Freedom of expression and media freedom in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and specifically in BiH’s Republika Srpska entity, remain threatened – and the challenges and risks are worsening. This was communicated in multiple forums by Republika Srpska journalists and civil society representatives with high-level officials in Vienna, Strasbourg and Brussels from 21-26 May. Numerous official reports and statements by the EU, OSCE, Council of Europe and UN have echoed this sentiment. The visit was organised by the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina and the European Union.
While attacks against journalists and civil society are a concern across BiH, current draft legislation in the RS aims to re-criminalise defamation and place restrictions on the work of NGOs. The journalists and CSO representatives noted that this draft legislation requires the attention of the international community, as its adoption would have an immediate, detrimental effect on fundamental freedoms in the RS, in particular freedoms of expression and of association. The approval of these draft laws would also represent a serious step backwards vis-à-vis the European Union’s 14 priorities for BiH’s EU accession progress (specifically priorities 11 and 12, which refer to enabling civil society, and protecting fundamental freedoms of expression and journalistic rights). Moreover, the draft laws are not consistent with international human rights standards.
The group was made up of professionals with deep insights into the current human rights situation in BiH, and specifically the RS. To highlight the already significant challenges which journalists and CSOs face in the RS, the group recounted their personal experiences of violent incidents they have witnessed, as well as cases where they were victims themselves. The group was comprised of Jovana Kisin Zagajac, human rights defender and attorney for a number of journalists in Republika Srpska, Ivana Korajlić, Executive Director of Transparency International BiH, Nikola Morača, journalist at EuroBlic, Dejan Šajinović, journalist at Nezavisne Novine, and Vanja Stokić, editor-in-chief of eTrafika.
The group met a broad range of counterparts during the visit, including high-level officials, parliamentarians, and representatives of the United Nations and journalists associations. Officials included Director of the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Jürgen Heissel, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović, European External Action Service Managing Director for Europe Angelina Eichhorst and Managing Director for Global Agenda and Multilateral Relations Belen Martinez Carbonell, members of European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová’s team, the EU’s lead spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Peter Stano and the Principal Advisor on Civil Society and Media to the Commission’s Director-General for Enlargement, Andris Kesteris. In the European Parliament they met MEPs Tineke Strik, Paulo Rangel and Dietmar Köster, and at the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Co-Rapporteur Aleksandar Nikoloski. They also met with International Press Institute Director Frane Maroević and European Federation of Journalists Director Renate Schroeder.
During these discussions, the journalists and human rights defenders underlined that the draft legislation in the RS would have a chilling effect on their work and safety, adding to an already challenging environment and encouraging self-censorship due to a fear of criticising the authorities. They pointed out that many journalists are already leaving the profession, and that activists and journalists who are critical of authorities are frequently threatened and, in some cases attacked. The group also noted that a new Law on Media to regulate media issues was needed, but that it should include the input of journalists and civil society and meet European and international human rights standards. Moreover, the group warned about worrying additional attempts to criminalise spreading of “fake news” throughout the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The group’s presentation was well-received by their counterparts in Vienna, Strasbourg and Brussels, having raised official awareness of the deteriorating human rights situation in the RS. The group will continue to work for improved fundamental freedoms and the protection of journalists and civil society in the RS and BiH, alongside their partners at the OSCE Mission to BiH, the European Union, the Council of Europe and the United Nations.