By: Voltiza Duro, Gazeta Shqiptare
The number of children and adolescents who are becoming victims of sexual abuse and exploitation via the Internet is growing day by day. Over the last two years, more than 200 cases have been reported on the platform www.ISIGURT.al. Altin Hazizaj, Director of “Child Rights Centre Albania”, adds that the most used form of online abuse and bulling is through videos distributed on YouTube. Girls make most of the denunciations. Hazizaj suggests that a series of measures should be taken so that children and adolescents do not fall into the grasp of paedophiles and sexual predators.
Since when did the National Safe Internet Centre was established and what is its mission?
The real work for the National Safe Internet Centre in Albania started in 2016 and continues and is further strengthened, because in these two years we have finally created a database and map of unsafe Internet cases in Albania and we are working with authorities on how to address the concerns of children and young people seeking to be more secure and safer when surfing the internet. The centre's aim is to promote better laws, policies and practices to make the Internet a safe environment for children and young people and where no child becomes a victim of violence, abuse, or subject to online paedophilia. The Centre also intends to strengthen the capacities and increase the information of all Internet users on the benefits, but also the risks we face while online and how we can jointly build a climate of respect and protect anyone with access in the virtual world.
How does the centre work?
The centre works as a policy, training and reporting platform. We ask children and young people when they face unsafe or inappropriate content, child pornography, when their profiles, pictures or names are used maliciously by people known or not online to report to us. The www.ISIGURT.al platform makes it possible for anyone, via mobile application or website, to report such cases, and then our specialized staffs decides how these cases will be followed up. In most cases, we are directly in contact with global companies, such as Face book, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram etc., or when they are in Albania, we communicate with them directly. If the published material online is also an illegal material, then we transfer it to the State Police for further investigation and prosecution, with which we have excellent cooperation.
How many cases have been reported so far?
With the opening of the platform www.ISIGURT.al, since early 2016, were have dealt with more than 200 cases of children and adolescents. Out of these 65 verified cases belong to 2016, 47 cases in 2017 and 53 cases as of November for 2018. The number of adolescents reporting has increased and meanwhile in the last few months’ adults have been reporting too. It seems that staying for a long time online creates the belief that some people can share any kind of messages or images online, while the Albanian law is not clear in this regard, on whether they are punished or not. For this reason, we want the Criminal Code to be amended to include punishable behaviours that happen online, just as we do in everyday life. Albania needs to criminalize some 'online' behaviour because they harm young children and often seriously threaten their lives and well-being. For example, the case of sexting - sending messages / images of sexual nature etc.
What are the worst affected age groups?
The most affected age group is adolescence. We have an increasing number of adolescent cases that either are self-exposed or exposed by friends of their acquaintances in a sexual, malicious context, or in a context where the violence exerted on them turns into a viral story in "YouTube" and is distributed on social networks. Over the last year, we have been getting reports of profiles and pictures stolen in "Instagram" or false profiles claiming to be another child. Online bullying remains one of the biggest problems. In one case, we needed around 17 times to report the same profile, because every time the video got blocked, the person put online the same video. Some people's hatred on children or adolescents is sometimes so unlimited, which in fact requires specific solution, not just with blocking online, but also through criminal investigations.
What are the most common forms of online abuse?
The most common form is through videos on "YouTube" and it is generally girls who are the most common victims. While only this November, we had five cases almost the same, but in different cities of Albania, which shows that such models of online bullying or persecution of children and adolescents become attractive to others and they start to copycat some of the worst online behaviours and turn them into a model. We believe that there is a great danger if we fail to legally and institutionally investigate such cases as they may become “business models” for some people who may want to profit financially or sexually from this. Today is not necessary to threaten someone with a gun to force the person to have sex with you! It’s enough to poses an inappropriate picture of someone and use it for sexual or financial exploitation. Anyone who cannot fulfil such conditions is faced with the dilemma to commit suicide or face societal or family violence and prejudice. This is why we ask children and teenagers to denounce every case, and secondly, to inform us, their parents, teachers, police etc. Online navigation should not be like walking in a field full of mines, where every moment a mine can explode. The internet must be safe for everyone!
From which cities come mostly the reports?
Major cities have the largest share of the cases, like Tirana, Durres, Vlora, Elbasan, etc. but to our surprise, results from Peshkopi in 2018 show that is as problematic as the capital. This for us raises alarm bells, as the number of cases per population is too high, which may indicate that there may be an organized network of offenders against children in this city who try to create the most benefits for themselves based on the abuse of children and adolescents via the Internet.
How does online abuse affects the teen's psychologically?
It affects equally as the violence and abuse does in real life. In two of the children’s cases that we have followed, the juveniles tried to commit suicide. We talked not only with them, but also their family members, to get the help and proper psychological and emotional support. Beyond that, there is a fact that is still not discussed in Albania, which is the right to be forgotten! So far the equipment available in Albania doesn’t make it possible to find who / where is the person that puts an bulling video online with high accuracy. If we don’t find and the courts don’t sentence these persons, including the confiscation of all abusive / threatening materials, it means that the person can at any moment put the same or other bulling materials online on social networks, etc. This matter requires a carefully tailored legal solution because a child or adolescent should not feel threatened all his life just because he / she shared, as an example, an intimate picture and someone can misuse this for the rest of his/her life. The right to be forgotten in the virtual world means that the courts have to decide that such materials are destroyed virtually too, as was the case with the films (negatives) or printed materials.
What are the measures that can be taken to prevent the phenomenon?
Children and adolescents themselves need to be more informed about how they can be protected in the virtual world. Teenagers will continue to explore online and offline their body and sexuality, but this should not harm them. In this regard, we should create a new cosmos for our virtual world and life, where paedophiles and sexual predators above all do not harass the children. Data shows that adults are getting in touch at a higher and disturbing rate with children online. This means that parents themselves should increase the care shown for their children, limiting the hours the child spends on the internet and the place where he/she accesses the internet etc. Also, the parent should be aware of where the child is and with whom, if he/she is not with the parent. Teachers need to understand and play an irreplaceable role in the lives of children, so they must be prepared to assist the children with any information. For this purpose, we have also created special guidelines on www.ISIGURT.al, those children themselves, parents, teachers; child protection systems CAN find simple and practical guidance on how to protect children online. While our main request for children and parents, is always: REPORT! The platform is “online”, but at the same time, anyone can call the ALO 116-111 tall free number to denounce such cases or call to the police. Finally, the Parliament, lawmakers and institutions should take on their responsibilities. The Police needs to seriously reorganise their ranks and have a special directorate present in all 12 regions of Albania to investigate cybercrimes, as virtual life and crimes on it have turned into a reality that we can no longer be neglected. On the other hand, we are working with the Ministry of Health and Social Protection to jointly establish a national consultation mechanism where we bring together institutions, civil society and the internet industry to find the best legal and practical solutions to make the internet safe for everyone!