For the past few years, there has been a noticeable impetus to include the reference to online assemblies in international standards. While the notion may initially sound futuristic, its issues are quite contemporary. Adoption of the General comment no. 37 on article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2020, which included online assemblies for the first time, had good timing. COVID-19 pandemic signified a paradigm shift showing that the virtual realm can serve as a temporary substitute for physical gatherings, banned due to health concerns. Online meeting platforms became a way to see families stranded abroad. They became our offices and courtrooms.
While public gatherings can be held partly or entirely online, this notion of online assemblies originated primarily from the benefit of using communication technology to facilitate physical gatherings. The Internet can be used to raise awareness, encourage participation and gather support. Efforts to quash protests by denying protesters internet access or mobile phone coverage have shown that dependence on technology can also be a liability.
Interference with online communication has been primarily seen through the lenses of the right to privacy and freedom of expression. However, the influence on the freedom of assembly can not be understated. The government can use social networks to gather evidence from public and private groups to prosecute protesters. It can create fake accounts, which can monitor but also engage with other protesters and possibly influence the discussions and the protest itself.
Introducing cameras with facial recognition, drones, and IMSI catchers have allowed governments to identify protesters a mass using few resources. Behavior analysis software may help identify more active participants enabling the police to isolate them and end protests peacefully without a significant police force. The notion that we may be under constant surveillance is enough to modify our behavior, and its influence can not be limited to the right to privacy. It is not difficult to see how authoritarian governments could abuse this technology. Since adopting the Law on Public Assembly (2016), peaceful gatherings in Serbia have been under constant threat. In 2018 in a bidding war over the number of protesters at an opposition rally, pro-government tabloids published images with red dots superimposed over protesters’ heads. Government officials commented on this thinly veiled threat and acknowledged they had the “counting technology”, but little more was said. The public in Serbia has been unsuccessfully looking for answers about more than 1000 Huawei cameras with facial recognition installed on Belgrade streets for years. An attempt to legalize the use of already installed equipment through the new Law on police was temporarily stopped in 2021 after a fierce NGO reaction. On 27 November 2021, protests against the Law on Referendum and Civic Initiatives and amendments to the Law on Expropriation were held in several municipalities. As was seen in many cases, a simple post on a social network supporting the roadblocks was enough for the police to charge people with organizing an unreported gathering. This misdemeanor carries a very steep fine.
In more than 50 municipalities, participants in roadblocks received misdemeanor warrants for violating the Law on the Safety of Road Traffic. Allegations have been made that the police employed illegal face recognition software to identify protesters. However, the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection could not establish the use of such technology. According to the Commissioner, the police issued 1,782 misdemeanor warrants and filed requests for the initiation of 211 misdemeanor procedures concerning both dates. In comparison, according to the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, 228 misdemeanor procedures have been initiated from 2016 until October 2021 for violating said Law.
Publicly condoned physical attacks by counterdemonstrators, excessive use of police force, and hate speech by the highest government officials have become commonplace faced by anyone who wants to enjoy the freedom of assembly in Serbia. While no definite confirmation exists, this significant increase in the number of legal procedures against protesters in a very short period can be attributed to the use of new technologies, as much as to a shift in government policy. The freedom of assembly in Serbia remains endangered in both the physical and virtual realms.
Author: Milan Filipovic- Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights