Republika Srpska moves forward with “foreign agents law” despite public outcry
Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has vowed to ban the international community's peace envoy, Christian Schmidt, from entering the Serb-majority entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republika Srpska (RS). The announcement was made on 6th September 2023, just days after prosecutors charged Dodik for passing laws that would allow him to circumvent or ignore Schmidt's decisions. Dodik is in an ongoing confrontation with Schmidt, who is charged with overseeing the civilian aspects of the Dayton Agreement that ended Bosnia's bloody civil war in the 1990s. As the international community’s High Representative in the country, Schmidt has broad powers, including the ability to fire officials and enforce laws. Dodik’s announcement of the decree preventing High Representative Schmidt from entering the entity is viewed by the EU as another provocation that undermines Bosnia and Herzegovina's constitutional framework, which is neither legally based nor enforceable.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
At a conference held in Banja Luka in September 2023, representatives of civil society in Republika Srpska noted that the authorities of RS are creating a “lynching atmosphere” against civic activists, pointing to the amendments to the Criminal Code and the proposed law on “foreign agents”, as well as the increasingly frequent attacks on associations and activists and the negative public image of the sector (see previous CIVICUS Monitor reports).
On 27th September, the National Assembly of Republika Srpska began discussing the Draft Law on the Special Registry and Publicity of the Work of Non-Profit Organisations. Civil society organisations, parts of the international community, and the opposition have sharply criticised the draft, seeing it as a continuation of the suppression of freedom of expression and basic human rights in the entity. The law foresees the establishment of a special register of non-profit organisations that are financially or otherwise supported by foreign entities, and their designation as "agents of foreign influence". Those organisations would be subject to stricter inspection requirements and a ban on “political activity”, which includes any actions to influence institutions or shape policies, essentially making advocacy a punishable offence. Furthermore, non-profit organisations would be required to include an “NPO mark” on any materials they publish, raising concerns about further stigmatising civil society in an already hostile environment.
The Advisory Body of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina for Cooperation with Non-Governmental Organisations has described the draft law as “harmful”, claiming it would impose restrictive measures on civil society organisations with no reason or justification. They have warned the proposed restrictions would contribute to the suppression and stigmatisation of civil society. The European Union called on the Republika Srpska authorities to immediately withdraw the draft, as it “aims to intimidate and suppress civil society organizations by branding their representatives as foreign agents.” The Steering Board of the Peace Implementation Council, an inter-governmental body comprised of 55 countries and agencies supporting the peace process in Bosnia, also issued a statement urging MPs to reject the law. In the statement, they warned the law will limit the space for a functional and independent civil society and will represent a significant threat to the overall situation in the field of human rights and democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Despite the criticism and public outcry, on 28th September 2023, MPs in the National Assembly of Republika Srpska voted to move forward with the law, with 48 votes for and 11 against. The RS Minister of Justice accepted the motion to put the draft law up for a 30-day public debate before it enters the Assembly again for a final vote.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
Bosnian Serbs rally in support of indicted officials
In early September, rallies in support of two Bosnian Serb officials took place in Republika Srpska. The demonstrations were directed against the indictments of RS president Milorad Dodik and Miloš Lukić, the head of the entity’s Official Gazette, for steps suggesting that entity authorities would ignore the decisions of the Bosnian Constitutional Court and the internationally appointed High Representative. Under the slogan "The Border Exists," about 2,000 people gathered in the city of East Sarajevo, near the administrative line that separates Republika Srpska from the country’s Bosniak-Croat entity, and three other towns.
High Representative Christian Schmidt said in a statement that it was “irresponsible to stage divisive political events at the inter-entity boundary line,” adding that, per the Dayton Agreement, there is no actual border between Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat Federation, but a "purely administrative line." The OSCE Mission in BiH observed that the rhetoric used at the meeting aimed to promote further divisions, create tensions and put pressure on the judiciary, appealing to politicians to “behave responsibly and sensibly and to give priority to reconciliation, overcoming divisions and uniting communities for the benefit of all citizens”.
Various radical organisations also announced protests in front of the BiH Prosecutor's Office in Sarajevo, to protest the indictments against Dodik and Lukić, but the Ministry of Interior of Sarajevo Canton banned the holding of the rally as the organisers could not fulfil all the requirements prescribed by law, while also assessing that such a gathering would be a real danger of disrupting public order and peace on a larger scale.
Multiple protests held demanding justice and accountability for violence
On 9th August 2023, people from across Bosnia and Herzegovina gathered at a protest walk in Jablanica in support of Enisa Klepo, who was physically assaulted by her employer after she announced her resignation and demanded her earned salary. Her employer, Amir Džafić, has been charged by the Prosecutor's Office of the Herzegovina-Neretva Canton with causing serious bodily injury.
#Bosnia 1/3 | In a powerful display of solidarity, hundreds have gathered at a protest supporting 28-year-old Enisa Klepo in the small town of #Jablanica, who was heavily beaten up by her employer after she asked for her 350💶 paycheck.— Balkan Insight (@BalkanInsight) August 9, 2023
📸 N1 & @klixba pic.twitter.com/I29aZ9ETyi
Protests against femicide have spread across Bosnia-Herzegovina after a man live streamed the killing of his ex-wife, Nizama Hećimović, on Instagram just a few days after she reported him to the police for domestic violence. On 14th August, the day of Nizama’s funeral, the government of the Tuzla Canton declared a day of mourning, and hundreds of people attended in support of her family. Peaceful protests were held simultaneously in several cities, with protesters demanding action to address violence against women. In Sarajevo, mayor Benjamina Karić put forward 16 requests to the country’s authorities to improve the institutional fight against violence.
🔴 1/2 | Thousands have gathered in different cities in #Bosnia to demand stricter fines for #femicide after a man livestreamed woman's murder on Friday.— Balkan Insight (@BalkanInsight) August 14, 2023
Beside murdering his ex-wife, gumnan shot dead two others and wounded three before taking his own life.
📸 @klixba pic.twitter.com/AOh1KIB4Sg
On 11th September, Bosnians joined a rally in Sarajevo to demand justice in separate cases of two young men who died under unclear circumstances, Dženan Memić and David Dragičević. Dragičević’s death in 2018 sparked years of protests from the “Justice for David” movement, whose members have often faced harassment from authorities, as previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor. In July 2023, two out of the five people accused of covering up the evidence in the unexplained death of 22-year-old Dženan Memić in 2016 were sentenced to a total of five-and-a-half years in prison, with a previous acquittal that had provoked protests reversed on appeal.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
Republika Srpska president signs off on defamation law, then becomes first to take advantage of it
On 18th August 2023, Republika Srpska president Milorad Dodik signed off on legislative amendments criminalising defamation in the entity. As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, the National Assembly of Republika Srpska adopted the amendments on 20th July. They were adopted despite criticism that they represent an attack on freedom of expression and a step toward censorship. The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo condemned the criminalisation of libel as "a "direct attack on the freedom of the press." An EU spokesperson stated that these legislative changes impose “unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on independent media and civil society.”
According to the media portal CAPITAL, Dodik was the first in Banja Luka, Republika Srpska’s largest city, to take advantage of the recently adopted amendments to the RS Criminal Code. The District Public Prosecutor's Office of Banja Luka confirmed in September that they have received one criminal complaint for defamation since the amendments entered into force, noting that it was submitted by the Office of the President of the RS against an unidentified individual.
Amendments re-criminalising defamation challenged in front of the Constitutional Court
On 19th September 2023, Umbrella, an alliance gathering 13 non-profit media working in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the investigative portal CAPITAL, submitted an initiative to the Constitutional Court of Republika Srpska challenging the recent amendments to the entity’s Criminal Code, which have re-introduced defamation into the criminal system. They have requested that the court assess the constitutionality of Articles 208a and 208b of the updated Code, which refer to defamation and “expressing [others’] personal or family circumstances” - a privacy-related offence with elements of defamation, which is punishable by imprisonment under these new provisions.
We believe that the judges will be more willing to defend the Constitution of Republika Srpska, which the MPs in the Assembly have severely wounded by raising their hands in support of this kind of Criminal Code. We hope that the Constitutional Court will understand how important this initiative is, and that it will declare the latest changes to the law unconstitutional. - Siniša Vukelić, editor-in-chief, CAPITAL