JOHANNESBURG – The CIVICUS Monitor has added Bosnia & Herzegovina to its Watchlist of countries experiencing rapid declines in civic freedoms following laws challenging the judiciary and attacks against activists and civil society. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s civic space is rated narrowed.
“Recently, an ongoing political crisis caused by secessionist threats from one of the country’s two constituent entities, Republika Srpska (RS), has led to increased pressure on civil society and media in its territory, threatening civic space in the country as a whole”, organization stated.
According to the published report, the crisis peaked in June this year, when the RS parliament passed a law rejecting the authority of the state-wide Constitutional Court. The President of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, described the move as “cleansing Bosnia and Herzegovina of foreign influence” and has gone on to champion a series of authoritarian bills aimed at silencing dissent, including a draft law on “foreign agents” and “draconian” amendments re-introducing criminal defamation into the legal system. Meanwhile, institutions in RS have failed to protect LGBTQI+ activists from increased violence.
“The legislative efforts in Republika Srpska to undermine civic space are deeply worrying, and show the authorities are taking a step back on the EU path”, said Dajana Cvjetković, Program Manager at the Centre for Civil Society Promotion.
Cvetković underlines that the ‘foreign agents’ law doesn’t only threaten the work of civil society, it’s an attack on the fundamental freedoms of all citizens, guaranteed by international law and the Constitution of BiH. It’s essentially a legal tool to destroy any criticism of the government.
“With civil society and the media being targeted, Bosnia and Herzegovina risks becoming one of the more restricted countries in the Western Balkans,” says Tara Petrović, Europe and Central Asia Researcher at CIVICUS. She adds there is still room to reverse the negative trend and pave the way to an enabling environment for freedom of speech and association in the country.
CIVICUS recalls that since March, authorities in Republika Srpska have been pushing for multiple repressive laws despite sharp protests from the international community. In July, amendments re-criminalizing defamation after 20 years were adopted in the RS parliament, worsening an already perilous environment for the media. Violence and threats against journalists are common across Bosnia and Herzegovina and have seen a marked increase since 2022.
Another concerning development for CIVICUS is the draft law on the Special Registry and Publicity of the Work of Non-Profit Organisations, set to be debated in the RS parliament at the end of September. Introducing a strict ban on “political activities,” it would forbid foreign-funded civil society and non-profit media from engaging in public discourse under penalty of closure or criminal prosecution. More legislation targeting activists could soon follow, with President Dodik announcing laws banning LGBTQI+ advocates from schools and a “law on enemies of Republika Srpska” are next on the agenda.
“We urge RS authorities to abandon the proposed laws restricting basic civic freedoms. Upholding human rights for all and encouraging open debate are particularly crucial in the context of a fragile democracy like Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Petrović says.
CIVICUS urges Republika Srpska authorities to repeal the changes made to the Criminal Code and make sure all existing and proposed laws related to defamation, insult, or privacy follow international freedom of expression standards.
They call on immediately withdrawing the proposed law on the Special Registry and Publicity of Non-Profit Organisations and involve civil society in further developing this and any other laws regulating non-profit entities and ceasing intimidation and harassment of journalists and civil society, publicly denounce such actions at the high- est level and ensure fair and unbiased prosecution for all crimes committed against them and their property.
Among recommendations for RS authorities, CIVICUS stressed the importance of respecting the rights of LGBTQI+ individuals, including their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. “Make sure all cases of discrimination and hate crimes are prosecuted according to the state-wide Law on the Prohibition of Discrimination and the Criminal Code of Republika Srpska”, the report adds.
CIVICUS calls on the international community to closely monitor the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina to ensure that all legislative proposals align with the country’s International human rights obligations. The organization urges authorities at all levels of government in BiH to establis
CIVICUS calls on the international community to closely monitor the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina to ensure that all legislative proposals align with the country’s International human rights obligations. The organization urges authorities at all levels of government in BiH to establish and maintain an enabling environment for the work of journalists and civil society, in both legislation and practice.