Blurred lines between freedom of expression and divisive rhetoric

Expression

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, the use of inflammatory language to stoke ethnic tensions frequently blurs the line between freedom of speech and incitement of racial hatred in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most recently, Mostar, an ethically diverse town in Bosnia, braced itself for a Croat nationalist concert in spite of vociferous opposition from civil society. On 8th June 2017, during nationalist Croat singer Marko Perkovic Thompson’s performance, 8,000 people chanted the fascist slogan, "Za dom spremni” (ready for the homeland). The phrase was first used by Ustasa, the facist, ultranationalist Croatian insurgent group responsible for grievous crimes against humanity during the 1930s, and was later appropriated by the paramilitary Croatian Defence Force in the 1990s. As an artist known for his nationalist sentiments, civil society groups had attempted to block Perkovic Thompson’s concert for fear of stirring up ethnic tensions in Mostar, but had been unsuccessful. Despite refraining from playing his most controversial song (featuring the phrase Za dom spremni), his mere presence prompted the audience to begin chanting the highly offensive phrase. The video below captured the incident. 

Concerns have also been raised about the media coverage of the event, as journalists and media workers were forbidden from leaving a designated section near the front of the stage. Questions have also been raised over police reports of the event, which claim the concert took place without incident, despite the chanting of fascist slogans. Others have drawn attention to the fact that the singer has been banned from performing in numerous other European countries, and queried why the authorities in Mostar allowed him to play in the town despite pressure from civil society and international powers involved in Bosnia's peace process.  

The president of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska has recently attracted attention after he stated that schoolchildren in the region should never learn about the Srebrenica genocide. President Milorad Dodik stated at a press conference that schoolbooks in Republika Srpska will never teach about the ethnic cleansing and genocide of over 8,000 people by the Bosnian Serb military and affiliated paramilitary forces in 1995. Dodik was quoted as saying: 

“Here it is impossible to use schoolbooks from the Federation [Bosnia’s other, Bosniak and Croat-dominated entity] in which it is written that the Serbs committed genocide and held Sarajevo under siege. It’s not true and it will not be studied here”. 

While the authorities in Bosnia did sign an agreement in 2002 to purge all mention of the 1992-95 Bosnian War from school textbooks, many feel that the authorities' stance is a an attempt to erase history. President Dodik has a well-documented history of denying war crimes, despite overwhelming forensic evidence and the presence of multiple mass graves. 

Peaceful Assembly

Reports from the ground note that while there have been no unwarranted restrictions on time and place of protests, a request for a protest to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) was denied in Sarajevo. Organisers of the march, the Sarajevo Open Society, instead held a protest to decry the unjustified denial of IDAHOT commemorations and to draw attention to violence against the LGBTI community in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The incident was later investigated by the country's Ombudsman. 

While there have been no cases of violent protests and illegal arrests, on the 25th April 2017 security forces dispersed crowds of Bosniak and Croat war veterans after they blocked border crossings between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. The veterans, some of whom actually fought against each other in the early 90s, mobilised together to demand more money from the government and a transparent registry of veterans to prevent fraudulent claims. While the protest did not turn violent, security forces dispersed the gathering to reopen the crossing points between the two nations. 

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, after staging a protest for International Labour day, leaders of Zenica Steel Trade Union and the Federal Metal Workers Union, were fined of 4,750 EUR for allegedly obstructing traffic during a protest in February. The protest was held out outside the federal government building in Sarajevo.

A number of other protests have taken place peacefully without incident. Here are some recent examples: 

  • War veterans demanded higher pensions and held a protest outside the Bosnia and Herzegovina government over the lack of state support; 
  • 3,000 workers at Alumina protested in Zvornik, requesting that the Court of First Instance unblock the factory’s account so that workers can be paid; 
  • Bosnian Serbs working for Ljublja iron-ore mine operator Arcelor Mittal Prijedor protested in Banja Luka over the government decision to sell Ljublja iron-ore mine to Israeli Investment Group; 
  • The Initiative Together for Our City and their supporters protested against the poor economic situation facing many Mostar residents; 
  • The LGBTI community and their supporters protested in Sarajevo over the increase in violence against the community;
  • Animal rights activists gathered to demand a ban on animal fur;
  • Banja Luka citizens held the March of the Immortal Regiment; 
  • Citizens marched in Sarajevo, for the first time, under the slogan "I am Anti-Fascist too!" on May 9th – the day of victory over fascism;
  • Former prisoners commemorated wartime camp victims by demanding better treatment for those who survived; 
  • Finally, Prijedor citizens marched on the Day of White Strips to mark the killing of 3,176 Prijedor citizens, including 102 children, in 1992.

Association

While there have been no changes within the legal framework regulating freedom of association, proposed changes to the Law on Associations and Foundations were announced on 1st June 2017. The changes in the law would bring Bosnia and Herzegovina more in line with current recommendations by the Financial Action Task Force. While civil society groups have yet to comment, this development will be tracked in the next CIVICUS Monitor update on Bosnia and Herzegovina.