An open letter from National Network for Children regarding the termination of the operation of the National Center for Safe Internet.
On the day when the activity of the 47th National Assembly was officially suspended and the composition of the caretaker government was announced, the termination of the activity of the National Center SafeNet remained outside the media focus after 16 years of successful and efficient work.
The National SafeNet Center works to protect children from online sexual exploitation and harassment, being funded entirely on a project basis. In recent years, the institutions have repeatedly been alerted to the risk of running out of resources in order to solve the issue of missing national co-financing in a sustainable way.
Unfortunately, during this period, five regular and five caretaker governments could not adequately recognize the problem of sexual exploitation and online harassment of children and haven’t found the political will to solve it – both in terms of reforming the child protection system and and even just to preserve and confirm one significant element of it as the national center.
Even more shocking and humiliating for Bulgaria, as a country that has abandoned the protection of children, is the news that from September 1, 2022, the hotline will stop processing reports of sexual exploitation of children online, about which the center’s management has notified the International Internet Association INHOPE hotlines. Cooperation with Interpol is also terminated.
The National Center SafeNet has been operating in Bulgaria since 2005, managed by the “Applied Research and Communications” Foundation and the Parents’ Association. In its years of existence, it has processed more than 63,000 reports of online child abuse and harassment made by children, parents and professionals working with children. The Center has two lines – a hotline and an advisory line. The hotline receives reports of serious violence, trafficking and sexual exploitation of children, while the advisory line receives and advises cases of online harassment, exposure to harmful and dangerous content, etc. The continuous trend of increasing signals over the years indicates the accumulation of serious public recognition and trust. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the transition of a substantial part of children’s educational and informal communication online, there has been a twofold increase in alerts (from 9,289 in 2019 to 17,855 in 2020). For comparison, the reports submitted to the National Children’s Hotline (operated by the State Agency or Child Protecition) for similar cases in 2020 and 2021 are 3 per year.
Although there is no state funding, the National SafeNet Center in practice fulfils the state commitment under signed international agreements and European directives to guarantee the right of children to safely benefit from the opportunities of the digital age. That is why there are recommendations from the Council of Europe to Bulgaria to finance activities carried out by civil society for the prevention of risks and the protection of children in the digital space.
Despite the efforts made in recent months by deputies and representatives of the government, the dissolved National Assembly and other responsible institutions did not take urgent measures to ensure the sustainability of the National Center Safe Internet, which is the only European center without state funding. As a result of the center’s closure, more than 15,000 cases per year of online violence, harassment and sexual exploitation of children will remain unaddressed and without intervention. Moreover, with the cessation of training and support for children, parents and professionals from the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Violence, the prevention of online violence and harassment, which affects over 4,000 thousand children annually, will also cease.
Since reasonable arguments, data and facts have been exhausted by all advocates for the work of the National Center for Safe Internet in the previous months without result, the only thing we can add to the above is that it is a shame for Bulgaria as a country that in a situation of increased risk associated with the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, rising levels of poverty, social exclusion and marginalization and the appalling rate of domestic violence in our country, we are in a situation of criminal inaction in relation to one of the few functioning child protection channels against abuse.
National Network for Children strongly insist on immediate measures to restore and preserve the activity of the National Center SafeNet as one of the first and urgent actions of the new caretaker government.