The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but governmental respect for this right remained poor during the year. Intimidation, harassment, and threats against journalists and media outlets continued with the same intensity as in prior years, while the majority of media coverage was dominated by ethnic and political bias, often encouraging intolerance. Absence of transparency in media ownership remained a problem. In the RS, authorities did not implement a law enacted in 2015 restricting internet speech critical of officials and other individuals.
Freedom of Expression: The country’s law provides for freedom of expression, but irregular implementation and application of the law often undermined press freedoms. The law prohibits expression that provokes racial, ethnic, or other forms of intolerance, including “hate speech,” but authorities did not enforce these restrictions.
According to BiH Journalists’ Association data covering 2006 to 2015, authorities prosecuted approximately 25 percent of reported criminal acts committed against journalists and investigated more than a third of all cases alleging violation of journalists’ rights. Under pressure from professional organizations to address criminal acts against journalists, the Council of Ministers in February adopted an action plan to protect the rights of journalists and media professionals. The BiH Journalists’ Association subsequently noted increased readiness on the part of law enforcement agencies and prosecutors’ offices to address alleged violations of press freedom.
Independent analysts noted the continued tendency of politicians and other leaders to label unwanted criticism as hate speech or treason and to discriminate against media outlets perceived as hostile in their coverage. In one example, in January the Office of the RS President refused to issue credentials to an N1 television crew. Following criticism from the BiH Journalists’ Association, the BiH ombudsman, and the Communications Regulatory Agency (CRA), authorities issued credentials to both N1 and BNTV, a recognized pro-opposition media outlet based in Bijeljina. As of July, the CRA registered one complaint alleging hate speech in the media, although the complaint was later rejected. As of August, the self-regulatory BiH Press Council received 113 complaints related to hate speech and determined that there were 55 cases of incitement and speech spreading hate. Almost all reported instances of hate speech occurred in online media.
Press and Media Freedom: The law prohibiting expression that provokes racial, ethnic, or other forms of intolerance applies to print and broadcast media, the publication of books, and online newspapers and journals but was not enforced. In addition, the BiH constitution, the constitutions of the entities, and the Statute of the Brcko District guarantee freedom of expression; implementation and enforcement of these legal protections remained sporadic. While the country has decriminalized defamation, a large number of cases continued to be brought against journalists, often resulting in extremely high financial fines. Laws delegate responsibility for safeguarding freedom of the press in most instances to the cantons in the Federation and to the entity-level authorities in the RS. While numerous outlets continued to express a wide variety of views, coverage diverged along political and ethnic lines, and media outlets remained subject to excessive influence from government, political parties, and private interest groups. A number of independent media outlets continued to encounter financial problems that endangered their operations.
Authorities continued to exert pressure on media outlets to discourage some forms of expression, and party and governmental control over the major information outlets narrowed the range of opinions represented in both entities. Public broadcasters remained under strong pressure from government and political forces due to a lack of long-term financial stability and their dependence on politically controlled funding sources. These factors limited their independence and resulted in news that was consistently subjective and politically biased.
The main public broadcasters--Radio and Television of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BHRT), Radio and Television of the Republika Srpska (RTRS), and Federation Radio and Television (FTV)--faced continued financial instability due to the loss of dedicated tax revenue. The nationwide public broadcaster BHRT, whose content was considered to be politically neutral, remained on the verge of financial collapse. Institutional instability within the governing structures of FTV also remained unresolved, leaving the Federation’s public broadcaster open to political pressure. FTV continued to demonstrate political bias. The RS government continued directly to control RTRS, using it for promotion of the RS political establishment and to undercut political opposition. After monitoring the public broadcasters’ news programs, the CRA found that RTRS reporting on RS authorities never included criticism. On July 17, the CRA fined the RTRS 29,000 marks ($17,700) for violating provisions requiring fairness and impartiality.
Entity governments and institutions further undercut the independence of their respective broadcasters by excluding the CRA from the process of appointing governing boards for the broadcasters. The various authorities remained subject to competing political interests and failed to establish a public broadcasting service corporation to oversee the operations of all public broadcasters in the country as provided by law.
Violence and Harassment: Intimidation and threats against journalists continued during the year. There were instances of intimidation and politically motivated litigation against journalists for unfavorable reporting on government leaders and authorities. As of July the Free Media Help Line recorded 338 cases involving violations of journalists’ rights and freedoms or pressure from government and law enforcement officials. Authorities registered five death threats against journalists during the year.
After publishing a story on June 29 about a boy crying and begging for food at an iftar meal during Ramadan in the RS village of Konjevic Polje, news director Amir Zukic and journalist Adisa Imamovic from CNN-affiliate N1 were subject to serious threats posted on the Facebook page Bosnjaci.net. N1 filed a criminal complaint against Bosnjaci.net, accusing the website of jeopardizing the safety of its journalists by publishing threatening commentary that incited religious and national hatred. Despite the complaint, the threats continued, and legal proceedings over the criminal complaint were ongoing at year’s end.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Multiple political parties and entity-level institutions attempted to influence editorial policies and media content through legal and financial measures. As a result, some media outlets practiced self-censorship.
In some instances, media sources reported that officials threatened outlets with loss of advertising or limited their access to official information. Prevailing practices reflected close connections between major advertisers and political circles and allowed for biased distribution of advertising time. Public companies, most of which were under the control of political parties, remained the key advertisers. Outlets critical of ruling parties claimed they faced difficulties in obtaining advertising.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that it monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The law prohibits expression of racial, ethnic, or other intolerance, which includes hate speech. Authorities, however, did not enforce these prohibitions for online media.
While access to the internet is not explicitly listed as a legal right, constitutional and legal protections have been interpreted to also apply to the internet. In the RS, the law declares that internet-based social networks are part of the public domain and provides fines for “insulting or disturbing” content, not clearly defined, published on the internet. Independent analysts considered this provision as an attempt to control online activism and social media, noting that the law broadens police authority. RS authorities have not implemented the law, having initially met strong negative reaction from journalists, NGOs, opposition political parties, and the international community. In 2016 the RS Constitutional Court rejected as unfounded an appeal submitted jointly by Transparency International, the BiH Journalists’ Association, and the Banja Luka Club of Journalists that challenged the legality and constitutionality of the law.
Many news portals were not registered and did not list any contact information, making it difficult to respond against them. The vast majority of registered hate speech cases in the country occurred online.
According to the International Telecommunication Union statistics, approximately 69 percent of the population used the internet in 2016.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
Following municipal elections in October 2016, the cantonal governments in Tuzla and Sarajevo passed laws that could restrict the independence and academic freedom of universities within their jurisdiction by giving elected municipal authorities the right to hire and fire university personnel, including academics, at their discretion. The new laws reflected a trend towards increased ethno-politicized influence in the administration of universities, with effects ranging from greater corruption in higher education to ethnic and political bias in the university environment.
The country’s eight public universities remained segregated along ethnic lines, including their curricula, diplomas, and relevant school activities. Professors reportedly on occasion used prejudicial language in their lectures, while the selection of textbooks and school materials reinforced discrimination and prejudice.