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Two Controversial Laws Pose a Threat to Civic Space in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Why Should Anyone Be Concerned?

Despite ongoing efforts by civil society, activists, and academia, as well as strong international condemnation, the anti-defamation law was adopted in Republika Srpska on July 20. The recriminalization of defamation ’represents a setback of over two decades. Critics argue that criminalizing defamation may stifle freedom of expression and media independence. It could also create unequal rights within the country, as defamation is not criminalized in other regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The hurried adoption without thorough consultations is troubling, as it undermines democratic principles and curtails citizens’ rights. Proponents of the initiative maintain that it would protect the reputations of public figures and institutions and address the issue of misinformation while disregarding the protection of the public interest.

However, journalists and advocates of free speech, HRDs, and CSOs have all raised their concerns. They point out that this law could be used to suppress dissent and investigative journalism, thereby undermining the tenets of press freedom and freedom of expression as a whole and demand a balanced approach that safeguards these freedoms while considering legitimate concerns surrounding defamation and its consequences.

Sadly, the adoption of the anti-defamation law is not the only measure further corroding the already narrowed civic space in Republika Srpska. Another concerning initiative is the ongoing effort to introduce a “foreign agents” law, initiated in March 2023. The proposed act draws parallels with Russia’s controversial law, aiming to regulate foreign-funded organizations operating within Republika Srpska. According to the proposed legislation, these organizations would be required to register as “foreign agents” and disclose detailed financial information, activities, and affiliations, in addition to those already required by law.

This move has sparked fears among civil society, media, and international observers that it could be used to target and stigmatize independent groups and media outlets critical of the government. Another red flag raised is that this law may be employed to suppress dissent and hinder the work of civil society organizations, including those working with vulnerable groups, on environmental problems, and advocating for democratic values.

Despite Bosnia and Herzegovina gaining EU candidate status on December 15, 2022, the recent practices of introducing restrictive laws, such as the already adopted anti-defamation law and the proposed foreign agents’ law, represent major backslides in its path towards EU accession. These practices are likely to present serious challenges during the screening process, especially concerning Chapter 23 – Judiciary and Fundamental Rights, and Chapter 24 – Justice and Security.

At this critical stage, it is imperative for Bosnia and Herzegovina to take into consideration the proposed Anti-SLAPP Directive by the European Commission in 2022, a directive aiming to address the growing problem of strategic lawsuits targeting journalists, activists, and other public watchdogs across Europe.

By adopting measures to protect freedom of expression and civic participation, Bosnia and Herzegovina can demonstrate its commitment to meeting the European Union’s democratic standards and reinforcing its candidacy for EU membership. Implementing the proposed Anti-SLAPP Directive would signify the EU effectively exercising its soft transformative power in the candidate countries.

Considering the disconcerting regression of civic space and freedom of expression in Bosnia and Herzegovina, exemplified by recent measures such as the anti-defamation law and the proposed “foreign agents” law, a collective and resounding call for broader awareness and support is essential. The role of civil society networks, activists, media, and the international community cannot be understated in generating a transformative momentum toward positive change.

Crucially, the European Union and the Office of the High Representative possess the influential leverage needed to counteract the encroachment upon civic space and free speech, thereby upholding the democratic aspirations of Bosnia and Herzegovina on its path toward EU accession. This concerted effort signifies not only a commitment to shared democratic values but also a determination to safeguard the very essence of an open society, ensuring that media freedom and civic engagement continue to thrive and flourish.

The shrinking of the civic space in the Balkans region has been going on for a while and trends in one country easily spread to another. The phenomenon is quite complex and at the same time conditioned by many socio-political, cultural, and judicial circumstances, but the sure thing is that it directly correlates to the state of democracy in a country and can endanger the peace and prosperity of our region. The hope to see our countries making democratic progress, rather than a step back, for the good of our people, perpetually continues.

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