The pandemic has escalated online harassment, especially aimed at journalists and healthcare workers. Yet in all three Baltic countries police don’t consider even publicly shared death threats as real enough, therefore action against perpetrators rarely follows.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, journalist Vilius Petkauskas started debunking falsehoods about the disease and its containment measures, naming misinformation superspreaders. It was soon followed by abuse on social networks. “Eventually it evolved into calls to punch me on the street. Next came personal messages suggesting to look over my shoulder and refrain from revealing where I live, because it can end badly,” he recalls. Petkauskas even had his identity stolen.
Not all who threatened were anonymous trolls: “Googling a person you can see that he is a tennis coach or something”. Petkauskas reported messages and the identity theft to the Lithuanian police. They called back and verified some details, but that was it: “Since it was the first time and I had not received threats three or four times, there wasn’t much they could do.”
Journalist Karolis Vyšniauskas was met with a similar attitude this July. In a personal message someone was “asking me whether I have ever collected my teeth with broken fingers,” he told Re:Baltica. Vyšniauskas reported the message. “The police officer who called a week later didn’t see a real threat in this message, which saddened me. According to her, the question was ‘how you view the situation’”.
During the pandemic, healthcare workers and journalists debunking Covid-19 disformation have become prime targets of aggression on social networks. The situation has become so heated that, becoming tired of public and private hate messages, some medics don’t want to be publicly quoted in the media. One, whom Re:Baltica approached while researching this article, asked not to be mentioned that he was contacted because “if I state publicly that it hurts, they will become even more vocal.”
Three times a threat
Intimidation and stalking are usually the terms which define threats in legal language. Of the three Baltic countries, Lithuania has the most specific conditions to qualify intimidation, both online and offline. To be considered systematic, it must take place at least three times.
“Courts interpret intimidation quite broadly,” says Algimantas Čepas, a criminologist who heads the Centre for Crime Prevention in Lithuania, a non-profit entity consulting authorities on crime and victim support. In his words, many cases do not reach court because investigators tend to confuse terrorising and intimidation. For intimidation, the burden of proof concerns only the systematic nature of the act, whereas terrorising needs proof of the act’s impact and its likelihood to materialise.
In Lithuania, threats to kill, blow up, set on fire, gravely injure a person, damage their life, health or property warrant police to open a criminal case. However, first the police must believe that the threat is real; as is the same in Estonia and Latvia. Also, the bar is high for what “grave” means. For example, threats to kick out someone’s teeth would not qualify as grave enough. Meanwhile, stalking is not defined and criminalised. Experts say changes are taking too long.
It is hard to estimate how many cases have been opened because of online aggression as Lithuanian police group statistics about all reported threats in one bunch.
“We always advise journalists to report [threats],” says Dainius Radzevičius, head of the Lithuanian Journalists’ Union. It offers its members legal aid before deciding whether to go to the police. So far no journalist who was threatened online has been hurt. “Technical and legal solutions aren’t simple in the area of freedom of expression,” Radzevičius says.
Latvia: No problem as long as you stay alive
Re:Baltica’s fact checking unit Re:Check faces aggression online on a regular basis. People who disagree with their work publicly call its journalists “recheckists”, in reference to the Soviet era KGB. Total strangers harass them online, as well as through targetted calls and private messages on social networks.
Recently, one of the main disinformation spreaders was arguing in a Facebook video over the proper punishment for politicians, health workers and journalists whom he considers responsible for Covid-19 restrictions, including Re:Baltica. Options ranged from public death penalty to property confiscation. To emphasise his views, he was rhythmically hitting a tree stump with an axe.
One of the trolls went a step further. Before the pandemic, in 2019, after numerous phone calls and veiled messages about “meeting one day”, he showed up in Re:Baltica’s office with a funeral wrath and a bottle containing transparent liquid meant “to purify”. Re:Baltica asked police to open a criminal case for stalking. After two police stations lost paperwork between them for weeks, the case was dismissed.
Police decided journalists did not feel threatened enough for it to be considered real, and the perpetrator had promised to stop stalking. When the prosecutor upheld the police’s decision, the stalking resumed and the perpetrator targetted a wider network of journalists. This probe also ended with no results: police qualified threats as “opinion”, opined they did not disturb the functioning of the media and the person had testified he did not intend to attack media physically.
“It is easier for police to simply turn down cases like these,” explains Andris Tauriņš, a partner at law firm Sorainen. For a police investigator, who is overwhelmed with hundreds of other criminal cases, the ones without a dead body or a stolen car may not seem serious “because nothing physically has happened”.
“The law is written in a way which makes doing nothing easy. The respective articles require interpretation and creativity,” Tauriņš says. He opines that although the law covers slander, hate speech, threats and stalking, both online and offline, in the practice it is often applied in a way which is beneficial for perpetrators and not victims.
According to Latvian Interior Minister Marija Golubeva, a solution to this problem could be training to help police recognise the various types of aggression and become better at evaluating whether threats are real. However, the only crime she has shown an inclination to immediately tackle is hate crime.
Re:Baltica’s case was one of 11 which had been opened within the past three years since stalking was recognised as a criminal offence in the law. Six of the cases are already closed, and two are awaiting trial, the Interior Ministry’s data shows. There have been no court rulings yet.
Medics, celebrities: everybody hurts
The young pediatrician in Riga’s main children’s hospital, Dana Isarova, who was actively sharing information on social networks about children vaccination already before Covid-19, has been threatened, cursed and flooded with messages wishing her death. But she does not have a single threatening email – she has been deleting them. Isarova has not gone to the police because she could not see a point.
Her colleague, general practitioner Gundega Skruze – Janava, did the opposite. After defending the use of masks in schools on a TV programme, she received a deluge of online threats and asked police to open a case. In January 2021, she went to police station twice – and police tried to persuade her that what she was perceiving as a threat was actually nothing, she told Re:Baltica. At the end, a case about slander was opened as some of the online comments were sexually degrading.
She has not heard from the police since.
Meanwhile, Latvian musician Ralfs Eilands went to police when he was stalked online by an admirer of his ex-girlfriend. The stalker created numerous online profiles and targetted not only the musician, but also his family and co-workers. When he tweeted Eiland’s home address, the singer and songwriter went to the police – who replied that evidence was not sufficient. Eilands hired a lawyer. Only then the police set the wheels in motion, and the stalker was questioned for the first time.
The case ended with no formal charges, but was enough for the threats and harassment to stop. Eilands was disappointed, and felt the police would do something only if he was physically hurt. “If I had an acid thrown into my face, then they would move,” he says.
Lithuania: centres to support victims
Politicians usually get a lot of flack online, whether deserved or not, but the pandemic has brought it to new heights. While the Lithuanian law stipulates additional protection of politicians and civil servants against “mental coercion” to do what the perpetrator wants, Dovilė Šakalienė’s experience shows that with persistent internet stalking and threats it does not work.
In 2017, Šakalienė as MP spearheaded a child welfare reform, after which a mother was charged over corporal punishment and had her children temporarily taken away. Several politicians and influencers blamed her for this and similar cases, and users of social networks resorted to very detailed threats. “I became a scapegoat,” says Šakalienė.
“After aggression that lasted for months on end, when I was receiving threats, thousands of comments mocking, humiliating and slandering me, accusing me of serious and grave crimes, such as kidnapping and trafficking children, I simply found it very difficult to withstand. Some of my family members fell ill [from worrying],” she tells Re:Baltica. She was also targetted with sexually explicit messages and found that her personal phone number was listed on a dating website. “During this time, I was diagnosed with a depressive episode and used antidepressants for some time.”
Intimidation also affected Šakalienė’s work. “I stopped answering calls from unrecognised numbers,” she says. “I cancelled my participation in various events, [and] declined to go on work trips around the country. My public life and the performance of my job duties was limited”.
Šakalienė and her lawyer have kept a large folder of documents from pre-trial investigation. Fourteen people behind accounts posting online threats were traced and nine testified. Some of them admitted posting comments, but said they did not intend physical harm. Facebook did not cooperate with prosecutors, and in 2019 investigation was terminated.
She challenged the decision twice.
At the end, she ran out of steam and simply gave up.
Neither the journalists nor Šakalienė were referred to any victim support service, which would provide information, advice and emotional support, modelled on the services developed for domestic violence victims. The criminologist Čepas says that such systems are only taking their first steps in Lithuania, but since January 2021 sixteen centres are ready to assist victims of online harassment.
Šakalienė, who has a master’s degree in Legal Psychology, intends to end her political career and counsel people in similar situations as she went through.
Estonia: knock, knock
“It’s unfortunate that the internet is full of violence in our mother tongue that is directed against all who wish to do something,” Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid remarked on Independence Day in 2019.
Unfortunately, there are not many means to fight it apart from reminders in officials’ speeches. Estonian penal code does not stipulate punishments for online abuse, unless it goes together with other offences to amount to harassment or give reason to fear that the threat is real.
What this reason could be, has caused a great deal of controversy.
Estonian sexual educator Rita Holm gives lectures in kindergartens advocating protection from sexual abuse. She has been ridiculed by conservative politicians who believe sexuality is not an appropriate talking point for children.
This has caused a wave of abuse online against Holm. In 2019, a man with a history of violent crime texted her on Facebook: “F*cker, you can’t hide, when you come to our kindergarten, I will strangle you with my own hands.”
The prosecution believed there was no basis for an investigation.
Also in 2019, the current prime minister, then opposition MP Kaja Kallas received a message on Facebook: “You hag will get what you deserve and there are 20–30 people with a prison mentality behind this.” She was not alone. Martin Helme, her opponent and now head of EKRE, got a message the same month: “”Hello f**khead! Let’s hope that your life will not be very long! Or it must be shortened!”
Helme and Kallas both filed complaints. No police proceedings followed.
Later it turned out that the person who threatened Kallas had also harassed Vilja Kiisler, a well-known Estonian journalist, again on Facebook: “Your judgement day will soon arrive where the boomerang you threw will come back to you with great punishment.”
Kiisler, known for harsh opinions and heated interviews on politics, had received numerous online threats. She combined them in one complaint and went to the police. Nothing happened.
“Lately, it seems to me that there is more profanity than usual,” Estonian police captain, former web constable, Maarja Punak told Re:Baltica. “Web constables are special unit in Estonian police who advise people how to behave online. “It is the easiest to attack politicians and journalists who, because of their work, take a stand and are publicly available to everyone with social media accounts”.
Punak says that about a third of web constables’ cases are related to some wrongdoing on social media, including harassment. That amounts to more than a thousand cases per month; of those around one tenth warrant investigation. “The online commentators know the limits of an offense quite well,” she says.
Usually police would write to people who insult or harass others on social media. In case of threats, police would knock on the abuser’s door and give them a talk. According to Punak, in most cases this is enough to prevent it from happening again.
At the same time, numerous public examples of online harassment not being prosecuted has created an understanding that it’s quite easy to get away with it.
One man’s crusade with a lot of money
Things changed in 2018.
Young and at the time unknown lawyer, Robert Sarv, successfully represented actress Marika Korolev in a libel case against trolls on Perekool, a mumsnet-like forum which, among best breast pump and buggies’ adverts, contains toxic gossip about celebrities.
Sarv asked the court to release commenters’ IP addresses and went after individuals, requesting damages. Some settled out of court, some were ordered by the court to pay several thousands of euros in reputational damages and compensation for emotional distress.
The media depicted the case as a win for accountability. Sarv became a household name and a to-go lawyer in libel cases.
“We have already been able to recover damages in the hundreds of thousands of euros, and a great many cases are still pending,” he tells Re:Baltica.
But with the growing success the sincerity of the lawyer’s practice has been falling under more scrutiny. Although many well-respected Estonian society figures have used Sarv’s services to go after toxic commenters, he has taken up numerous controversial clients.
For example, Sarv represented an advocate of MMS, a poisonous substance she has marketed for years as a treatment for almost all illnesses, as well as a former minister who had to resign because of domestic violence accusations. They both got IP addresses of commenters who criticised them through the court with Sarv’s help.
Sarv explains that he has never said ‘no’ to a client. “We have also tried to help the client in borderline cases,” he says. Critics have called Sarv’s practice blackmailing: which he usually answers with claims for damages.
According to Sarv, this is the only solution against online harassment, which he believes is a civil dispute.
“First, the state would clearly not be able to deal with defamation cases in the face of limited resources, and secondly, the state does not always have to intervene in civil disputes,” he explains.
Punak hopes that someday social media will be regarded as a “public space” in the eyes of Estonian penal code. This way online harassment could be considered as “breach of public order”, which currently is not done.
“I don’t think it’s possible to control people’s anger online,” says Lithuanian journalist Petkauskas, who no longer receives threats since changing his job last December. “But what journalists need in these cases is support to actually understand that the malevolents are a very small share of the public. People in positions of power or those whose opinions are influential should express their support for what [we do] – fact-checking and investigative journalism.”
This story originally appeared at Re:Baltica, the centre for investigative journalism based in Latvia. The article was republished by LRT English with permission.