LAKTASI, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Mladen Dulic was hoping to land a job on October 27 when he stopped by the local gas station in Laktasi, his hometown near Banja Luka in Republika Srpska, the mainly ethnic Serbian entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
However, instead of questions, the manager on duty hurled abuse and invective at Dulic as the manager's friend videoed the cruel and humiliating encounter, later uploading it to TikTok.
A day later, on October 28, Dulic, 22, went to the local police station in Laktasi and showed the video to officers on duty, who expressed little interest in investigating the incident, although a probe is under way, officials say. Later that day, Dulic committed suicide.
It was the third suicide linked to cyberbullying in Bosnia-Herzegovina's Republika Srpska in recent months.
According to media reports, on October 22, a 16-year-old girl committed suicide in Velika Obarska in the east of Bosnia-Herzegovina, while a 20-year-old boy committed suicide in Prnjavor, in the north of Bosnia-Herzegovina, on September 23.
Bosnian officials acknowledge that online abuse exists but say the Balkan country lacks the laws to tackle it. They point to the fact that there are no recorded cyberlinked violations because local legislation does not address it.
For example, the District Public Prosecutor's Office in Banja Luka tells RFE/RL's Balkan Service that not one single case of online abuse, or cyberbullying, has ever been reported.
That was reaffirmed by the Interior Ministry for Republika Srpska, which tells RFE/RL that it only keeps records of convicted criminal offenses and not reports of wrongdoing.
Overall, 375 suicides were reported across Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2021, according to data from the State Agency for Statistics. That number is more or less in line with data over the past decade.
UNICEF is pushing for intense efforts to stop online harassment, warning that most young people are victims of Internet bullying.
In a 2019 survey of 1 million young people, UNICEF found that over 70 percent globally are victims of online violence, cyberbullying, and digital harassment.
In Laktasi, police did eventually detain two men for illegal filming and filed a report on the incident for the local prosecutor's office, but the two were ultimately released as officials mulled whether or not to file charges, which was still not clear as of November 14.
The local prosecutor's office concluded that "all necessary actions and measures have been taken" in connection with this event.
Technically, there is no law outlawing cyberbullying in Bosnia.
"There is no criminal offense of 'online abuse' as such," Mirna Miljanovic, a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry of Republika Srpska, tells RFE/RL.
In practice, she adds, there are cases of online abuse between children, but it usually ends with the police talking to the children, parents, or school staff.
"Ultimately, it's the networks themselves that should be reported. Let's say Facebook has its own administration, [and they are able] to block that person. And that's one of the steps that people should take," Miljanovic says.
As for cases of fraud or threats on the Internet, everything is treated like a "classic" fraud or harassment case, just without the online element, Miljanovic explains.
Aleksandar Jokic, a lawyer in Banja Luka, says he was not aware of one cyberbullying case being prosecuted in Bosnia.
"The Criminal Code does not treat violence, harassment on social networks in such a way. If they have the characteristics of some other criminal acts, yes, they can be committed online. But on its own, mocking on social networks is not defined and not criminalized as a separate crime," he explains to RFE/RL.
He notes that, since most cases of cyberbullying usually involve minors, they would not be prosecuted as major criminal offenses.
Aleksandar Milic, a psychologist from Banja Luka, has dealt with victims of cyberbullying in Bosnia.
He says the problem is getting worse and warns that the country isn't doing enough to tackle it with those committing such acts aware they will likely get away with it.
"In practice, it happens that we have violence through social networks that are completely uncontrolled and not censored, and the youngest age is exposed to cyberviolence in [their] apartments. What happens on the streets has entered our homes," cautions Milic, adding parents and teachers need to raise the issue more.
'A Kindness Desert'
On the streets of Banja Luka, students questioned by RFE/RL all condemned what happened to Dulic.
"We lack empathy and are too prone to insult," says 23-year-old Dario from Banja Luka, a dentistry student, adding that he himself has not been targeted by such abuse although he is aware of such cases.
"Through high school, college, especially through elementary school, children have not stopped to think, so they insult everything, from clothing, style, habits, sneakers, brands, children do not think about the fact that it offends someone," says Dario, who declined to give his last name.
Mladen, an 18-year-old student of the Technical School in Banja Luka, tells RFE/RL that "it's unfortunate that it was funny to someone at the time, and that maybe it's funny to someone now."
"Simply, today or tomorrow it could be my friend, my brother, it could be me, it doesn't matter," emphasizes Mladen, who also preferred not to give his full name.
He spends several hours a day on social networks and says that he "sees more and more how much this cyberbullying impacts young people, and how much more there is of it."
He adds that the environment often influences young people and that many behave this way on the networks "to show off in front of their peers."
"We've heard from children and young people from around the globe and what they are saying is clear: The Internet has become a kindness desert," said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore in 2019 when unveiling the UN cultural agency's global survey on cyberbullying.
The survey cited the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) as confirming what many already know that the Internet is now a fixture of many young people's lives with 94 percent of people between the ages of 15 and 24 regularly online. This is well ahead of the pace of Internet usage among the general population. Worldwide, half of the total population, regardless of age, is online.
With online proliferation has come increased risks, noted UNESCO, with the number of children and adolescents especially impacted while girls appeared to be more likely to be targeted with cyberbullying than boys.
UNESCO noted that "Cyberbullying can cause profound harm as it can quickly reach a wide audience, and can remain accessible online indefinitely, virtually 'following' its victims online for life."
Cyberbullying exacts a high price from its victims, noted the UNESCO report, ranging from poor grades, low self-esteem, and health problems, and in "extreme situations," suicide.