Amendments re-criminalising defamation adopted despite protests
The National Assembly of Republika Srpska passed a law on 27th June 2023 declaring the decisions made by Bosnia's multiethnic Constitutional Court inapplicable in the Serb-dominated entity, deepening the institutional crisis in the country. The Office of the High Representative (OHR) in Bosnia and Herzegovina has condemned this law as illegal, unacceptable and detrimental to the country's unity. Additionally, the RS National Assembly passed another law which prohibits publishing the decisions made by the High Representative in the entity’s Official Gazette, rendering them invalid. One week after the internationally appointed High Representative, Christian Schmidt, annulled these controversial laws, the president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, filed a criminal complaint against Schmidt for “false representation”, claiming his appointment as OHR was illegitimate due to not receiving approval from the UN Security Council.
These moves have been seen as part of the secessionist efforts of Republika Srpska officials, defying the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord that ended the country’s civil war. Under the terms of the Accord, an international envoy was installed to oversee its implementation and given the power to impose laws and issue other binding decisions. Considering recent actions by the Republika Srpska authorities as jeopardising the peace agreement, the United States designated four top Bosnian Serb officials, including Milorad Dodik, for sanctions. Three leading European parliamentarians have also called on the European Union to “finally” impose sanctions on Dodik over his continued secessionist rhetoric and efforts “to systematically undermine" Bosnia and Herzegovina.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
According to the latest Freedom House Nations in Transit report, Bosnia has an active civil sector and independent media. However, the government and international community have developed strategies to sideline and limit the resources of civil society and media. The ruling political parties continue to manipulate the civic sector by favouring organisations they themselves established. These include government-organized NGOs (GONGOs) and quasi-autonomous NGOs (QUANGOs), which diminish the prominence and impact of critical civil society in the country.
Council of Europe experts criticise “foreign agents law”
The Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s expert body, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) have warned that the new draft law in the Bosnian entity of Republika Srpska on the “Special Registry and Publicity of the Work of Non-Profit Organisations," dubbed the “foreign agents law,” has “serious deficiencies”. They called on the authorities to “ reconsider its adoption entirely.” The joint statement, published in June 2023, notes that the draft law prohibits nonprofit organisations from engaging in "political activities” and requires them to register in a special registry, submit additional reports to those already required under the current law, and be subject to additional legal oversight. The EU and the U.S. have also criticised Dodik’s plans to enforce the law on “foreign agents”.
The stigmatisation and delegitimisation of civil society actors as 'foreign agents' would probably result in the suppression and intimidation of CSOs and would seriously limit their rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression, thereby fostering a climate of fear. - Johann Sattler, EU Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina
The law, which was announced by the president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, in early March 2023, has already been adopted by the entity’s government. While the official communique in BiH suggests the draft law would enable “supervision of the legality of CSOs’ work and other provisions,” there is significant potential for misuse and free interpretation.
SLAPP suit filed against activist for criticising refugee detention centre
The Vienna-based International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) filed a defamation lawsuit against activist Petar Rosandić and the NGO he founded, SOS Balkan Route. The EU mandated ICMPDEU to build a detention unit in the Temporary Reception Centre for Migrants and Refugees Lipa, in northwest Bosnia and Herzegovina, a project surrounded by controversy and criticism from several NGOs and rights groups. In a press release, ICMP claims that Rosandic has caused reputational damage by comparing the detention unit to an ‘Austrian Guantanamo’. Rosandić’s lawyer said ICMPD’s lawsuit qualifies as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP. The trial began in front of an Austrian court on 18th July 2023.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
Pride Parade in Sarajevo no longer “high risk”, thousands gather without incident
On 27th June 2023, the fourth Pride Parade took place in Sarajevo without any incidents. The event was not classified as “high-risk” for the first time since 2019 when the first Pride was held. Somewhat weaker and less visible security measures than before, as well as a more relaxed atmosphere, were noted by journalists as positive changes. However, the event was marred by violent attacks on the parade’s organisers and other activists in March (see previous CIVICUS Monitor update). Digital rights violations occurred during Pride month in Bosnia and Herzegovina, highlighting the challenges facing the LGBTQI+ community and exposing widespread homophobia in society.
We were delighted to take part in the 4th #SarajevoPride @BHpovorkaponosa on Sat 24 June alongside national and int'l colleagues & partners including from @crdefenders, HRH Banja Luka, Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly @Fondacija_CURE @soc_sarajevo @hbs_sarajevo & Norwegian Embassy. pic.twitter.com/BsUgkxbu3t— Human Rights House Foundation (@HRHFoundation) June 27, 2023
Srebrenica genocide anniversary commemorated
On 9th July 2023, hundreds of people in Sarajevo paid tribute to the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide as a truck transporting 30 coffins passed on its journey to the city for burial. Every year, on the anniversary of the genocide on 11th July, hundreds of citizens take part in a Peace March, a three-day hike across Bosnia-Herzegovina to the Potocari cemetery.
Serbian nationalists gather in Banja Luka
On 16th July 2023, radical Serbian nationalist organisations gathered in Banja Luka to commemorate the death of Draža Mihailović, leader of Chetnik formations during the Second World War. There are 16 Chetnik associations registered in BiH, but data on the total number of members and sympathisers is not known.
“An opinion is not a crime” - media and activists protest defamation law
Hundreds of journalists and rights activists marched to Parliament in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, on 18th July to protest amendments to the entity’s Criminal Code criminalising defamation and suppressing free speech. Journalists, citizens and activists carried banners reading “An opinion is not a crime”, warning these changes would lead to a narrowing of the space for public information and create a favourable environment for corruption, reducing transparency and accountability of politicians and public officials. Journalists and civil society activists in the Birač region had also protested the previous day.
📸Donosimo dio atmosfere sa protestne šetnje "Stop kriminalizaciji klevete" u Banjaluci zbog najave uvođenja klevete u Krivični zakon RS.— BIRN BiH (@BIRN_BiH) July 18, 2023
📍Šetnja je upravo krenula sa Trga Krajine, a završiće se ispred NSRS. pic.twitter.com/6wKhAteNTR
Several other peaceful protests took place throughout the country during the reporting period. On 16th June, protests initiated by the Islamic community took place in the city of Mostar. The reason was the ongoing illegal construction of the Croatian National Theatre, which they consider “legal violence” against the legitimate rights of Muslims and the Islamic community. The demonstrators described the protest as a struggle for a unified and multiethnic Mostar and demanded an end to discriminatory policies that divide Mostar into two separate national spaces. On July 24, associations of patients who are beneficiaries of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina Solidarity Fund (FBiH) and the Centres for Civil Initiatives (CCI) staged a peaceful protest in front of the FBiH Parliament, calling on the government to provide the necessary funds so that patients can receive their medication and life-saving treatments. Workers’ issues also prompted peaceful protests, such as the protest on 26th June by the workers of the company “Zrak” after the company announced bankruptcy and layoffs, and a protest on 1st August in Sarajevo where miners from Zenica demanded their unpaid salaries and workers’ compensation.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
According to the latest Freedom House Nations in Transit report, independent media in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) face extensive administrative controls and pressures. Additionally, major public companies tend to avoid advertising campaigns in independent media, leading to increased financial difficulties for these outlets. Data from the BH Journalists' Association and the Helpline for Journalists indicates a significant rise in attacks against journalists, with politicians and public officials being responsible for 70 percent of these incidents. An analysis conducted earlier this year reveals a 40 percent increase in political and institutional violence against journalists and the media. Furthermore, the number of death threats, hate speech, and incitements has surged by a staggering 137 percent.
Attacks against journalists continue
Recent more prominent cases were the attack on Osman Mehanović, which took place on June 23 in Bratunac, in which Mehanović suffered severe bodily injuries accompanied by insults and threats based on ethnicity, and the spread of hate speech and calls for violence by Jasmin Mulahusić against journalists Slađan Tomić and Danijal Hadžović on social media, which have been going on for years.
While these two cases lacked appropriate institutional response, in another case, the Sarajevo Municipal gave Nefail Cehic a suspended three-month prison sentence for “endangering the security” of BIRN journalists in Bosnia when he made a serious threat to their lives on August 7, 2020.
There have been some recent notable incidents that have raised concerns. One of them was the attack on Osman Mehanović in Bratunac on 23rd June. During the attack, Mehanović suffered serious injuries and was subjected to insults and threats based on his ethnicity. Another concerning issue is the continuous spread of hate speech and calls for violence by Jasmin Mulahusić towards journalists Slađan Tomić and Danijal Hadžović on social media. This behaviour has been ongoing for years and has not been adequately addressed by the authorities. Recently, there was a disturbing incident involving the apartment of two Žurnal portal journalists, Žana Gauk-Karić and editor Eldin Karić. Their apartment was broken into on 14th July 2023, and their laptops were stolen. The BH Journalists' Association believes that this was a deliberate and targeted act to intimidate the journalists. The goal was to discourage them from pursuing investigative journalism and reporting on cases of crime and corruption involving officials in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
After three years, a previously reported case of threats against journalists was concluded in July. On 17th July 2023, the Sarajevo Municipal Court took action and gave Nefail Čehić a suspended three-month prison sentence. Čehić was found guilty of endangering the security of BIRN journalists in Bosnia after he made a serious threat to their lives in 2020.
Draft law on criminalising “fake news” withdrawn after public pressure
The BH Journalists' Association and the Helpline for Journalists called on the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Sarajevo Canton (KS) to withdraw the proposed draft law on offences against public order and peace in KS, covered previously by the CIVICUS Monitor. The draft law would have introduced the possibility for offences against public order and peace to be committed through the media, on social networks and online, deeply infringing on the right to freedom of expression and opinion.
In addition, high fines were proposed for journalists and outlets for “publishing and transmitting false news”, “insults to public morality” and “obstructing or belittling public authorities”. One of the sanctions foreseen for these transgressions was a ban on public speaking and carrying out activities for a period of up to one year. The draft bill was withdrawn at the end of June following public outcry, but the authorities have reiterated their commitment to introducing some version of the amendments in the future.
CSOs of the Initiative for Monitoring the European Integration of BiH warned about the shortcomings of the Draft Law on Freedom of Access to Information of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was adopted by the Council of Ministers of BiH in April, saying that in some parts it threatens the acquired rights and achievements from the existing Law and is not in accordance with international standards and practices. The adopted proposal would significantly restrict access to information of public interest, given that it contains a long list of exceptions or possible restrictions on access to information held by public authorities. The CSOs also noted that the Ministry of Justice of BiH ignored over 200 proposals and comments submitted by civil society and other interested parties during the consultation on changes to the law in 2021.
Civil society concerned new access to information law would roll back rights
The Initiative for Monitoring the European Integration of Bosnia and Herzegovina has raised concerns about the Draft Law on Freedom of Access to Information of BiH. This law was approved by the Council of Ministers in April, but CSOs argue that it would roll back the rights achieved under the current law and that it does not meet international standards and practices.
The approved proposal includes numerous exceptions and potential restrictions on accessing information held by public authorities. This would greatly limit access to information of public interest. Furthermore, the CSOs highlight that the Ministry of Justice of BiH disregarded over 200 proposals and comments submitted by civil society and other stakeholders during the consultation process for the law changes in 2021.
Republika Srpska adopts amendments re-criminalising defamation
On 20th July, the National Assembly of Republika Srpska (RS) approved amendments to the Criminal Code that have raised concerns among journalists and human rights activists. As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, critics argue that these amendments, which have re-introduced defamation into the criminal system after 20 years, will severely restrict freedom of expression.
Despite significant protests from domestic and international organisations, including the United Nations and Media Freedom Rapid Response, as well as journalists, the amendments were still adopted. Critics argue that these changes represent an attack on freedom of expression and a step towards censorship. Entity president Milorad Dodik, in defence of the legislation, stated that the goal was to protect the interests of Republika Srpska and its government against alleged “special warfare” involving journalists.
Transparency International BiH's executive director, Ivana Korajlić, expressed concerns about the changes to the Criminal Code, as well as the proposed “foreign agents law”, warning of their chilling effect on media and civil society.
Limiting criticism and freedom of speech, the two new legal proposals will also serve the purpose of targeting the media and organisations and creating internal enemies who will be blamed for all the bad things that happen in society. - Ivana Korajlić, Transparency International BiH
As previously reported, lawmakers approved the changes in a draft amendment back in March, which was then open to two months of public debate. However, the discussions surrounding the amendment were turbulent, with journalists and civil society organisations accusing authorities of attempting to gain control over the media. As a result, the fines initially proposed in the draft amendment were reduced in the final version, now ranging from EUR 1,000 to 3,000 instead of the original maximum of EUR 60,000. In situations where defamation occurs in the media, on social networks, or at public gatherings, higher fines may still be imposed.
Following the heated debate, the definition of “insult” was revised, and it is now considered a misdemeanour in the updated version of the law. However, the provision regarding the unauthorised publication of “other people's files, images, and recordings”, which can result in a fine or imprisonment of up to two years, remained.