The Protector of Citizens, Zoran Pašalić, was a guest on TV Kurir's morning program.
The scandal that has been shaking the Faculty of Architecture in Belgrade for days, due to the anonymous testimonies of students who wrote on their Instagram accounts about sexual harassment by at least four lecturers. With us in the studio is Zoran Pašalić, the Protector of Citizens. Good morning, thank you for coming. This is an important topic and you are certainly invited to talk about it. You asked the rectors of universities in Serbia to inform you about whether they have adopted rulebooks or other acts regulating the prevention and protection against sexual harassment. Specifically, in connection with this case or cases at the Faculty of Architecture, you also asked them to state whether they had any such reports before and how they acted on those reports. Can you explain to us how it actually works, and what you now expect to receive from this faculty in response?
- The first institution we turned to was the Faculty of Architecture to inform us if they had any knowledge of sexual harassment of male and female students and other employees at the faculty, and if they had, what did they do and how they acted in accordance with that knowledge, and also, whether the students are familiar with the rights they have according to the rulebook adopted by the Senate of the University of Belgrade.
What does the rulebook say?
- Just let me finish, sorry. After that, we asked the other universities, in Niš, Kragujevac and Novi Sad whether they had similar or identical rulebooks. According to our knowledge, only the University of Novi Sad has them. Yesterday, we received a notification from the University of Kragujevac that they will create a similar rulebook as soon as possible, which is also our request. What does the rulebook say? The Rulebook relies a lot on the law that refers to the prevention of abuse at work, that is, it is designed in such a way that it refers mostly to certain rights of students, and with regard to sexual abuse and harassment to what the possibilities are for students, if this happens to them, to resolve the problem at the faculty, through the so-called commissioner, to whom they turn to and who carries out the entire procedure. His status is determined by Article nine, I think, even though the rulebook itself is not large, it only has 18 articles. What bothered us the most and what we as an institution will ask for is to amend Article 10, which refers to the possibility that the abused and the abuser may try to solve the problem in a type of reconciliation procedure before the commissioner. Why? Firstly, we believe that their position is not the same, meaning that there was a certain position of dependence on the part of the one who was abused. Secondly, there is a certain secondary victimization or, to clarify, someone who has survived what he or she has survived, is exposed to the violence again in a verbal sense, where there is a possibility that he or she would feel very, very uncomfortable and very difficult. We think that this is not a good solution. And there is still a lot of work to be done, and, not wishing to discredit anyone or to put anyone in an unequal position, we will deal with private faculties as well. Why should they be treated differently than the state ones, to call them that.
You said that this is not a good solution, so what would be a good solution?
- That which is the best.
What will you stand for?
- What we stand for as the Institution of the Protector of Citizens is to encourage everyone who suffers harassment and abuse to report it.
- Primarily to report it to those institutions that deal with it, as in any situation, namely the police, the Protector of Citizens, the commissioner for the protection of equality, some non-governmental organizations that have been dealing with the protection of victims from sexual abuse and harassment for a very long time and thoroughly, I don't want to list them now.
Okay, but who should be first? That commissioner at the faculty?
- The commissioner is the first person a student should contact. The thing that is very important and one of the issues that we have to clarify is whether the commissioner has done his part of the job, which is to inform the students of their rights and how to react in such situations. Now, there is also the question of how much the students trust their commissioner, but there is no reason why they should not trust him.
But isn't it also a question of how many faculties have commissioners at all?
- Absolutely, that's the question we're looking for an answer to now. We expect an answer in the next few days to see which faculties have a commissioner and how they are organized at the faculties. You heard that they don't even have rulebooks, and if they don't have rulebooks, then they don't have commissioners either.
That's my next question - why does something like this have to happen, why do the media have to put pressure on something that, you have to admit, has been a story for a long time, I mean, as you know, there are a lot of cases from other faculties as well.
- I know.
Especially from the University of Belgrade.
- I know.
And yet, most faculties still don't have such a rulebook.
- It is a matter of not being prompt, and there is no sanction for that. We can warn and ask and insist on it, but that is a matter of their lack of promptness.
That is true. And we know that the Statute of the Belgrade University was adopted last year, which was supposed to solve that issue.
- That is right.
And now, almost a year later, we find ourselves in a similar situation and we have stories that marked last year as well. There are a large number of such cases, and it is either talked about a little more quietly or, in some places, more loudly. Social networks have now started avalanches, but there is always the question of what happened with all those cases at the end, therefore, if we know that for years there has been a professor at some faculty with whom it is a little more difficult to pass the exam and who is asking for some services in return or something like that, then why are people being quiet about it, why don't we know what happened in the end with all those cases?
- First of all, people don’t speak about the existence of such persons because they really cannot be called professors.
Okay, but they carry the title.
- They can have any title, but it is well-known what a college, a high school, and an elementary school are. We often forget that it is not only a system of education, but of education and upbringing. If that system is not thoroughly worked out, then what are we left with? Are such people at an advantage because the person on the other side who is abused is dependent, absolutely dependent? This can, for example, reflect on the entire education of a person at the faculty. I know cases where people gave up their studies, good students.
That's right, because of one exam.
- Because they could not overcome that obstacle.
That is right.
- Now, the point is that it is mostly a case of word against word, which is very difficult to prove in certain procedures. It usually ends with disciplinary measures by the faculty, as we have in this case as well. The faculty reacted quickly, because the public pressure was such that it could not react more slowly.
Yes, but it reacted only after...
- The essence is not in repression, although it should certainly follow and they should be treated like everyone else who commits criminal acts in the area where the law considers these criminal acts to be the most serious, but I cannot comment on that because it is a matter for the prosecution and the court. But what I can comment on is that people should be freed. First of all, zero tolerance for violence should be created in the public, which means that there should be no tolerance for the story, and as soon as it starts, a reaction must follow immediately. But before the story starts, when we go reactively, we also have to go preventively, and the students must be informed with what their rights are, so that they are encouraged to report abuse immediately after the first sentence, and I do not want to comment on everything that happened in this specific case, where it was not only a sentence. And they should be aware of who they should report it to so that those they report to may react promptly, as they say.
Yes, but when we know that it is a matter of word against word, and if it happens, as the students here say, in the predator's cabinet, and if no one saw it and cannot testify, it will be word against word, and in our society, that girl who went to the cabinet will probably be condemned. We talked about this topic yesterday and we had exactly those comments, an adult girl who went to the office alone, and then they said that she knew exactly what was going to happen there.
- Sorry to interrupt you, but you can't...
I understand everything, but when you say we need to empower the victims, I would like to talk about exactly how to do it.
- Here, I will tell you.
Who will understand them, on the other side, when they go and complain about this problem?
- If we speak from the aspect of judicial practice, judicial practice is inclined, that is, there is a possibility, there has always been a possibility, of change. So, if you have cases like that, through the court practice, in a series of such cases, you will certainly establish a relationship in which, maybe not word against word, but the procedure of bringing out proof will be different. The practice of the courts is changing. Some acts that used to be much, much harder to prove are now much easier to prove. After all, we will see it in all these cases. Secondly, if you start from the starting point that the students mentioned, then it is completely pointless to talk about that topic. So, how to achieve protection? The number of cases, the number of reports, the targeting of individuals, as you called them professors, will absolutely lead to a solution to this problem. Talking about that rulebook, there is also the possibility that someone may abuse it. All the professors will say, wait, if I ask a lot or ask enough to pass my exam, anyone who cannot show that knowledge or doesn't have it, can use this mechanism and accuse me, so to speak, for no reason at all. But that's how it is. So, there is a risk on both sides, which will then make way for a practice of certain behaviour.
Of course. Thank you very much for your time. And thank you for clarifying some things for us. We went a little deeper into that rulebook, so we'll see if these changes that you're advocating for will come to life, maybe even without public pressure.
- They have to come to life, because of zero tolerance for abuse and, I use your show to repeat again, if people contact us as an institution.
That's it, that's the call for the end then. Thank you very much.