Enjoying the internet while staying safe online

Published: 30 March 2021

“Our digital rights monitoring has shown that citizens were the most affected parties of rights violations while abuses arising from these violations are rarely addressed by states.” – Sofija Todorovic, project coordinator at the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.


BIRN, together with SHARE foundation, has been monitoring how digital rights violations in Central and South-Eastern Europe are impacting democracy and human rights even before the pandemic changed people’s lives. With the pandemic, however, they saw a tremendous growth of rights violations linked to Covid-19. In order not to jeopardise their regulator monitoring, BIRN applied for Opportunities funds with Civitates, to provide accurate information about digital threats during the time of the pandemic and determine who are the main actors that limit the rights and freedom in the digital environment in South-eastern and Central Europe region (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Hungary, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia).

BIRN recently published the findings of your investigation about digital rights violations during the pandemic that started in 2020. What did you find?

We saw that there was an explosion of the spread of false information in Central and South-Eastern Europe, manipulating the digital environment – about medicines that could cure the virus, about the number of people infected, about the equipment of medical institutions and about the virus itself; how it was developed, how it was spread, and what measures were taken by the government in reaction to the pandemic. These manipulations caused serious problems in society.

Next to these manipulations we saw a lot of falsehoods and unverified information published online with the intention to damage reputations. The quality of the debate was very poor. Because of the tensed pandemic situation, everything seemed to be on the edge of conflict. We noticed harmful patterns of insults and low levels of protection when people, such as free thinking individuals were affected.

We also registered differences when journalists who were being attacked online, were female; the violations they experienced were clearly gender-based. There was even one devastating case whereby a video, showing a woman changing clothes in a Covid-19 hospital was leaked and massively shared online. People were commenting her breasts in all sorts of terms. Unfortunately, we still don’t know who posted it.

Has BIRN taken any action when governments were misusing data?

Yes, in Serbia, for instance, we discovered that the governments’ system for registration of medical data about Covid-19 patients, which obviously should have been protected by the law, was open to everyone. In order not to create panic, we immediately and firstly informed the officials and state institutions about the fact that the passwords to these systems were unprotected and asked them to change this, which they did. Afterwards we informed the public as well.

In Romania we noticed a mass shutdown of websites. The government claimed that these were all spreading misinformation. We checked if this was a properly tailored action and found out that a list of more than 10 websites that were shut down indeed published fake news, but according to the freedom of speech right, should not have been completely taken offline. Freedom of speech is broader than our own believes about people or their opinions. We advocated for more transparent explanation about the steps taken for these shutdowns as we fear that if this becomes a regular practice, there’s a real danger to freedom of speech.

Has BIRN identified tips on how a certain community can become more resilient towards such trends of exposing personal information online?

To support people with their online activities, we shared a pandemic online toolkit about how citizens can enjoy the internet and connect with their family and friends but stay safe at the same time. We also advised people not to give their data or bank account numbers online neither in reply to a request per text message on their mobile, as during the lockdowns, there was also a serious rise in hackers. They would send out messages with the promise of awarding people who would share their bank account. A very traditional way of fraud, but still not so known to certain audiences. In North Macedonia we had people posing as the authorities, offering medical assistance. We distribute our messages through our digital rights network, which currently has 22 CSOs, and ask them to spread out through their channels as well. For the general public we translate everything in the languages of the countries that are part of our monitoring activities.

What’s next on the agenda of BIRN?

We are currently preparing a big digital rights report that will provide readers with comprehensive and contextual findings. We are also planning to make two documentaries dealing with the state of digital rights in the South-eastern and Central Europe region. Our regular activities linked to events and reaching out to the community are very limited since everything has been transmitted online. We use the power of social media to spread our work. 

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network is a network of non-governmental organisations promoting freedom of speech, human rights and democratic values in Southern and Eastern Europe. BIRN has developed a specific network structure that includes local independent organisations that has the advantage of combining local, country-based expertise with unique regional cooperation.

Read our previous story with BIRN.