Felony charges have been rejected in relation to the administrator of the Telegram group “Ex-Yu Balkan Room” where private videos and photos of young women and women were shared without their consent. This development is devastating and disturbing.

The Public Prosecutor’s decision sends a message to young women and women whose photos and videos were shared, but to all women in general as well, that “they are alone, and institutions of the system which should protect them may actually not help them at all”. Horrible, isn’t it?!

Imagine if someone decided to open up an open air market in a remote part of town. In that situation, that individual has a name and a last name, and the men standing behind those stalls also have real names and last names, even though they may go by made up nicknames while they are there – as is common for those engaging in illegal and forbidden activities. On the stalls you can see photos of women and young women, some of whom are minors. Next to some of the photos you can see names and last names of those women, their addresses, phone numbers, etc. The photos vary: some show sexually explicit content, some show women in everyday situations like sitting in their living rooms in sweatpants and sweatshirts. All of these women and young women have no idea that their photos are being publicly exhibited and have not given their consent to this abhorrent exhibition. Publication of said photos is frequently accompanied by vile and degrading comments about the women shown therein.

When the police were informed that such a market existed and when they came into possession of said materials which were illegally obtained by the perpetrators, the Prosecutor’s Office decided that the man who had organized the whole thing bears no responsibility and refused to file felony charges. It is evident that institutions see nothing problematic in there being a space where intimate and personal data of other people can be freely shared without the consent of said people. Had those “stalls” been offering drugs or weapons would they have reached a different conclusion? Yes, of course – the drugs would have been confiscated and destroyed. The evidence collected in the Telegram “market” case will never be destroyed. There will always be at least one copy somewhere which can at any moment become available online and retraumatize the person in the photo/video. The organizer of the drug/weapon “market” would have definitely been arrested and would have been sentenced to several years in prison. The fact that the men “behind the stalls” were given a pass is also troubling. It’s impossible to believe that not one of those men who were illegally sharing and offering photos/videos could not be identified and brought to justice. A large number of women and young women have been directly harmed by these acts. All are now facing a reality where they will fear for the rest of their lives whether some of their photos/videos will reappear. These women and young women will not find peace for a long time, they’ll live in fear that their data may also be used for identity theft and/or impersonation. With the advancement of Artificial Intelligence all those photos could also be subject to generation of pornographic materials which would then be widely shared. Some of them will maybe be fired at some point in the future due to those materials, be they AI or not, and will face further humiliation. It’s probable that they will have to deal with very real and paralyzing psychological consequences for the rest of their lives. They will be in fear, humiliated, experience panic attacks, hopelessness, anxiety, guilt, worry about how their communities will react, have nightmares… Hope that none of them won’t commit suicide. 

Despite not having material gain from this the organizer of the Telegram “market” should be treated the same as if he were a human trafficker (even though it is not out of the question that he may have attained material gain). After the decision of the Prosecutor’s Office the “market” organizer can rest easy. This is not the first nor will it be the last such “market”. This is not just Serbia’s problem, but rather a problem faced by women and young women the world over. Unlike Serbia though some countries, like Canada, have laws that protect their citizens from online crime, and sharing another’s nude photos without consent is punishable by up to five years in prison. Felony harassment and identity theft are already treated as illegal activities in Canada, and a new law has extended its reach onto new technologies and what effect they may have – messages, e-mail, profiles on social networks. Two years ago in Croatia the B.a.B.e. organization initiated a petition which citizens signed, and which was supported by numerous non-governmental organizations, to make publishing of explicit videos and photos without the consent of the persons involved a felony in the Criminal Code that carries a possibility of up to three years in prison. Changes to their Criminal Code have been adopted. As is the case with many countries in the region, Serbia does not have laws specifically addressing gender based violence conducted online or aided by technology. We did however hold out hope that certain parts of the Criminal Code will be applied, as they say the following: “Whosoever publishes or shows a text, portrait, photograph, film or phonogram of a personal nature without the consent of the person who had put together the text or about whom the topic of the text is about, or without the consent of the person who is shown in the portrait, photograph or film, or whose voice has been recorded in the phonogram, or without consent of another whose consent is required by law, and thereby evidently intrudes into the personal life of that person, will be punished by fine or by up to two years in prison”.

This sentence is easy to understand even to a legal amateur, so it is questionable why it wasn’t applied in the Telegram market case? After all of this we are left asking: how do we protect ourselves? How do we prevent such things? Online spaces were also suppose to be freeing and empowering to women as well, but it has become just another space where gender based violence passes with impunity. Unfortunately, there are currently no universally true rules or things you can click that can guarantee that something of this sort won’t happen to any of us. The same is of course true when it comes to the physical world, and life in general. Nothing is guaranteed, and regardless of this we keep on fighting and we won’t give in. We don’t want young women to isolate themselves from online spaces which can work to empower them, but the first step to understanding security and privacy in online spaces is raising awareness about how online content can be used and taken advantage of. It’s necessary to keep screenshots as evidence, to report abusive behavior to platforms and the police. It’s necessary to raise the level of individual digital security and privacy by applying digital hygiene. Before you share intimate photos/videos with your partner you must consider the risks if those should be shared. While simultaneously working on increasing personal capacities, we also hope to use our network to create a critical mass that will have enough capacity to put forth new laws regulating online gender based violence. Or possibly, as in Croatia, to at least partially change existing Criminal Codes in order to make publishing of videos and photos without prior consent of those involved a felony.

This text was written by a member of the Alternative Girls’ Center.

You can read more about this case on Mašina.rs