Youth environmental activists face SLAPPs, protests over election outcome in Serbian republic entity
A report on human rights in BiH identified shortcomings in the national legal framework on misdemeanour law and criminal law protection of the right to freedom of thought and expression, highlighting the absence of certain provisions that would provide a higher level of protection of this right. The research also depicts the restrictions on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly contained in the provisions of the law on public/peaceful gatherings which is narrowly worded and deviates from international standards.
Bosnia and Herzegovina unveiled its first-ever strategy to improve the rights and freedoms of LGBT people, a step towards bringing human rights protections in the country in line with European Union standards. Adopted by the government in July 2022 and presented by the state Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees, the 2021-24 LGBT Action Plan is the first of its kind in Bosnia, addressing hate speech, freedom of peaceful assembly, family law, transgender rights, prejudice and stereotyping.
The EC Progress Report for BiH 2022 has noted pressures against civil society in BiH, stating that “activists dealing with issues perceived as sensitive (anticorruption, women’s rights, rights of LGBTIQ persons, migrants, the environment) continued to be subject to threats, abuse and physical attacks”. The report also notes that the laws on freedom of peaceful assembly are yet to be harmonised across the country and brought in line with European standards. BCSDN`s Annual Background analysis on the Enabling Environment for Civil Society Development and Enlargement Package confirms the EC findings, noting that, in practice, the operational environment has been assessed as very hostile in Bosnia and Herzegovina (esp. Republika Srpska), where the fundamental right to expression has been severely under attack.
SLAPP against environmental activists
A total of 140 organisations and groups from BiH, the region, Europe and the USA have sent an open letter to the diplomatic representatives of Belgium, the head of the EU Delegation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and other relevant international institutions to express their concern about the activities of the Belgian company Green Invest and the company in BiH owned by BUK d.o.o., which is the owner of a small hydroelectric power plant on the Kasindolska River in East Sarajevo, BiH. Company Green Invest/BUK d.o.o. filed defamation lawsuits against two young activists, Sunčica Kovačević and Sara Tuševljak, 25-year-old law students from Bosnia and Herzegovina who have spoken out publicly about the environmental impact of small hydropower plants on the Kasindolska River and its surroundings. An analysis by Amnesty International concluded that the lawsuits bear the hallmarks of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), which include aggressive and disproportionate remedies sought by the corporation in an apparent attempt to exploit their economic and political power to stifle the activists.
Time and time again, we have seen how powerful corporations try to intimidate those who speak out against them. When faced with public scrutiny, corporations are increasingly filing untrue or abusive claims to silence critical voices and discourage further debate on matters of public importance. Sunčica and Sara are facing these baseless lawsuits simply because they publicly criticized uncontrolled deforestation and soil erosion that they believed occurred as a result of the construction of these hydropower dams on a river near where they grew up - Eve Geddie, Director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office.
On 7th September 2022, local residents from the Sarajevo settlements Ahatović and Dobrošević held a peaceful protest, demanding improvements in local transportation in line with their everyday life needs. Before this protest, the regular bus lines which have been serving the locals from those areas were reduced from three to a single one. The locals are calling on the public enterprise for public transportation to take responsibility and act on their demands.
On 14th October 2022 simultaneous protests under the title “Our pain, your shame!” took place in 19 cities across Bosnia and Herzegovina, following another case of femicide in the country. The organisers of the event addressed their requests to institutions in a public statement before the event, during which they called for the introduction of a legal definition of femicide, for femicide to be a criminal act in all laws and by-laws, urgent harmonisation of criminal laws with the Istanbul Convention and revision of penal practices, ensuring prevention and protection against violence against women. Their main message was that “crimes against women must be called by their real names – so it’s not a crime of passion but a femicide, not a family tragedy but a murder.”
The issuing of a controversial permit for the start of work at a quarry was followed by strong reactions from the locals who launched a petition to call for the suspension of the permit, as they believe the construction is environmentally harmul. Although the initial petition was not successful, the start of work was prevented by the arrival of the cantonal inspectors, who stated that the company "Kvatro" did not have all the necessary permits and resulted in prolonging the work at the quarry. This was the first "victory" for the citizens, who continued to put pressure on the mayor, Hasan Ajkunić, and the president of the OV, Miroslav Zelić, who ultimately promised that the next time this case comes to the OV, he will be against this decision. Another small victory for the activists against the quarries came after the Constitutional Court in BiH ruled in favour of environmental activists fighting against a quarry in Kuti settlement in the City of Mostar. The ruling comes after civic initiative “Kuti” filed a case against the Federal Ministry of Environment and Tourism, in order to cancel the decision to issue an environmental permit to the investor for the exploitation of dolomite stone in the settlement. However the court ignored the case.
On 2nd October 2022, Bosnia held presidential and parliamentary elections, as well as the Serb Republic presidential vote. On 6th October 2022, thousands of people protested in Banja Luka over what they said was a ‘rigged’ election in favour of pro-Russian nationalist Milorad Dodik in the president vote for Bosnia’s autonomous Serb Republic. Dodik, who leads the largest Serb party SNSD and whose party colleague Zeljka Cvijanovic is the current president, dismissed the allegations of fraud. Protesters carried banners reading “We Want Fair Elections”, “You Won’t Get Away With This,” and chanted “Thieves!” and “Mile, Leave!” Dodik’s opponent in the election, Jelena Trivic, said she would not concede defeat. Opposition parties in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity staged a second protest in Banja Luka a few days later, demanding a ballot recount. More than 10,000 people rallied in the city of Banja Luka. Protests continued to take place in Banja Luka in the following days, under the slogan “The motherland is calling”.
Milorad Dodik also staged a rally in Banja Luka after the Central Election Commission ordered a recount of ballots in the Republika Srpska entity’s presidential poll, which he claimed to have won. Supporters of the ruling coalition in Republika Srpska protested on 25th October 2022 in Banja Luka to demand that electoral authorities end a recount of ballots, with Dodik leading the rally, which police said drew an estimated 30,000 people. In an address during the rally, Dodik pledged to fight for Serbs’ right to “choose how we want to live” and accused Western and non-Serb Bosnian politicians of “hating” and “trying to erase” Republika Srpska. More than three weeks after the election, Bosnian voters still didn’t know the final results for all levels of government. A recount of the votes at the end of October 2022 confirmed Milorad Dodik’s victory despite continued protests from the opposition and earlier reports of electoral fraud.
On 24th October, several hundred people gathered in front of the building of the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (OHR) in Sarajevo to express their dissatisfaction with the amendments to the Election Law of BiH and the Constitution of the Federation of BiH, imposed by High Representative Christian Schmidt on the evening of the general elections. The protests were organised by an informal group of people who sent out a message to Schmidt on social networks: “Either he annuls the decisions, or he gets dismissed from his duty”.
Two media houses in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been targeted by cyber attackers. Dnevni Avaz was informed that their Facebook pages were hacked on 1st September 2022. The case was reported to the Ministry of Information and Administration of the Sarajevo Canton. A cyber-attack was also carried out against Radio-television Herceg Bosna on 1st September and 2nd September 2022. Unknown perpetrators “invaded” their IT system and tried to use malicious software to destroy all the media company’s material. The damage, however, is enormous. OSCE Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina pointed out that BIH is the only country in the region that does not have a cyber security strategy.
Hacking of websites and profiles on social networks, as well as blocking access to media content, is a violation of the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of access to information of public importance - OSCE Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Confirming a lower court decision, Bosnia’s Constitutional Court has ruled that Republika Srpska’s public broadcaster, RTRS, slandered journalist Vladimir Kovacevic who was brutally attacked for covering mass protests in Banja Luka four years ago. The ruling, which follows an appeal by RTRS and its former editor-in-chief Sinisa Mihailovic, confirms that the broadcaster slandered Kovacevic, who was attacked after covering a “Justice for David” protest in 2018, which had attempted to push the authorities to resolve the case of the unexplained death of a 21-year-old man in Banja Luka.
The journalism community from BiH has called out the tendency of candidates from the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) to pressure journalist and editor of FaceTV Senada Hadžifejzović and Face TV. In the public statement the Governing Board of BH Journalists noted that they consider such attacks unacceptable, especially considering that this is not the first time that Face TV’s editor and founder has faced pressure and hate speech by members of the SDA. The continuous attacks towards Hadžifejzović and Face TV were condemned by the SafeJournalists Network as well, who reminded politicians in Bosnia and Herzegovina that threats and incitement should not be the answer to possible dissatisfaction with the work of the media.
BiH journalists have publicly condemned the attack against their fellow journalist from BN TV, Aleksandar Gluvić, and requested a thorough investigation of the case. Gluvic was physically attacked in Banja Luka while he was filming an illegally parked vehicle bearing the symbols of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) party. The owner and driver of the truck first threatened the journalist and warned him not to take photos, and after the journalist ignored his threats, he called for his son, who physically attacked Gluvić, grabbing him by the neck. The Association of BiH Journalists called on the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina to submit amendments to the Criminal Code of BiH to the parliamentary procedure as soon as possible, which will treat attacks on journalists as a special criminal offence, based on the initiative that was adopted in the House of Representatives of the Parliamentary Assembly of BiH in June 2022.
During this reporting period, the Association of BiH Journalists also responded to the misconduct and targeting of journalists on social networks by Elmedin Konaković, the president of the political entity Narod I Pravda, who in his online activities called journalists "regime", stating that they "breathe fire", that they lie, that they launched a "chase" against him. This comes after outlets Klix.ba and Istraga.ba published articles about the amendments to the BiH Election Law, the election results and plans of political parties for the post-election coalition.
The Governing Board of the Association of BH Journalists and the Helpline for Journalists strongly condemned the incitement and hate speech against Vladimir Trišić, the owner and director of BN Television, as well as all employees of this media outlet, and demanded that competent institutions in the Republic of Srpska urgently investigate and prosecute persons who targeted the journalists through social networks. The statement explains how employees and the director of BN Television are continuously exposed to inciting rhetoric, threats and insults on social networks, which mostly come from members and sympathisers of SNSD in Republika Srpska. Gorica Dodik, daughter of SNSD president and Serbian member of the BiH Presidency Milorad Dodik, published photos of the high representative of the international community in BiH, Christian Schmidt, and the general director of BN, Vladimir Trišić, with the description "Hitler and his servant".
The Association of BH Journalists has condemned the hate speech against journalist Dalija Hasanbegović-Konaković by Jasmin Mulahusić and his followers on social media. Mulahosic has on several occasions written about members of the immediate family of Al Jazeera Balkans journalist Hasanbegović-Konaković, stating, among other things, that her sister is "married to an Orthodox" and that she "left Islam", and "graduated from the Catholic School Center ”, that her mother is married to a Croat. This is not an isolated case as Mulahusić has previously targeted the journalist to incite national and religious hatred against the journalist, who is the wife of politician Elmedin Konaković, the president of the Narod I Pravda party.