Media freedom and integrity in the Western Balkans: Recent developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina

    An additional concern for the media and for freedom of expression more generally is a new law adopted by the RS National Assembly on 5 February. The Law on Public Peace and Order raised fears that the authorities might in the future seek to clamp down on online expression such as Tweets or Facebook posts. The law criminalises social media postings that disturb public order or contain indecent, offensive or insulting content. An official at the EU Delegation explained that in the Delegation’s preliminary analysis, the main problem with these provisions was their sweeping character, which hands prosecutors and judges almost unlimited power to clamp down on online expression.

    BOSNIA and HERZEGOVINA

    Perhaps the most chilling incident concerning free media in Bosnia-Herzegovina in recent years occurred at the very end of December 2014, when police raided the offices of Intersoft, owners of Klix.ba, a popular web portal. Acting on a warrant from Sarajevo municipal court, the authorities were searching for the original recording of a conversation published by Klix in November that had caused a political scandal in the Republika Srpska (RS), one of the two entities into which the country is divided.

    In the recording, Željka Cvijanović, the RS prime minister, appeared to be discussing bribes being paid to two opposition parliamentarians in exchange for their support of the government that was being formed at the time by the ruling Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) of RS President Milorad Dodik.

    Dodik and his political allies cast doubt on the recording’s authenticity, and RS prosecutors summoned the portal’s editors to Banja Luka, the RS capital, for questioning. They seemed interested primarily in identifying the source of the recording.

    The following month, on 29 December, police conducted a highly unusual raid on the Sarajevo offices of Intersoft. The officers carrying out the raid came not only from Sarajevo cantonal police, as would be expected in such circumstances, but also from the RS police. This curious fact prompted Tihomir Loza of Transitions Online to observe that inter-entity police co-operation seemed to work fine in Bosnia-Herzegovina when it came to suppressing media freedom (though not in many other areas). The police confiscated computers, mobile phones and other equipment and destroyed some of it, according to journalists who were present during the raid.

    The raid was so controversial that the Federation authorities felt compelled to review the decision allowing it. On 4 February, the Federation government endorsed reports from the entity’s justice and interior ministries according to which the raid had violated the constitutional rights of the journalists involved. It also said that the raid had been “manifestly unlawful” and noted in particular that RS police officers actively participated in the search even though the law only allowed them to attend such operations.

    In a long piece on the increasingly frequent attacks on journalists in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the newsweekly Dani on 9 January accused the country’s judiciary of prosecuting journalists instead of the crimes they report on.

    The RS government has a long history of antagonistic relations with certain media, notably the private BN television channel from Bijeljina, barring it from attending news conferences and withholding public information from it. BN reporters have been unable to get accreditation for Dodik’s news conferences, for example. Such intimidation is by no means limited to RS, although the somewhat more pluralistic politics of the Federation create more space for free media there.

    An additional concern for the media and for freedom of expression more generally is a new law adopted by the RS National Assembly on 5 February. The Law on Public Peace and Order raised fears that the authorities might in the future seek to clamp down on online expression such as Tweets or Facebook posts. The law criminalises social media postings that disturb public order or contain indecent, offensive or insulting content. An official at the EU Delegation explained that in the Delegation’s preliminary analysis, the main problem with these provisions was their sweeping character, which hands prosecutors and judges almost unlimited power to clamp down on online expression.

    The day the new law was adopted, the EU Delegation to BiH issued a statement that read in part: “Any regulation must be necessary, clearly defined and prescribed by the respective legislation. We believe that the definitions in the RS law on public order remain vague and leave too much room for arbitrary implementation. Having this in mind we call upon the responsible authorities to ensure clarity and proportionality in legislation and its implementation.”

    Dunja Mijatović, the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, also condemned the new law, which had been adopted over her objections. “I am disappointed that so many local and international voices of concern were simply ignored,” she said in a statement, adding that the law “paves the way for legal restrictions to online free expression and free media”. “By including social media in the law, there is a danger that officials could interpret ill-defined terms to sanction and limit the free flow of information and free expression online.” In her view, legal sanctions against online statements are justified only in cases of “direct incitement to violence”. “Freedom of expression online should be left to self-regulatory bodies to deal with.”

    This is an important insight for governments, international organisations, advocacy groups and foreign donors seeking to strengthen the free media in the Western Balkans. In an imperfect world where the rule of law is routinely challenged by entrenched interests, rewriting laws and regulations is but one dimension of strengthening freedom. A deep engagement with a country’s politics is required to understand, and change, a culture of viewing media as a pawn in a high-stakes game, and a culture of impunity for those in power.

    This report focuses on the three countries where issues of media freedom appear most acute and where there has been the most pronounced deterioration in recent months: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia. All three are in complete democracies—democratic systems without the rule of law. Macedonia and Serbia are governed by strongmen who are tightening their grip on the institutions of the state while preserving the outward trappings of democracy. Bosnia-Herzegovina, thanks to its fragmented political set-up, provides more space for freedom of expression, but there, too, this freedom is increasingly being curtailed.

    Author: Toby Vogel

     


     

    Toby Vogel is a writer on international affairs based in Brussels. In 2007-14, he was a staff writer with European Voice, and previously an associate editor with Transitions Online based in Sarajevo. He has worked for the Open Society Institute, the International Rescue Committee and the United Nations Development Programme in Vienna, New York, and in the Balkans. He is a senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council (Washington, D.C., and Berlin) and a 2003 Andrew W. Mellon fellow in security and humanitarian affairs at City University New York.

    This report was published on the European Fund for the Balkans website (March 2015). We republish it from the DIALOGUE – BIH2.0 – DIJALOG portal.