Attacks on freedom of expression continue as journalists face threats, hate speech and vandalism
On 20th January 2023, The Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina postponed its decision on the changes to the country’s electoral system introduced by High Representative Christian Schmidt. Under the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord, which ended the Bosnian war, Schmidt has broad powers, which include introducing and amending legislation through binding decrees. After the October 2022 elections, he introduced amendments to the Constitution and electoral law, which have been challenged in front of the Constitutional Court by two former members of the Bosnian Presidency. At the plenary session on 20th January, the Court opted not to rule on this issue, citing the need for further consultations.
In October 2022, the European Commission released its annual progress reports on the EU accession prospects of Western Balkan countries. Bosnia and Herzegovina received a positive assessment, with the Commission acknowledging progress in areas such as the rule of law, economic development, and social policies. However, the report also noted challenges related to corruption and political stability. In December 2022, EU leaders voted to formally grant Bosnia and Herzegovina candidate status.
The Human Rights Watch World Report 2023, published in January, highlights the concerning situation of human rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including the government's failure to address impunity for war crimes, ongoing discrimination against minority groups, restrictions on media freedom, and lack of accountability for police brutality. The report also notes the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on marginalised communities and criticises the slow progress in implementing reforms necessary for EU accession.
The BCSDN Background Analysis 2022 report highlights the challenges facing civil society organisations (CSOs) in seven countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, including political pressure, limited funding opportunities, and a lack of institutional support, which hinders their ability to effectively participate in policymaking and advocate for their causes.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
Activists in Banja Luka claim police prevented them from fighting protest-related charges
In January 2023, two activists in Banja Luka came forward, claiming that the local police intentionally withheld information about their misdemeanour charges for participating in protests against a new law that could limit peaceful gatherings. Because the police did not notify them of their charges according to procedure, they could not challenge their punishment in court. The activists view this as discriminatory and have lodged a complaint with the appropriate authorities. This incident underscores the ongoing conflicts between civil society organisations and the government regarding democratic freedoms and human rights.
Divisive rallies take place in Republika Srpska
Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina's Republika Srpska entity held a parade on 9th January 2023 to mark a banned holiday celebrating their breakaway from Bosnia in 1992. Armed police officers and members of the Night Wolves, a pro-Russian biker gang, attended the parade. The event has been criticised for its divisive and provocative nature and highlights ongoing tensions in the country over issues of identity and political influence. On the same occasion, MEPs Rangel and Franz expressed concerns about the state of democracy and human rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, citing a lack of progress in areas such as the rule of law, freedom of expression and media pluralism. The MPs also criticised the country's political leaders for failing to address these issues, warning that the European Union's support for Bosnia and Herzegovina's integration could be jeopardised if necessary reforms are not implemented. The high representative of the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christian Schmidt, sharply criticised the political leadership of Republika Srpska over the 9th January celebration. He warned their decision to hold the event would have consequences, reminding that Bosnia’s state-level Constitutional Court had declared the holiday unconstitutional.
Members of Russia's #NightWolves biker gang, hit by EU sanctions in July 2022, seen taking part in celebration of unconstitutional holiday of Republika Srpska Day on January 9 in East Sarajevo. Read more https://t.co/axVyQ3Dx1w Photo: N1/F.Z. pic.twitter.com/LRih7bIPtf— N1english (@N1info) January 9, 2023
On 25th January 2023, the Night Wolves held a rally in the Bosnian city of Banja Luka. The rally was met with counter-protests from Bosniak and Croatian groups, who view the Night Wolves as a symbol of Russian aggression. The group has been accused of participating in the conflict in eastern Ukraine and has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Citizens across Bosnia protest labour and social policies
In December 2022, workers in Mostar announced protests due to dissatisfaction with their working conditions and wages. Firefighters were the first to protest, demanding better working conditions and equipment. The next group to join was health workers asking for better pay. The protests come amidst growing frustration with the government's handling of these issues and could potentially lead to wider strikes and unrest.
On 15th December 2022, eight trade unions of public sector workers staged a protest outside of the seat of the local government of the Sarajevo canton, demanding respect for the Coordination of Trade Unions as a social partner, an increase in salaries, and for the government to pay out one-time financial aid by the end of the year. Canton Prime Minister Edin Forto came out in front of the building where the protests were held, with the aim of addressing the workers. However, he met with the dissatisfaction of those present, so he did not even begin his speech, Klix.ba reported.
In Tuzla, public sector workers also protested their local government's refusal to fulfil union demands. The demands include aligning salaries in 2023 with the consumer price index growth and paying out one-time financial aid. The government has stated that wages have increased by 19.5% this year, but inflation has cancelled out the increase. The workers’ protest began on 24th December and was joined by health sector workers who announced the possibility of a general strike. A protest with the same demands was staged by hospital staff in nearby Zenica.
On 4th February, the Union of Persons with Disabilities in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which gathers 58 associations from the entity, announced new protests and possible criminal charges against the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy. The Union had sent the Ministry a list of nine demands two months before, but they have yet to be fulfilled.
Anti-corruption rallies in Sarajevo protest politicians, judiciary
On 24th November 2022, a court in Sarajevo acquitted five defendants accused of being involved in the killing of a young man in 2016, sparking multiple protests. Dženan Memić, 21, died of wounds to his head under unclear circumstances. Prosecutors initially characterised the case as a murder, later declaring new evidence showed Memić had been killed in a car accident -- a conclusion never accepted by his family. The ruling prompted several rallies, reflecting people's discontent with the government and judiciary, which they say are mired in corruption.
On 9th December, International Anti-Corruption Day, people in Sarajevo took to the streets to protest the state of the country’s political climate and institutions. Citizens, carrying banners, walked through the central streets and stopped in front of the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and the Office of the High Representative (OHR). Their requests to the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJPC), the Prosecutor’s Office and the Court of BiH are to initiate disciplinary proceedings and dismiss all judges and prosecutors for “ineffective work and non-sanctioning of high-ranking politicians”.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
In February 2023, the BH Journalists’ Association presented the results of their research on the protection of media workers in Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to their findings, media workers in the country face various forms of pressure, threats, and attacks, while the number of perpetrators who are held accountable for their actions remains low. The research also showed that media workers in smaller towns and rural areas are more exposed to threats and attacks. The Association called on the authorities to take action to protect media workers and ensure the freedom and safety of the press in the country.
TV station fined for violating “generally accepted standards of decency”
Also in February, the Communication Regulatory Agency (CRA) of Bosnia and Herzegovina fined Sarajevo-based TV station Face TV, due to inappropriate language used by its editor, Senad Hadžifejzović, while commenting on a previous procedure initiated against him by the agency.
In October 2022, the CRA initiated an investigation into a broadcast where they claimed Hadžifejzović could be heard calling for the murder of Milorad Dodik, President of Republika Srpska. However, the investigation was stopped when audio experts were unable to determine what Hadžifejzović had actually said, due to cross-talk from other speakers.
In November 2022, the agency initiated a second procedure against FACE TV, this time due to Hadžifejzović using an expletive in reference to its director. In doing so, the CRA found that he had violated “generally accepted standards of decency in program content”, and imposed a fine of 15,000 Bosnian marks, or EUR 7,650, on the station. Bosnian journalists have sharply criticised this decision, calling the fine “draconian”, and an “attempt to censor and silence media that critically review the decisions of the CRA and the director of this Agency, Draško Milinović”.
‼️ Nakon izricanja nesrazmjerno visoke kazne od 15.000 KM, sasvim je jasno da je direktor Milinović tražio razloge za ličnu osvetu prema #FaceTV i njenom vlasniku i uredniku Senadu Hadžifejzoviću#BHNovinari@facetvhd https://t.co/iBLQSlGILX— BH novinari (@bhnovinari) February 6, 2023
Journalists in Mostar threatened, newsroom vandalised
On 28th December 2022, BH Journalists’ Association called on the Mostar authorities to urgently remove hate speech graffiti targeting journalists. The graffiti includes death threats and messages promoting hatred against journalists, which is part of a larger trend of attacks on journalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Soon after, on 11 January 2023, the newsroom of Hercegovina.info, a news portal in Mostar, was attacked by unknown perpetrators. The attack resulted in property destruction, and the Association urged authorities to swiftly identify and prosecute those responsible, as well as ensure the safety of journalists and media workers.
Journalist and TV station bombarded with death threats over controversial interview
Bosnian journalists are demanding the urgent investigation and sanctioning of threats made against journalist Kenan Ćosić and O Channel in January 2023. Ćosić received threats of violence and murder on social media due to his interview with a controversial Serbian documentarian, while a threatening letter with white powder was sent to the offices of O Channel, the TV station which broadcast the interview. The BH Journalists’ Association condemned these threats as part of a wider pattern of violence and intimidation against journalists in the country.