Decree prohibits the spread of fake news about COVID-19, raising concerns of media censorship

Association

During this reporting period, and as a response to the COVID-19 crisis, the government drafted a Law on Mitigation of Economic Consequences, which did not include CSOs (civil society organisations) as beneficiaries of the economic assistance measures. Some state that this adds to the already adverse effects of the pandemic on the civil society sector as many associations have been forced to suspend their activities. This also puts into question the future development and resilience of civil society in the country.

Peaceful Assembly

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the measures put in place to curb the spread of the virus in the country was a ban on public gatherings. However, a few protests took place during the reporting period.

Community protests construction of hydroelectric power plants

Despite these measures, the local population in Foča blocked the construction of small hydroelectric power plants Bjelava and Mala Bjelava. More than twenty locals, also joined by representatives of the Coalition for the Protection of Rivers, gathered at the blockade to prevent workers from approaching their machines and continuing with the illegal works. The construction of these power plants began in a context where the movement of citizens is limited, public gatherings are prohibited and inspection and supervision is difficult. As a result, this led to a revolt of the local population, which opposes the construction on the grounds that it will pose ecological damage to their locality.

Police warn “Justice for David” anti-fascist protesters

On 9th May 2020, after the Government of Republika Srpska allowed gatherings of up to 50 people to take place, several members of "Justice for David" gathered at Krajina Square to symbolically mark the victory over fascism. The “Justice for David’ movement came about as a result of the death of 21-year-old Bosnian-Serb student David Dragicevic in 2018. The person responsible for his death has still not been found by the authorities, who at the time ruled it as an accident.

A few days after this gathering, a dozen of Banja Luka citizens gathered with the informal group "Justice for David" which is now continuing its activities as they did before the COVID-19 crisis. However, the police warned them to disperse and explained that the public gathering was not previously reported or approved. A few hours before the gathering on 12th May 2020, Ozren Perduv, a member of "Justice for David", was called in by the Banja Luka Police where he was warned that public gatherings without approval would not be tolerated by the police in the future.

Expression

According to the Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Bosnia and Herzegovina scored a five-point rise compared to last year and it is now ranked in 58th position. This country holds the best position among the Western Balkan countries. However, the report points out that “the further collapse of public service broadcasters in the country is one of the main weaknesses, along with the polarised political climate, marked by constant verbal attacks and nationalist rhetoric, which has created a hostile environment for press freedom”.

Decree passed during COVID-19 threatens media freedom

On 19th March 2020, the government of Republika Srpska enacted a decree which prohibits the spread of panic and disorder during a state of emergency. The decree introduces penalties (ranging from EUR 500 to EUR 4, 500) for anyone who “spreads panic and publishes or transmits fake news on COVID-19”, regardless of whether it is through media or social networks.

The Bosnian Journalists’ Association issued a statement equating the orders to media censorship:

This order represents a harsh attack on freedom of the media, freedom of expression and the right of individuals to publicly express their views, and gives disproportionately large rights and opportunities for individuals, in this case to persons from the Municipal Civil Protection Staff of Stari Grad Sarajevo, to censor the media and restrict citizens’ right to freedom of expression through social networks.”

The Board of Directors of the Association of Bosnian Journalists has therefore called for unhindered access to information regarding the COVID-19 epidemic in a safe and free manner, without imposing any restrictions, censorship or restrictions on journalists. From the Club of Journalists in Banja Luka, they state that the provisions are not well-defined, which could lead to them being misinterpreted and misused.

“Such an approach calls for the urgent withdrawal of decisions and regulations with legal force concerning the restriction of freedom of expression and opinion in the media and on social networks, as well as the abolition of the power of individuals, police and other security agencies to censor the media and citizens, with rapid investigations or the imposition of very high fines, as in Republika Srpska,” the Association said in a press release.

The representatives of Transparency International in Bosnia and Herzegovina called on the President of Republika Srpska to withdraw the decree, noting that the Republika Srpska Constitution stipulates that the President cannot suspend the right to freedom of expression and opinion.

Journalists face labour rights violations and attacks

The latest report on the ‘Position of Journalists and Cases of Threats towards Journalists', published by the Institution of the Human Rights/Ombudsman of Bosnia and Herzegovina, finds that during the COVID-19 crisis, journalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina are faced with numerous obstacles in doing their job, from challenges in access to institutions and field work in general, to disabled access, to FBiH Crisis Staff press conferences and loss of jobs and livelihoods.

In order to mark World Press Freedom Day, the Steering Board of the Bosnian Journalists’ Association invited all journalists, editors and other media workers to jointly oppose the open, targeted and frequent violations of journalistic rights and media freedoms in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Namely, as from May 2019, 49 physical attacks of journalists were recorded as well as cases of death threats and political pressure. Workplace mobbing, dismissals, discrimination and other forms of labour rights violations in the media are also on the rise. Of particular concern is the growing poverty of media workers, who do difficult and responsible work for humiliating salaries, which are the lowest among all professions in the country that imply having a high degree of knowledge and professional integrity.