Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is a democratic republic with a bicameral parliament. Many governmental functions are the responsibility of two entities within the state, the Federation and the Republika Srpska (RS), as well as the Brcko District, an autonomous administrative unit under BiH sovereignty. The 1995 General Framework Agreement for Peace (the Dayton Accords), which ended the 1992-95 Bosnian war, provides the constitutional framework for governmental structures, while other parts of the agreement specify the government’s obligations to protect human rights, such as the right of wartime refugees and displaced persons to return to their prewar homes. The country held general elections in October. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) noted that elections were held in a competitive environment, but were characterized by continuing segmentation along ethnic lines. While candidates were able to campaign freely, ODIHR noted that “instances of pressure and undue influence on voters were not effectively addressed,” citing long-standing deficiencies in the legal framework. OSCE/ODIHR further noted that elections were administered efficiently, but widespread credible allegations of electoral contestants manipulating the composition of polling station commissions reduced voter confidence in the integrity of the process.
While civilian authorities maintained effective control and coordination over law enforcement agencies and security forces, a lack of clear division of jurisdiction and responsibilities between the country’s 16 law enforcement agencies resulted in occasional confusion and overlapping responsibilities.
Human rights issues included harsh prison conditions; restrictions of freedom of assembly and expression, and the press; widespread government corruption; crimes involving violence against minorities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons.
Units in both entities and the Brcko District investigated allegations of police abuse, meted out administrative penalties, and referred cases of criminal misconduct to prosecutors. These units generally operated effectively, and there were no reports of impunity during the first nine months of the year.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
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 increased in the period leading up to the October general elections, while the majority of media coverage was dominated by nationalist rhetoric and ethnic and political bias, often encouraging intolerance and sometimes hatred. The absence of transparency in media ownership remained a problem.
Freedom of Expression: The country’s laws provide for a high level of freedom of expression, but the irregular and in some instances incorrect implementation and application of the laws seriously 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 data from the BiH Journalists Association (BiH Journalists) covering the period from 2006 to 2018, authorities prosecuted approximately 30 percent of reported criminal acts committed against journalists and investigated more than one-third of all cases alleging violation of journalists’ rights.
Political and financial pressure on media outlets continued. Some media outlets noted that allegations of tax evasion and elaborate financial controls continued to be powerful tools in attempts to silence outlets. A number of physical attacks against journalists occurred during the year. The trend of politicians and other leaders accusing the media of treason in response to criticism intensified. In June, RS President Milorad Dodik accused pro-opposition BNTV journalists Suzana Radjen Todoric and Zeljko Raljic of working against the RS. Using the fact that they went to London to attend a media course and linking this to his earlier conspiracy theory about British spies planning a coup in the RS, Dodik asserted that the journalists received special training in the UK, adding that it was understood what purpose this “training” would serve. The Banja Luka Journalists Club, BiH Journalists, and the British Embassy strongly condemned the allegations, noting they jeopardized the work of the free press and the physical safety of the two journalists.
Professional media organizations also noted that gender-based attacks against female journalists increased during the year. A representative case occurred in late 2017 when the deputy secretary of the BiH Presidency harshly insulted two female journalists on his Facebook page, commenting on their television appearance and using discriminatory language. BiH Journalists called the comments a misogynistic act and demanded that the institution punish the behavior. As of mid-September, the BiH Presidency had not taken action regarding the incident.
Reporting on war crimes continued to provoke strong negative reactions, as was the case in late 2017 with journalists Sanel Kajan from al-Jazeera, Stefica Galic from the tacno.net portal, Arijana Saracevic Helac from RTV FBIH, and Lejla Turcilo from the Faculty of Political Sciences Sarajevo. These journalists received numerous threats, including death threats, due to their positions and reporting on the verdict of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on the war crimes case against six wartime military and political Croat officials.
In 2017 the Communications Regulatory Agency (CRA) won more institutional and organizational independence and was subjected to less direct government control after it was exempted from the Law on Ministries and other administrative agencies. The CRA’s financial independence continued to be of concern, however, since it was still subject to the Law on Budget and Salaries.
As of July the CRA had received 13 complaints alleging hate speech. Twelve complaints were related to the program Cyrillic, which was produced in Serbia but also aired live on ATV, a private station based in Banja Luka. All the cases were under review.
As of October the self-regulated BiH Press Council had received 198 complaints, 33 of which were related to hate speech. Two of the 33 cases were determined to be examples of incitement and the spreading of hate speech, while 18 were under review. Almost all reported cases of hate speech occurred in online media and in the comments section of online publications. The BiH Press Council noted that nearly all hate speech cases related to ethnic issues and concluded that online groups were involved in initiating intolerant speech. In the second half of the year, the Press Council has noticed an increase in hate speech towards women and journalists.
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. It has yet to be 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, however, remained sporadic.
Data from the Free Media Help Line (FMHL) indicated that courts continued to fail to differentiate between different media genres (in particular, between news and commentary), while long court procedures and legal and financial battles were financially exhausting to journalists and outlets. The FMHL concluded that years of incorrectly implementing the law had caused direct pressure against journalists and media and that such pressure jeopardized journalists’ right to freedom of expression. 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.
Authorities increased 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 Public Broadcasting System consists of three broadcasters: nationwide radio and television (BHRT) and the entity radio and television broadcasters RTRS and RTV FBiH. Public broadcasters continued to be in a difficult financial situation, primarily due to the lack of an efficient and stable system of financing.
The institutional instability of the governing structures of RTV FBiH was further illustrated by its continued failure to elect a steering board and organizational management, leaving it open to political influence. As a result, RTV FBiH continued to demonstrate political bias and a selective approach to news.
The RS government continued to control directly the RTRS, which campaigned for the ruling political parties in the RS and attacked their political opponents. Coverage of conspiracy theories and so-called “analysis” that directly supported the ruling narrative increased in the election year. The BHRT, which had a reputation of being balanced and nonbiased, in a few instances caved to increased political pressure and censored its own reporting. In March, BiH Journalists called on the management and the steering board to put an end to pressure and censorship directed at BHRT journalists. 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 increased during the year in connection with the approaching October elections. Cases of violence against journalists were recorded as well. Intimidation and politically motivated litigation against journalists for their unfavorable reporting on government leaders and authorities also continued. As of September the Free Media Help Line recorded 42 cases involving violations of journalists’ rights and freedoms or death threats and physical assaults.
A series of physical attacks against journalists, included incidents involving a group of veterans assaulting journalists from the Klix.baweb portal and al-Jazeera Balkans during protests in Sarajevo and verbal attacks against a BHRT film crew covering separate protests in Tuzla, culminated in two masked assailants violently attacking a journalist from the pro-opposition BNTV, which was based in the RS. Vladimir Kovacevic, a BNTV journalist based in Banja Luka, was severely beaten as he came home after covering a protest. He sustained severe injuries and was hospitalized. The attack was condemned by journalists, government officials, and media organizations, including a number of journalists who protested in front of the RS president’s office in Banja Luka to demand that officials stop fostering a hostile press environment. Peaceful protests by journalists followed in major cities throughout BiH. The Banja Luka district prosecutor treated the assault as an attempted murder. Numerous outlets criticized the police investigation, stressing that it was actually Kovacevic’s father, not the police, who found the first piece of evidence. RS police arrested the first suspected attacker on September 10. Although police officials emphasized that the suspect remained silent and did not cooperate, the RS minister of interior, Dragan Lukac, immediately asserted that the government was not behind the attack, but that other political forces could be. Members of the press saw these as biased actions. The police have identified the second suspect in the attack and issued a warrant for his arrest, but he remains at large.
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.
Libel/Slander Laws: While the country has decriminalized defamation, a large number of complaints continued to be brought against journalists, often resulting in extremely high monetary fines. Noteworthy court decisions against journalists included temporary bans on the posting or publication of certain information, as well as very high compensatory payments citing “mental anguish.”
In May, RS minister of the interior Lukac, spoke at an RS National Assembly special session on the unsolved murder of 21-year-old David Dragicevic. Minister Lukac repeatedly accused blogger Slobodan Vaskovic of manipulating the mourning father, Davor Dragicevic, with the goal of undermining and discrediting the RS and its police. Minister Lukac accused Vaskovic of alleged anti-RS activities, claiming that a foreign embassy in the country protected the blogger. The minister stated he would file a slander complaint against Davor Dragicevic after Vaskovic claimed in his blog that the minister was protecting the perpetrators of the murder, an accusation that Davor Dragicevic repeated. RS opposition politicians, intellectuals, and journalists condemned Minister Lukac’s speech.
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, although not clearly defined, published on the internet. Independent analysts considered this provision to be 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.
Many news portals were not registered officially and did not list contact information, making it difficult to reach them. The vast majority of registered hate speech cases in the country occurred online.
According to International Telecommunications Union statistics, 69.5 percent of individuals in the country used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The cantons of Tuzla and Sarajevo have laws that could restrict the independence and academic freedom of universities within their jurisdiction by allowing elected municipal authorities to hire and fire university personnel, including academics, at their discretion. Under the pretext that it is mandated by the law, Sarajevo University in June drafted a “code of conduct and dress” that stirred intense debate among students, academics, and members of the public, all of whom asserted the proposed dress code would be open to abuse and would violate the students’ and professors’ right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed in the constitution.
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.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. In December, however, the RS Ministry of Interior banned a group of citizens from holding peaceful protests in Banja Luka. Prior to the ban, the “Justice for David” movement had been seeking justice in the case of 21 year-old David Dragicevic, whose murder has yet to be solved. Dragicevic’s family has mobilized thousands of citizens in support of their search for the truth and their efforts to demand justice for all. The RS government justified its decision to ban all public gatherings of the group, including protests, with claims the movement failed to fully respect the law during previous rallies. The RS police interrupted a December 25 gathering, in the process arresting 20 supporters of Justice for David, including two members of the Party for Democratic Progress (PDP) – President Borislav Borenovic and delegate in the RS National Assembly Drasko Stanivukovic. Some journalists and protestors have alleged that during the arrests police used excessive force on protesters, and have produced photographs that appear to support their claims. There are 10 laws governing this right in different parts of the country, all of which were generally assessed to be overly restrictive. Examples include the prohibition of public assembly in front of numerous public institutions in the RS, while some cantonal laws in the Federation (e.g., in Central Bosnia Canton) prescribe criminal liability for failing to fulfill administrative procedures for holding a peaceful assembly. Human rights NGOs reported that authorities manipulated and controlled the process of granting the right to assembly to civil society groups in both entities on several occasions in 2017.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Under the law, NGOs can register at the state, entity, and cantonal levels in a generally streamlined and simple administrative process. Cooperation between the government and civil society organizations at the state and entity levels, however, remained weak, while government support for civil society organizations remained nontransparent, particularly regarding the allocation of funds.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, but some restrictions remained.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance for internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees statistics indicated that 96,830 persons still held IDP status resulting from the 1992-95 conflict. The majority of Bosniaks and Croats fled the RS, while Serbs fled the Federation. At the beginning of the year, UNHCR was directly providing protection, or assistance, or both to 10,484 IDPs. According to UNHCR, an estimated 7,000 persons, including IDPs, continued to live in collective accommodations throughout the country. While the accommodations were meant to be temporary, some have been living in the accommodations for 20 or more years. A substantial number of IDPs and returnees lived in substandard conditions that affected their livelihoods.
The country’s constitution and laws provide for the voluntary return or local integration of IDPs consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The government has actively promoted the safe return and resettlement or local integration of refugees and IDPs, depending on their choice. The government allocated funding for returns and participated in internationally funded programs for return. Isolated attacks against minority returnees continued but were generally not investigated or prosecuted adequately. Minority returnees continued to face obstacles in exercising their rights in places of return.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum (refugee or subsidiary protection status), and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Asylum seekers with pending claims have a right to accommodation at the asylum center until the Ministry of Security makes a final and binding decision on their claims. Provision of adequate accommodation was one of the biggest challenges in the first half of the year due to increased arrivals of asylum seekers. It was common practice for some migrants to apply for asylum in order to gain access to temporary benefits and services, even if they had no plans to remain in BiH. The increase of arrivals delayed registration procedures and access to rights and services, including legal, medical, and basic needs such as food and basic hygiene facilities and items, which were tied directly to the accommodation facilities. In official centers, international organizations, NGOs, volunteers, or local actors provided services on an ad hoc basis. On May 18, an additional facility, the Salakovac Refugee Reception Center, was opened for the accommodation of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers have the right to appeal a negative decision once their cases reach the court. The system for providing protection to refugees seeking asylum continued to suffer from a lack of transparency.
Authorities appeared to have stopped their previous practice of placing foreigners with irregular status or without documentation in immigration detention centers and issuing expulsion orders without giving asylum seekers the ability to present applications. The change came with the increase of new arrivals during the year. In the past, the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs held asylum seekers for 90 days, the maximum initial holding period prescribed by law. Detention decisions were issued in the Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian languages while, according to the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs, individuals were informed of the content of the decision orally with the assistance of an interpreter. A foreigner may appeal a decision on detention within three days from the date it is issued. Many asylum seekers did not receive legal aid within this timeframe, and they subsequently told UNHCR that they were not informed of this possible remedy.
UNHCR paid ad hoc visits to the Immigration Center of the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs, where foreigners were detained. The center accommodated 60-80 irregular migrants per day and had an area to accommodate families. UNHCR’s main concern with regard to the center was the difficulty experienced by legal aid NGOs that wanted to access it on a regular basis and the fact that authorities detained children there.
According to UNHCR, authorities held 57 individuals seeking asylum at the Immigration Center during the first eight months of the year. Information on the right to seek asylum was not readily available to potential asylum seekers in the center. UNHCR expressed concern that foreigners in detention may not have access to asylum procedures and that authorities may prematurely return some potential asylum seekers under readmission agreements before they have been afforded due opportunity to file a claim for asylum. UNHCR reported that applicants for refugee status did not have sufficient legal assistance; that there were no clear standards of proof or methods of assessing the credibility of claims, including country of origin; and that guidelines for determining whether there was a risk of persecution were unduly strict.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The law provides for the application of the concept of “safe country of origin or safe third country.” Under this provision, authorities may deny asylum to applicants who cannot prove they were unable to return to their country of origin or to any country of transit without risking refoulement.
Durable Solutions: The laws provide a program for integration and return of refugees and displaced persons. The country was party to a regional housing program funded by international donors and facilitated in part by UNHCR and the OSCE to provide durable solutions for up to 74,000 refugees and displaced persons from four countries in the region, including 14,000 of the most vulnerable refugees, returnees, and IDPs from the country. The process of selecting program beneficiaries was protracted due to capacity and management problems that resulted in extended delays in the reconstruction of homes. Fragmented institutional arrangements added administrative delays to the process, as did the political imperative to select beneficiaries proportionally from among the country’s constituent peoples.
Temporary Protection: The government provided subsidiary protection status to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. In the first seven months of the year, authorities provided subsidiary protection to 11 individuals and extended existing subsidiary protection to 18 others.