Civic Space in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2018

Association

March to May 

Europe's migrant crisis has had an impact on Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although the country was not initially part of the "Balkan route", a new route through its borders recently emerged. In addition, migrants who had earlier went to Croatia have subsequently returned to Bosnia. Since the beginning of 2018, thousands of people have arrived to Bosnia and Herzegovina in search of aid and shelter. 

A Sarajevo based NGO supporting the refugees and migrants has noted an increase in numbers. Pomozi.Ba commented on the challenge of providing aid to a growing refugees and migrant population. Pomozi.Ba commented on the challenge of providing aid to a growing refugees and migrant population. This is especially true due to a lack of government support, which has stunted efforts to assist arrivals. The strain forced refugees and migrants to sleep in parks, as  NGOs and citizens were unable to provide adequate help.

The work of CSOs has also been heavily criticised. In fact, politicians have accused NGOs of hosting and aiding illegal migrants. Criticism has not prevented CSOs from showing solidarity. Civil society compiled a joint statement ahead of the EU-Western Balkan Summit in May. The meeting was an important moment where EU Heads of State met with their counterparts from the Western Balkans. The joint statement highlighted the problems CSOs face when assisting migrants. They said: 

"Many organisations that support and protect refugees and migrants, are increasingly being threatened by governments which accuse them of espionage, smuggling or trafficking of human beings. New laws are being developed across Europe to make it harder for civil society organisations to operate. This goes to the heart of the EU’s values of democracy and human rights."

On 26th April 2018, CSOs and FBiH government held a meeting to enhance cooperation between them. In light of the growing crisis, the meeting hoped to institutionalise civil society in governance.  

May to July

Negative rhetoric is often used by officials in BiH to smear civil society. In May, remarks by Republika Srpska's (RS) President Milorad Dodik were particularly bad. In a statement on 25th May 2018 made on national broadcaster RTRS TV, Dodik called for increased governmental oversight of CSOs. In a statement riddled with aggression, he called a number of NGOs enemies of his government. He also called for stricter controls over the financial operations of NGOs. 

It wasn't a just threat. In June, Dodik announced a draft law on foreign donations at the RS National Assembly. The law would oblige NGOs to register as "foreign agents". This status would force them to submit their financial statements on donations and expenses to the RS government. The move mimicked a similar Russian law passed in 2012

The announcement drew sharp condemnation from civil society. On 12th June 2018, several NGOs condemned the proposal in a joint statement. A similar law proposed in 2015, contradicted the European Convention on Human Rights. Including the right to freedom of association and expression. In the statement, they CSOs said: 

"Once more, new legal regulations of the activity of non-governmental organisations are being called for, and it is emphasised that all those who receive foreign donations will have to submit special reports to the Ministry of Justice of Republika Srpska. Civil society organisations stress the fact that the work of non-governmental organisations in Bosnia is already regulated by laws on associations and foundations, which exist on several levels of government, and in regards to which all associations and foundations are registered."

After the fightback from civil society, the proposed law was subsequently withdrawn.

July to August 

Despite dropping the proposals, Dodik's aggression against civil society did not end there. In August, he accused the United States (US) of using foreign aid to interfere in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Dodik claimed US had meddled in BiH's internal affairs and election processes. His accusations were quickly dismissed by the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo. On 21st August 2018, Dodik accused the central Bosnian government of conspiring with the US. He also threatened to investigate NGOs in receipt of funds from the US in RP.

Peaceful Assembly

January to March
  • Bosniak and Croat war veterans protested in several cities, including Sarajevo, demanding benefits for unemployed war veterans. Special police forces intervened to restrain the protests. In Tuzla, police used tear gas to quell crowds. The confrontation left two people injured and eight arrested.
  • Hundreds marched in the town of Tuzla against air pollution caused by coal power plants. Organised by the local CSO Clean Air Movement, the protest demanded measures to improve air quality. 
  • In Sarajevo, people went on hunger strike to protest against unpaid wages at a public construction company. Formerly, the company provided jobs for 4000 employees in former Yugoslavia. However, its financial situation deteriorated during the Bosnian war. In 2016 it  declared bankruptcy leaving it unable to pay employees. Estimates claim that the unpaid wages to ex-employees amount to half of Bosnia’s annual national budget.
March to May 
  • On 29th March 2018, local authorities denied a LGBTI CSO its right to peacefully assemble. Organised by the Sarajevo Open Center the protest hoped to mark the International Day of Transsexual Visibility. Citing security concerns, the local authority in Sarajevo denied the CSO permission. Given the Center has previously organised protests in the same location, the decision came as a surprise. Authorities gave no explanation into why they arrived at the decision. In response, the CSO applied to change the location of the protest to outside the national theatre. Again, local authorities denied the application. The CSO later learned that the national theatre had raised an objection. After contacting a spokesperson, it became clear that the objections related to the CSO's focus on LGBTI rights. The CSO plead, but to no avail. The Sarajevo Open Center noted that its right to protest was unduly curtailed. Indeed, the CSO noted that the request was not subjectively assessed. Instead, authorities took the decision in a discriminatory manner. The European Commission has also drawn attention to LGBTI rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia is still struggling to guarantee rights to LGBTI people. In particular, hate crimes remain an issue, despite the passage of recent laws. The Alternative Analytical Report on the Application of Bosnia and Herzegovina for EU Membership also noted this issue. The report notes a lack of effort by authorities to guarantee civic freedoms for LGBTI people. 
  • War veterans protested in Sarajevo. Protesting in front of the Bosnian Federation parliament, they called for the provision of benefits. Despite multiple attempts to draw government's attention, nothing has changed. The issue has been bubbling for several months after protests in February. The protesters’ demanded an investigation and an official register of war veterans. This will exclude fraudulent war veterans and provide benefits to recognised retirees.  
  • In April, thousands of people protested against the arrest of former commander of the Bosnian Army’s Fifth Corps, Atif Dudakovic. On 27th April 2018, authorities arrested Dudakovic on suspicion of war crimes. The arrest came in relation to atrocities committed between 1994 and 1995. The release of a videotape which captures Dudakovic giving the order to burn a Serb village, spurred his arrest. His supporters claim he is innocent. 
  • The death of a young ethnic Serb has ignited protests from across the ethnic spectrum in BiH. David Dragičević went missing in Banja Luka in March 2018. He was later found dead in a river several days later. Suspicious have been high over the circumstances surrounding his death. In particular, protesters believe that state authorities were complicit in orchestrating a coverup. Police maintain Dragičević committed suicide after taking drugs and robbing a house. Protesters allege that state authorities captured, tortured and killed the student. CSOs and people joined the protests calling for fairer and more transparent investigations. The protesters also highlighted the death of another muslim man in 2016. According to their view, ethnic motives and a corrupt system lie behind both deaths. The protests have shed light on the entrenched ethnic divisions in BiH. As such, protesters of a variety of ethnicities have joined marches calling for justice. They also called on Serb lawmakers to discuss security issues in Banja Luka. 
May to July
  • Protests prompted by the controversial death of young David Dragičević continued. “Pravda za Davida” (Justice for David), demanded a new investigation into his death. On 3rd July 2018, a report concluded that Dragičević's death was not accidental and called for a new investigation into his killing. The report spurred further protests as thousands of people gathered in Banja Luka. Participants noted this was the 100th protest demanding justice since Dragičević went missing. Coverage of the protests highlighted political divisions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. National broadcaster, RTRS allegedly downplayed the number of protesters and other national outlets tried to discredit protesters. Yet, protests continued. Onlookers claimed this was the longest wave of protests since 2014.
  • 11th July 2018 marked the 23rd anniversary commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide. Over 30,000 Bosnians gathered at the Srebrenica Memorial Centre to commemorate the massacre. The mass gathering was peaceful and faced no unwarranted restrictions. The commemoration of the Srebrenica massacre started on 8 July 2018 with a three-day peace march. The march, organised for the 13th time this year, covers a 100 kilometres route. Protesters walked from Tuzla to the Potocari cemetery. Symbolically, this route is now known as the "Peace March", the same route gained notoriety as the "Death Road" during the massacre.
  • Protests have also spurred change. On 10th July 2018, drivers in Bosnia blocked roads in protest against rising fuel prices. Protesters claim the rising price of fuel will have a knock-on effect for the price of food and other goods. The protest worked. After sustained action, fuel distributors agreed a deal with the regional government to cut fuel prices.
  • LGBTI people in Bosnia have had their right to peaceful assembly undermined. According to Sarajevo Open Centre’s Pink Report 2018, LGBTI people still face discrimination. Specifically, they report harassment, violence and restrictions on peaceful assembly for LGBTI people and CSOs. 
July to August
  • The death of Dženan Memić from Sarajevo in 2016 continued to spark protests. Memić was a young man who died in suspicious circumstances, which have been questioned ever since. Protests under the slogan “Pravda za Dzenana” (Justice for Dzenan) reignited on 21st July 2018. Protests started after a court in Sarajevo released the suspects from murder charges. Participants maintain that the state was complicit in murdering Memić. The investigation has been controversial. Protesters blame the corrupt system, citing concerns over ethnic-based political divisions. A similar case has also sparked protests. David Dragicevic's family have organised protests after his mysterious death. Protesting for five months to demand justice, they too blame a corrupt and discriminatory political system. Both deaths remain unsolved.  
  • War veterans continued their protests in Sarajevo. On 26th July 2018, they protested by blocking roads while waiting for the House of Peoples to adopt a law on their benefits. The protest turned from peaceful to violent when participants attacked two journalists. The confrontation injured cameraman from Al Jazeera Balkans and a reporter from Klix.ba. Protests continued throughout the summer. On 5th September 2018, war veterans blocked the main street in Sarajevo after the law's approval deadline expired. Politicians had failed to make an agreement relating to their benefits. This time protesters violently clashed with police. Authorities deployed police forces who used tear gas to disperse the participants. Police also fired rubber bullets and beat protesters with batons. The ensuing violence left four police injured and two protesters detained. Local media reported that dozens of veterans needed medical assistance after the confrontation.
  • Many protests have taken place without incident. For example: the 26th commemoration of the victims of the notorious Omarska Camp by former detainees and relatives of prisoners who were killed at the Bosnian Serb-run detention facility. The peaceful gathering of about a hundred of people in Prijedor for the International Day of Missing Persons. Finally, a gathering of the citizens of Bihac. Protesters called for government help with the increasing number of migrants and refugees in their region.

Expression

January to March

Freedom of expression was a hot topic at the start of 2018. In February a meeting on Trebevic Mountain discussed  challenges to media freedoms. Another meeting in March held in Sarajevo also focused on restrictions on freedom of expression. Both events noted on the issue of defamation cases against media workers. Bosnia's use of defamation cases failed to align with European standards. As such, concerns about the politicisation of restrictions were rife. Both meetings called for better monitoring of restrictions on journalists. 

In response, new tools are emerging. GoDigitalAgainstHarassment tracks attacks again the media in Bosnia. Journalists identified ethnic tensions as a key driver behind the harassment. The noted that most attacks occur when writing about ethnic tolerance and reconciliation. For example, www.tačno.net has been repeatedly targeted. The portal frequently suffers harassment for exposing war criminals and the denial of war crimes. 

Political influence on Bosnian media remains a key concern. The Balkan investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) has initiated a project to equip journalists with legal knowledge to combat organised crime and corruption. Observers hope the project will help support journalistic independence. 

March to May

A report by the European Commission (EC) shed light on the issues facing journalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It noted corruption as an obstacle to the exercise of freedom of expression. The report also highlighted that journalists are vulnerable to attack after criticising politicians. Similarly, the ability of the judiciary to protect journalists was also questioned. Evidence pointed to the lack of successful investigations and prosecutions after attacks. 

May 2018 saw one journalist targeted. Dragan Bursac received several death threats after criticising General Ratko Mladic. A convicted war criminal, Mladic oversaw the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. Tensions over the General ran high in 2017, as his trial in the Hague in May 2017. The journalist had expressed revulsion over a planned protest by supporters of Mladic. These comments led to him receive a backlash from Bosnian Serb nationalists. Bursac has won awards for the quality of his journalism. Fearing for his safety, police offered Bursac protection. An investigation later identified 6 suspects. Despite these threats, Bursac vowed to continue his work unafraid. 

On 16th May 2018, a conference held in Sarajevo highlighted issues faced by female journalists. It highlighted that women face unequal treatment, making a difficult job harder. Gender inequality compounds and exacerbates this issue. As such, women journalists can suffer online and offline threats which go unpunished. Another report noted the failure to implement the Istanbul Convention on gender-based violence and domestic violence. Crimes against female journalists are often not effectively prosecuted. This means that the victims can be vulnerable to repeated attacks and the practice of self censorship.

May to July

A report published on 18th May 2018, again noted the political pressure experienced by Bosnian journalists. The Real Voice of Journalism, noted the issues faced by local outlets. The report documented the range of political and financial problems. This critical situation has forced many journalists to self-censor themselves for fear of losing funding. CSOs brought the issue to the judicial authorities. In particular, they focused on the lack of investigation and prosecution for perpetrators of attacks against journalists. 

July to August

On  26th July 2018, unknown assailants attacked journalists in Sarajevo. Journalists working for Al Jazeera Balkans and Klix portal were covering a protest by war veterans when they were set upon. Approximately twelve people confronted the journalists before attacking them. A female attacker allegedly used a metal rod to hit them and was later arrested. The next day, a unidentified male called the Klix.ba office and threatened staff. In an expletive ridden rant, he informed journalists he would "tear off their heads in the street." 

Civil society condemned the events. The BiH Association of Journalists and the BiH Press Council, as well as OSCE and the EU Delegation to BiH called for a swift enquiry. Police opened an investigation into both incidents. 

Hooded men attacked another journalist in August. On 27th August 2018, BN TV journalist, Vladimir Kovacevic was severely beaten in Banja Luka. Kovacevic had been reporting on the killing of David Dragicevic. He was taken to hospital and treated for injuries to his head and body. The BiH Journalists Association claim the attack was carefully orchestrated. BN TV demanded that authorities in Republika Srpska find the perpetrators. In a statement, they also drew attention to: 

"Constant (verbal) attacks from certain political circles". 

The OSCE's Representative on Media Freedom and the Head of the OSCE Mission to BiH strongly condemned the attack. In a statement, they said:

"The negative rhetoric being used against the media must end, in order to prevent further such attacks against journalists. I urge the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina to swiftly investigate this attack and bring its perpetrators to justice." 

Observers have highlighted a growing climate of hostility towards journalists. Although Bosnian Serb President, Milorad Dodik condemned the attack, many claim he has contributed to a climate of aggression. Dodik has a well-documented track record of distain for journalists. In particular, the BiH Journalists Association claimed that Dodik has labelled journalists: 

 “Servants of foreign politicians who want to abolish RS and exterminate the Serbs”

On 28 August 2018, journalists gathered in Sarajevo and Banja Luka, to highlight the growing climate of fear. So far in 2018, there have been 41 attacks on journalists.