosovo have been primarily installed at the request of municipalities and are monitored by the police.

“Their installation is somewhat linked to terrorism and seen as an increase in citizen’s security. Security institutions do not have access to all CCTV data, as for example in cases of children’s kindergartens,” he elaborated.

For Hoti, the Western Balkans are a place where “people feel the need to install CCTV even in their houses”. He acknowledged, however, that there needs to be more discussion on the regulations of processing and using such data.

Domen Savic, a hacktivist from Slovenia, noted that the police in Slovenia have limited access to camera views compared to other public institutions. He also added that “there is inadequate capacity for storing footage for long periods”.

Jeta Xharra, CEO of BIRN Kosovo, highlighted that in many cases security cameras can be helpful in fighting crime, especially gender based violence, mentioning one example of a sexual assault against Mrika Nikqi, a young female alpinist from Peja/Pec, Kosovo. In late September 2022, Nikqi shared a video, from security cameras, showing suspect F.Beqiraj sexually assaulting her in an alley in Peja. Peja Basic Prosecution spokesperson Shkodran Nikqi told BIRN at the time that the identification of the suspect was based on video footage, one witness, and Nikqi.

Security cameras being installed in the Bosniak Neighbourhood, in North Mitrovica, at the request of the Kosovo Police, December 10, 2022. Photo: BIRN

Elections in the era of disinformation

The increase in AI-generated content is more visible during elections, panellists explained, which adds to potential irregularities in a region where election violations are common.

Faik Ispahiu, Executive Director of Internews Kosova, explained that the harmful potential of AI-generated materials is currently increasing, and that “it has become almost impossible to detect what is real or not”.

According to him, this increase is even more evident during election times.

Natasha Kilibarda, a researcher from Serbia, spoke of how Serbia’s June 2024 local elections were bombarded only with news related to the UN resolution on Srebrenica genocide.

“When we talk about disinformation, we must acknowledge that we live in a digital age where there is also a huge area of manipulation, especially this year when many countries have elections,” she said.

Hasan Kamenjakovic, from the Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina based civic election observation POD LUPOM, stated that Bosnians faced a great deal of disinformation regarding the new legal framework for elections.

“We wanted to restore people’s trust in new technologies for elections, such as voter identification. We had a lot of disinformation about this new legal framework in the media, claiming elderly people wouldn’t be able to vote,” he explained.

Kamenjakovic said that propaganda intensifies during election periods to discredit political candidates.

Alban Krasniqi from the Kosovo Central Elections Commission also explained that the initiative to use cameras at polling stations for the April 2024 elections on the dismissal of mayors in Serb majority municipalities in the north of Kosovo was used for propaganda, mainly by the Belgrade-backed party representing Kosovo Serbs, Srpska Lista.

“The use of technology during elections is complex and challenging. There was a lot of misinformation because people didn’t know what these camera recordings would be used for,” he added.

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