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Albania

Executive Summary

The Republic of Albania is a parliamentary democracy. The constitution vests legislative authority in the unicameral parliament (Assembly), which elects both the prime minister and the president. The prime minister heads the government, while the president has limited executive power. In June 2017, the country held parliamentary elections. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported the elections respected fundamental freedoms but were marred by allegations of vote buying and pressure on voters.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included pervasive corruption in all branches of government.

Impunity remained a problem. Prosecution, and especially conviction, of officials who committed abuses was sporadic and inconsistent. Officials, politicians, judges, and persons with powerful business interests often were able to avoid prosecution. In response, authorities have undertaken an internationally monitored vetting of judges and prosecutors, and have dismissed a significant number of officials for unexplained wealth or ties to organized crime. Authorities also undertook technical measures, such as allowing electronic payment of traffic fines and use of body cameras, to improve police accountability and punished some lower-level officials for abuses.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. There were reports that the government, business, and criminal groups sought to influence the media in inappropriate ways.

Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of viewpoints, although there were efforts to exert direct and indirect political and economic pressure on the media, including by threats and violence against journalists who tried to investigate crime and corruption. Business owners freely used media outlets to gain favor and promote their interests with political parties. Most owners of private television stations used the content of their broadcasts to influence government action toward their other businesses. Political pressure, corruption, and lack of funding constrained independent print media, and journalists reportedly practiced self-censorship. Economic insecurity due to a lack of enforceable labor contracts reduced reporters’ independence and contributed to bias in reporting. The Albanian Journalists Union continued to report significant delays in salary payments to reporters at most media outlets, in some instances of up to 10 months. Financial problems led some journalists to rely more heavily on outside sources of income, leading to questions of integrity.

NGOs maintained that professional ethics were a low priority for some of the estimated 700-plus news portals in the country, raising concerns over the spread of false news stories that benefited specific financial or political interests. The dramatic growth in online media outlets provided a diversity of views.

In its annual Media Sustainability Index (MSI), the International Research and Exchanges Board indicated that free speech, plurality of news sources, and supporting institutions experienced a slight increase, but professionalism and business management decreased. Economic crisis and management practices in Albanian media have reduced finances and the quality of reporting in media outlets. The MSI noted that strain on media finances has led to cutbacks in newsrooms and has fostered self-censorship.

The independence of the Audiovisual Media Authority, the regulator of the broadcast media market, remained questionable, but the role of the authority remained limited.

Violence and Harassment: There were multiple reports of violence and intimidation against members of the media, and political and business interests subjected journalists to pressure.

On August 30, an unknown assailant shot 10 times at the home of crime reporter Klodiana Lala’s parents. No injuries were reported, but Lala’s two daughters were in the home at the time of the attack. Lala often reported on organized crime and law enforcement matters, including judicial reform. In a Facebook post after the attack, Lala stated she believed the attack was linked to her reporting. Police were investigating the attack.

In September the chair of the Union of Albanian Journalists stated that 12 journalists had filed asylum requests in EU member states, citing threats due to their jobs.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists often practiced self-censorship to avoid violence and harassment and as a response to pressure from publishers and editors seeking to advance their political and economic interests. A 2015 survey by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) Albania, an organization that focuses on investigative journalism, found that large commercial companies and important advertisers were key sources of pressure. A study published by the Union of Albanian Journalists in April cited censorship and self-censorship as leading problems for journalists.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law permits private parties to file criminal charges and obtain financial compensation for insult or deliberate publication of defamatory information. NGOs reported that the fines, which could be as much as three million leks ($27,800), were excessive and, combined with the entry of a conviction into the defendant’s criminal record, undermined freedom of expression. In April the Union of Albanian Journalists expressed concern that during the first four months of the year, judges and politicians had initiated 14 lawsuits against journalists.

In 2017 a member of the High Council of Justice, Gjin Gjoni, filed defamation lawsuits against two BIRN journalists and two journalists of the daily Shqiptarja.com for their coverage of his asset declaration, which prosecutors were investigating. Gjoni was seeking seven million leks ($64,800) from BIRN and four million leks ($37,000) from Shqiptarja.com, claiming the stories damaged his reputation. After several hearings, the court ruled in March to drop the Shqiptarja case because Gjoni and his lawyers had failed to appear at five of the 11 hearings. In June the court dismissed the case against BIRN. Gjoni appealed both decisions and the cases are pending.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

The Authority for Electronic and Postal Communications decreed on October 15 that 44 media web portals had 72 hours to obtain a tax identification number and publish it on their web pages or the government would shut them down. The list included several investigative news sites, including BIRN. At year’s end, the government had not shut down noncompliant portals.

According to March data from Internet World Stats, approximately 66 percent of the population used the internet.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by public officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Corruption was pervasive in all branches of government. The law prohibits individuals with criminal convictions from serving as mayors, parliamentarians, or in government or state positions.

The constitution requires judges and prosecutors to undergo vetting for unexplained wealth, ties to organized crime, and professional proficiency. Vetting was conducted by the Independent Qualification Commission, and appeals were heard by an appeals chamber. The process was overseen by the International Monitoring Operation, which was composed of international judicial experts from the United States and the EU. As of October 24, the commission had dismissed 25 judges and prosecutors and confirmed 28, while 16 others had resigned from duty rather than undergo vetting.

A number of government agencies investigated corruption cases, but limited resources, investigative leaks, real and perceived political pressure, and a haphazard reassignment system hampered investigations. In selective instances involving international actors, anticorruption agencies cooperated with civil society.

Corruption: Between January and June, the prosecutor general’s office registered 83 new corruption investigations. During the same period, 29 individuals were convicted on corruption charges, and trials began against an additional 28 individuals. . Through August, 19,295 complaints had been submitted to authorities through the online portal stopkorruption.al, 1,396 of which contained information on alleged corrupt practices. A former interior minister remained under investigation for ties to organized crime and abuse of office.

While prosecutors made significant progress in pursuing low-level public corruption cases, including corrupt prosecutors and judges, prosecution of higher-level crimes remained rare due to investigators’ fear of retribution, a general lack of resources, and corruption within the judiciary itself.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials to disclose their assets to the High Inspectorate for the Declaration and Audit of Assets and Conflict of Interest (HIDAACI), which monitored and verified such disclosures and made them available to the public. The law authorizes HIDAACI to fine officials who fail to comply with disclosure requirements or refer them to the prosecutor.

HIDAACI reported that through August it had referred 25 new cases for prosecution involving six Assembly members, one deputy minister, one mayor, six tax inspectors, six customs officials, and 11 other government officials on charges including refusing to declare, hiding, or falsifying asset declarations, money laundering, falsification of documents, and corruption. In 2017 HIDAACI fined 296 individuals for not disclosing their assets or conflicts of interest or for violating the law on whistleblower protection.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape, including spousal rape, is a crime. Penalties for rape and assault depend on the age of the victim. For rape of an adult, the prison term is three to 10 years. The law includes provisions on sexual assault and criminalizes spousal rape. The government did not enforce the law effectively, and officials did not prosecute spousal rape. The concept of spousal rape was not well understood, and authorities often did not consider it a crime.

In spite of legal protections for victims, abuses and allegations of political cover-up still occurred. For example, Xhisiela Maloku alleged that Rexhep Rraja, her boyfriend and son of Socialist Party Assembly member Rrahman Rraja, had burned and kicked her in a hotel on July 19. Forensic experts verified the nature of the wounds. Maloku later claimed she fabricated the allegations because she was jealous, but members of the opposition Democratic Party asserted Rrahman Rraja had pressured police to force Maloku to recant, citing claims by former police officer Emiliano Nuhu. The opposition also alleged the police covered up Rexhep Rraja’s sexual assault of Maloku. The judge in the case approved the prosecutor’s request to proceed to trial. Rexhep Rraja is in pretrial detention.

On July 23, the Assembly amended the law on domestic violence to extend protection to victims in an active relationship or civil union. The amendments created a protective order that automatically protects children as well.

Domestic violence against women remained a serious problem. For example, in August 2017, Judge Fildez Kasemi was fatally shot by her ex-husband in Shkoder, even as she was seeking a protection order for abuse. As of December, the ex-husband, Fadil Kasemi, was on trial for murder.

A 2017 UN Development Program (UNDP) and state statistical agency (INSTAT) report estimated that more than 53 percent of women and girls in the country had been victims of domestic violence during the previous year and stated that more than 60 percent reported they had been victims of violence at some point in their lives. Police often did not have the training or capacity to deal effectively with domestic violence cases.

The government operated one shelter to protect survivors of domestic violence and three shelters for victims of human trafficking that accommodated victims of domestic violence as well.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, although officials rarely enforced it. The commissioner for protection against discrimination generally handled cases of sexual harassment and could impose fines of up to 80,000 leks ($741) against individuals or 600,000 leks ($5,550) against enterprises.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or forced sterilization.

Discrimination: The law provides the same legal status and rights for women and men, but the government did not enforce the law effectively. Women were under-represented in many fields at the highest levels. The law mandates equal pay for equal work, although many private employers did not fully implement this provision. In many communities, women experienced societal discrimination based on traditional social norms subordinating women to men.

There were reports of discrimination in employment. In one case, a 55-year-old woman complained in May to the Commission for Protection against Discrimination (CPD), alleging the Vlora prison director fired her because of her age and gender. The CPD ruled in August the woman had been subjected to discrimination based on gender but not on age, recommended the prison rescind her dismissal, and hire her back. The prison did not hire her back, so the CPD imposed a fine.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: According to INSTAT, the ratio of boys to girls at birth in 2017 was 109 to 100. There were no government-supported efforts to address the imbalance.

Children

Birth Registration: An individual acquires citizenship by birth in the country or from a citizen parent. There were no reports of discrimination in birth registration, but onerous residency and documentation requirements for registration made it more difficult for the many Romani and Balkan-Egyptian parents who lacked legally documented places of residence to register their children.

Children born to internal migrants, including some Romani families, or those returning from abroad frequently had no birth certificates or other legal documents and consequently were unable to attend school or have access to services.

Education: School attendance is mandatory through the ninth grade or until the age of 16, whichever occurs first, but many children, particularly in rural areas, left school earlier to work with their families. Parents must purchase supplies, books, uniforms, and space heaters for some classrooms; these were prohibitively expensive for many families, particularly Roma and other minorities. Many families also cited these costs as a reason for not sending girls to school.

The government issued an order before the beginning of the academic year providing that children from first to the fourth grade would receive free books if they returned them at the end of the school year. It was not clear whether parents would pay a fine if the books were returned damaged. Some NGOs expressed concern that this would place a greater burden on families receiving economic aid, especially in the Romani community.

Child Abuse: Observers believed that child abuse was increasing, especially in schools. According to a national survey taken in 2013, the last year for which data was made available, by the UNDP and INSTAT, 57.7 percent of children surveyed said they had experienced violence at some point in their lives from at least one family member. According to a 2017 report by World Vision, 70 percent of children in the country reported experiencing some type of violence. The definition of violence in both these surveys included psychological violence, and was not limited to physical abuse. Services for abuse victims were not readily available.

On September 23, the Council of Europe commissioner on human rights reported her concern about the high levels of physical and psychological violence against children, including in educational settings and at home.

Early and Forced Marriage: Although the legal minimum age for marriage is 18, authorities did not always enforce the law. Underage marriages occurred mostly in rural areas and within Romani communities. According to data released by the INSTAT, the number of early marriages (younger than the age of 19) decreased significantly in 2017 from 2016.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Penalties for the commercial sexual exploitation of a child range from eight to 15 years’ imprisonment. The country has a statutory rape law, and the minimum age for consensual sex is 14. The penalty for statutory rape is a prison term of five to 15 years. In aggravated circumstances, the penalty may increase to life imprisonment. The law prohibits making or distributing child pornography; penalties are a prison sentence of three to 10 years. Possession of child pornography is also illegal.

Authorities generally enforced laws against the rape and sexual exploitation of minors effectively, but NGOs reported that they rarely enforced laws prohibiting child pornography. The government reported that, as of July, three children had been sexually exploited, but there were no cases involving pornography.

Displaced Children: There were many displaced and street children, particularly in the Romani community. Street children begged or did petty work. These children were at highest risk of trafficking, and some became trafficking victims. Since the law prohibits the prosecution of children younger than 14 for burglary, criminal gangs at times used displaced children to burglarize homes.

The State Agency for the Protection of Children’s Rights reported that, as of June, authorities had assisted 109 street children. Some 67 children were referred to shelters. CPUs reported 422 cases of economic exploitation of children through June.

Institutionalized Children: UNHCR considered the migrant detention facility in Karrec to be unsuitable for children and families. The government made efforts to avoid sending children there, sending them instead to the open migrant facility in Babrru.

According to a September report from the Council of Europe commissioner on human rights, approximately 700 children lived in public and private residential care institutions, some of them for long periods, without a clear prospect for leaving the institution before they became adults.

Some NGOs raised concerns about the transparency of the treatment of children who were under state residential care. Media outlets reported several instances of teachers physically abusing children in state residential institutions, and several incidents were filmed and broadcast. In one case, a news broadcast aired a video of staff of the Vlora residential center abusing children. The Ministry of Health and Social Protection fired the staff members involved and referred the case for prosecution.

The law allows for moving children out of residential centers and into the care of foster families, but the government and the municipalities have not used this option frequently.

The country lacked adequate facilities for pretrial detention of children. According to the NGO Terre des Hommes, as of July, 17 children were in pretrial detention and nine were incarcerated.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html.

Anti-Semitism

Reports indicate that there were only 40 to 50 Jews living in the country. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution and laws prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. Nevertheless, employers, schools, health-care providers, and providers of other state services at times engaged in discrimination. The law mandates that new public buildings be accessible to persons with disabilities, but the government only sporadically enforced the law. During the year, the government adapted the premises of 80 health care facilities and 32 schools, and built eight new schools, to accommodate persons with disabilities.

The government sponsored social services agencies to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, but these agencies traditionally lacked funding to implement their programs adequately. Resource constraints and lack of infrastructure made it difficult for persons with disabilities to participate fully in civic affairs. Voting centers often were located in facilities lacking accommodations for such persons.

The government opened two new development centers for persons with disabilities in Pogradec and Bulqiza, supported by the UNDP, and three day-care centers for children with disabilities in Pogradec, Saranda, and Permet.

The Office of the Ombudsman inspected only a few mental health institutions. Both the admission and release of patients at mental health institutions were problematic due to inadequate psychiatric evaluations. There was societal discrimination and stigmatization of persons with mental and other disabilities.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

There were allegations of discrimination against members of the Romani and Balkan-Egyptian communities, including in housing, employment, health care, and education. Some schools resisted accepting Romani and Balkan-Egyptian students, particularly if they appeared to be poor. Many schools that accepted Romani students marginalized them in the classroom, sometimes by physically setting them apart from other students.

The Municipality of Tirana transferred 76 Romani families evicted from the Bregu i Lumit neighborhood to permanent housing in the final week of December 2017. Unemployment remained a problem and resulted in some of these families’ failure to pay utility bills.

In October 2017, the government adopted legislation on minorities, but the Assembly has not passed implementing legislation and regulations. The law provides official minority status for nine national minorities without distinguishing between national and ethnolinguistic groups. The government defined Greeks, Macedonians, Aromanians (Vlachs), Roma, Balkan-Egyptians, Montenegrins, Bosnians, Serbs, and Bulgarians as national minorities. The new legislation provides minority language education and dual official language use for local administrative units in which minorities traditionally reside, or in which a minority makes up 20 percent of the total population. The ethnic Greek minority complained about the government’s unwillingness to recognize ethnic Greek communities outside communist-era “minority zones.”

Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, including in employment. Enforcement of the law was generally weak. Early in the year, the Assembly amended the law on social housing to include members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community as beneficiaries under the law. Debate over the bill in the Assembly was marred by homophobic remarks by some members. In 2017 the Assembly adopted two amendments concerning free legal aid and sports participation that also benefited the LGBTI community.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are among the classes protected by the country’s hate-crime law. Despite the law and the government’s formal support for LGBTI rights, public officials sometimes made homophobic statements. For example, a mufti in Librazhd posted an article in an online portal criticizing one of the LGBTI NGOs that organized antibullying classes in various schools, calling the NGO a “cancer.” The mufti asked education institutions to prevent members of the LGBTI community from entering schools. The CPD sent a letter to the Albanian Islamic Community urging it to help prevent this sort of attack from recurring. Social and traditional media criticized the antibullying campaign, instead accusing the LGBTI community of attempting to influence young people inappropriately.

As of September, Aleanca, an NGO advocating for the LGBTI community, documented 34 cases of physical violence against community members. In one case, police asked the victim, a transgender woman, to withdraw the report; two weeks later, the perpetrator attacked her again, sending her to the hospital. The NGO Streha reported that many young LGBTI individuals had experienced domestic violence upon coming out.

As of August, the CPD had received two complaints alleging discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity during the year. The CPD ruled against the complainants in both cases.

The NGO PINK reported it had handled approximately 20 cases of LGBTI persons seeking asylum in other countries, citing domestic violence as the main reason.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS. The Albanian Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS reported that discrimination and stigmatization of persons with HIV/AIDS was widespread in the country.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Executive Summary

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:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

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.

INTERNET FREEDOM

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.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively nor prioritize public corruption as a serious problem. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity, and corruption remained prevalent in many political and economic institutions. Corruption was especially prevalent in the health and education sectors, public procurement processes, local governance, and in public administration employment procedures.

Corruption: While the public viewed corruption as endemic in the public sphere, there was little public demand for the prosecution of corrupt officials. The multitude of state, entity, cantonal, and municipal administrations, each with the power to establish laws and regulations affecting business, created a system that lacked transparency and provided opportunities for corruption. The multilevel government structure gave corrupt officials multiple opportunities to demand “service fees,” especially in the local government institutions.

Analysts considered the legal framework for prevention of corruption to be satisfactory across almost all levels of government and attributed the absence of high-profile prosecutions to a lack of political will. Many state-level institutions tasked with fighting corruption, such as the Agency for Prevention and Fight against Corruption, had limited authority and remained underresourced. Prosecutions also were considered generally ineffective and subject to political manipulation, often resulting in suspended sentences or prison sentences below mandatory minimum sentences. Indictments were sometimes poorly drafted, and judicial decisions were based on unclear or insufficient reasoning. Authorities reported that, in the previous five years, 84 indictments were filed against high-ranking public officials, of whom 38 were found guilty. Public procurement abuses generally were not investigated.

Gathering evidence to prove corruption has been seriously impeded as of 2017, when the Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional certain provisions in the BiH state law that governs special investigative measures. Although the provisions remain in force, authorities have failed so far to adopt new legislation. Judicial officials are reluctant to apply these measures until new legislation is adopted for fear judicial decisions will later be appealed.

According to professors and students, corruption continued at all levels of the higher education system. Professors at a number of universities reported that bribery was common and that they experienced pressure from colleagues and superiors to give higher grades to students with family or political connections. There were credible allegations of corruption in public procurement, public employment, and health-care services.

Financial Disclosure: Candidates for high-level public office, including for parliament at the state and entity levels and for the Council of Ministers and entity government positions, are subject to financial disclosure laws, although observers noted the laws fell short of standards established by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and other international organizations. The CEC is responsible for overseeing compliance with the laws, while the Conflict of Interest Commission receives financial reports and retains records on public officials. Both institutions, however, lacked authority to verify the accuracy of declarations, and it was believed that public officials and their relatives often declared only a fraction of their total assets and liabilities. Authorities generally failed to make financial disclosure declarations public, using as an excuse the conflicts between the laws on financial disclosure and protection of personal information.

Failure to comply with financial disclosure requirements is subject to administrative sanctions. During the year the Conflict of Interest Commission initiated 14 proceedings and pronounced sanctions in 10 cases.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The maximum penalty for rape, regardless of gender, including spousal rape, is 15 years in prison. The failure of police to treat spousal rape as a serious offense inhibited the effective enforcement of the law. Women victims of rape did not have regular access to free social support or assistance and continued to confront prejudice and discrimination in their communities and from representatives of public institutions.

While laws in both entities empower authorities to remove the perpetrator from the home, officials rarely, if ever, made use of these provisions. Law enforcement officials were frequently under the mistaken impression that they needed to concern themselves with where the perpetrator would live. As a result, women in danger were compelled to go to safe houses. In one example, an NGO reported a case of a mother with three children who suffered psychological and physical violence from her husband for 12 years. She was unemployed and economically dependent on him. She eventually reached out for help and accepted assistance and accommodation in a safe house.

NGOs reported that authorities often returned offenders to their family homes less than 24 hours after a violent event. In the Federation, authorities prosecuted domestic violence as a felony, while in the RS it can be reported as a felony or a misdemeanor. Even when domestic violence resulted in prosecution and conviction, offenders were regularly fined or given suspended sentences, even for repeat offenders.

Gender based violence was recognized as one of the most important challenges for gender equality. NGOs reported that one of every two women experienced some type of domestic violence and that this problem was underreported, because the majority of victims did not trust the support system (police, social welfare centers, or the judiciary). The country implemented a 2013-17 state gender action plan. The country still lacked a data collection system on domestic violence cases. The state-level Gender Equality Agency worked on the establishment of a local level coordination mechanism of support for victims. The agency had a memorandum of understanding with the country’s eight NGO-run safe houses, which could collectively accommodate up to 250 victims, roughly half the capacity needed. In the RS, 70 percent of financing for safe houses came from the RS budget, while 30 percent came from the budgets of local communities. While the RS government and local communities generally met their funding obligations, the Federation had no adequate bylaw that would regulate the financing of the safe houses, and payments depended on each canton or local community, some of which often failed to honor their obligations.

Although police received specialized training in handling cases of domestic violence, NGOs reported widespread reluctance among officers in both entities to break up families by arresting offenders.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, but it was a serious problem. NGOs reported that those who experienced sexual harassment almost never filed complaints with authorities.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men, and authorities generally treated women equally. The law does not explicitly require equal pay for equal work, but it forbids gender discrimination. Women and men generally received equal pay for equal work at government-owned enterprises but not at all private businesses. NGOs reported little real progress in advancing equality between men and women in the labor market, noting instead widespread discrimination against women in the workplace, including the regular unwarranted dismissal of women because they were pregnant or new mothers. There is no official legal mechanism for the protection of women during maternity leave, and social compensation during leave was unequally regulated in different parts of the country. Many job announcements openly advertised discriminatory criteria, such as age and physical appearance, for employment of female applicants. Women remained underrepresented in law enforcement agencies.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: The boy-to-girl birth ratio for the country was 107 boys per 100 girls. There were no reports the government took steps to address the imbalance.

Children

Birth Registration: By law, a child born to at least one citizen parent is a citizen regardless of the child’s place of birth. A child born in the territory of the country to parents who were unknown or stateless is entitled to citizenship. Parents generally registered their children immediately after they were born, but there were exceptions, particularly in the Romani community. The NGO Vasa Prava estimated there were fewer than 49 unregistered children in the country, mainly Roma. UNHCR, with the legal assistance of a domestic NGO, registered the births of children whose parents failed to register them.

Education: Education was free through the secondary level but compulsory only for children of the ages of six through 15. Students with special needs continued to struggle for access to a quality, inclusive education due to physical barriers and the lack of in-school assistants and trained teachers to meet their needs.

More than 50 schools across the Federation remained segregated by ethnicity and religion. Although a “two schools under one roof” system was instituted following the 1992-95 conflict as a way to bring together returnee communities violently separated by conflict, the system calcified under the divisive and prejudicial administration of leading political parties. These parties controlled school administration through the country’s 13 different ministries of education and often enforced education policies based upon patronage and ethnic exclusion. Where students, parents, and teachers choose to resist segregation, they were met frequently with political indifference and sometimes intimidation.

Returnee students throughout the country continued to face barriers in exercising their language rights. For the fifth year in a row, parents of more than 500 Bosniak children in returnee communities throughout the RS continued to boycott public schools in favor of sending their children to alternative schooling financed and organized by the Federation Ministry of Education, with support from the Sarajevo Canton municipal government and the Islamic community. The boycott was based on the refusal of the RS Ministry of Education to approve a group of national subjects (specific courses to which Bosniak, Serb, and Croat students are entitled and taught in their constituent language according to their ethnicity) and its insistence on formally calling the language that children learn in their public schools the “language of the Bosniak people” instead of the “Bosnian language,” as described in the country’s constitution. In the Federation, Serb students likewise were denied language rights as provided in the Federation constitution, particularly in Canton 10, where authorities prevented the use of the Serbian language and textbooks in the areas of return of Serb students. Human rights activists noted that many textbooks reinforced stereotypes of the country’s ethnic groups other than their own, and others missed opportunities to dispel stereotypes by excluding any mention of some ethnic groups, particularly Jews and Roma. State and entity officials generally did not act to prevent such discrimination.

Human Rights Watch asserted that ethnic quotas used by the Federation and the RS to allocate civil service jobs disproportionately excluded Roma and other minorities. The quotas were based on the 1991 census, which undercounted these minorities.

Child Abuse: Family violence against children was a problem. Police investigated and prosecuted individual cases of child abuse. In July the Federation Supreme Court sentenced a stepfather, mother, and grandmother from Sarajevo to a total of 97 years of imprisonment for the mistreatment and murder of a three-and-a-half-year-old son or grandson, who died from physical abuse in 2014. The country’s Agency for Gender Equality estimated that one in five families experienced domestic violence. Municipal centers for social work are responsible for protecting children’s rights but lacked resources and the ability to provide housing for children who fled abuse or who required removal from abusive homes.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18 but may be as young as 16 with parental consent. In certain Romani communities, girls married between the ages of 12 and 14. Children’s rights and antitrafficking activists noted that prosecutors were reluctant to investigate and prosecute forced marriages involving Romani minors. The government did not have programs specifically designed to reduce the incidence of child marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The Federation, the RS, and the Brcko District have laws criminalizing sex trafficking, forced labor, and organized human trafficking. The state-level penalty for sexual exploitation of children is imprisonment for up to 20 years under certain aggravating circumstances. At the entity level, penalties range from three to 15 years’ imprisonment. Under entity criminal codes, the abuse of a child or juvenile for pornography is a crime that carries a sentence of one to five years in prison. Authorities generally enforced these laws. The law prohibits sexual acts with a person younger than 18.

Girls were subjected to commercial sexual exploitation, and there were reports that Romani girls as young as age 12 endured early and forced marriage and domestic servitude. Children were used in the production of pornography.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html.

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community in the country reported that it had fewer than 1,000 members.

There were no reports of anti-Semitic violence against members of the Jewish community, but anti-Semitic graffiti appeared in July, almost simultaneously, inside the hallways of apartment buildings where members of the Jewish community resided in Tuzla and Sarajevo. Authorities harshly condemned the incidents. No perpetrators were identified.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law in both entities and at the state level prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. Nevertheless, discrimination in these areas continued. The government lacked a uniform legal definition of disabilities, which complicated access to benefits for those that would readily qualify, and normally prioritized support for war veterans. The most frequent forms of discrimination against persons with disabilities included obstacles in realization of individual rights, delayed payments of disability allowances, employment, and social and health protection.

The laws of both entities require increased accessibility to buildings for persons with disabilities, but authorities rarely enforced the requirement. Human rights NGOs complained that the construction of public buildings without access for persons with disabilities continued. Both entities have a strategy for advancing the rights of people with disabilities in the areas of health, education, accessibility, professional rehabilitation and employment, social welfare, and culture and sports. NGOs complained that the government did not effectively implement laws and programs to help persons with disabilities.

The law provides for children with disabilities to attend regular classes when feasible. Due to a lack of financial and physical resources, schools often reported they were unable to accommodate them. Children with disabilities either attended classes using regular curricula in regular schools or attended special schools. Parents of children with significant disabilities reported receiving limited to no financial support from the government, notwithstanding that many of them were unemployed because of the round-the-clock care required for their dependents.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Members of minorities continued to experience discrimination in employment and education in both the government and private sectors. While the law prohibits discrimination, human rights activists frequently complained that authorities did not adequately enforce the law.

Harassment and discrimination against minorities continued throughout the country, although not as frequently as in previous years. The Interreligious Council of BiH reported, for example, that the number of attacks against religious objects continued to decrease during the year.

Violence and acts of intimidation against ethnic minorities at times focused on symbols and buildings of that minority’s predominant religion. For more information, see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

Roma continued to be the country’s most vulnerable and discriminated group. They experienced discrimination in access to housing, health care, education, and employment opportunities, and nearly 99 percent of them remained unemployed. A significant percentage of them were homeless or without water or electricity in their homes. Many dwellings were overcrowded, and residents lacked proof of property ownership. Approximately three-fourths lived in openly segregated neighborhoods.

Authorities frequently discriminated against Roma, which contributed to their exclusion by society. Many human rights NGOs criticized law enforcement and government authorities for the failure and unwillingness to identify Romani victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, even though the majority of registered trafficking victims in recent years were Roma.

The country has an established legal framework for the protection of minorities. State and entity-level parliaments had national minority councils that met on a regular basis but generally lacked resources and political influence on decision-making processes. The Roma Council continued to operate as a consultative body to the Council of Ministers, but with very limited influence.

The government continued to work on the implementation of a 2017-20 action plan to improve employment, housing, and health care for the Romani population. The plan included approximately 24.2 million convertible marks ($14.8 million) in total budgetary allocations. In December 2017 the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees signed memoranda on the allocation of grant funds worth 1.1 million convertible marks ($650,000) to address employment and health care protection for Roma.

Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

While the law at the state level prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, authorities did not fully enforce it. Both entities and the Brcko District have laws that criminalize any form of hate crime committed on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Hate speech, discrimination, and violence against LGBTI individuals were widespread. The NGO Sarajevo Open Center (SOC) reported that transgender persons were the most vulnerable LGBTI group.

The prosecution of assault and other crimes committed against LGBTI individuals remained delayed and generally inadequate. In 2017 SOC registered 11 cases of domestic violence perpetrated by immediate family members as well as threats, blackmail, physical assaults, and forced medical treatment. Local advocacy NGOs reported increasing levels of documented domestic and peer violence committed against LGBTI individuals during 2017. SOC registered eight cases of homophobic and transphobic peer violence. The government had no institutional plan to combat peer violence.

LGBTI persons faced frequent harassment and discrimination, including termination of employment. NGOs also reported that schools were increasingly hostile environments, where LGBTI persons regularly experienced harassment and violence. In some cases, dismissal letters from work explicitly stated that sexual orientation was the cause of termination, making it extremely difficult for those dismissed to find another job. In the face of such risks, LGBTI persons rarely reported discrimination to police.

In March the BBI Shopping Center and National Theater in Sarajevo refused to allow SOC to organize a performance to commemorate the International Transgender Day of Visibility, citing security concerns.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Significant social stigma and employment discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS remained among members of the public as well as health workers. A Sarajevo-based NGO reported that infected persons experienced the greatest stigma and discrimination when seeking dental treatment. The country had no permanent or organized programs of psychosocial support for these persons.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

Societal discrimination and occasional violence against ethnic minorities at times took the form of attacks on places symbolic of those minorities, including religious buildings. According to the Interreligious Council, an NGO that promotes dialogue among the four “traditional” religious communities (Muslim, Serbian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Jewish), attacks against religious symbols, clerics, and property significantly decreased in the first eight months of 2017, compared with the same period in 2016.

Promotion of Acts of Discrimination

There were widespread instances of media coverage and public discourse designed to portray members of other ethnic groups in negative terms, usually in connection with the 1992-1995 conflict. During the year then RS president Dodik and senior officials in his political party (the SBSD) as well as other officials and leaders in the RS repeatedly denied that Serb forces committed genocide at Srebrenica in 1995, despite the findings of multiple local and international courts. On August 18, the RS National Assembly rejected the Commission for Srebrenica’s 2004 report on the events concerning the Srebrenica genocide, asked the RS government to annul it. The National Assembly also called for the establishment of a new international commission to determine the extent of the suffering of Serbs in the Srebrenica area as well as in Sarajevo in the 1991-1995 period.

Croatia

Executive Summary

The Republic of Croatia is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. Legislative authority is vested in the unicameral parliament (Sabor). The president serves as head of state and nominates the prime minister, who leads the government, based on majority support of the Croatian Parliament. The latest presidential elections were held in 2015, and the president was elected by a majority of voters. Domestic and international observers stated that the latest parliamentary elections held in September 2016 and the latest presidential elections held in 2015 were free and fair.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included corruption; violence and threats of violence towards journalists; violence targeting asylum seekers and migrants, and threats towards members of ethnic minority groups. Authorities generally investigated, and where appropriate, prosecuted such cases.

The government took significant steps to prosecute and punish individuals who committed abuses of human rights.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined in most cases to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. NGOs reported, however, that the government did not adequately investigate or prosecute cases in which journalists or bloggers received threats.

Freedom of Expression: The law sanctions individuals who act “with the goal of spreading racial, religious, sexual, national, ethnic hatred, or hatred based on the color of skin or sexual orientation or other characteristics.” The law provides for six months to five years imprisonment for conviction of such “hate speech.” Conviction for internet hate speech is punishable by six months to three years imprisonment. Although the law and recent Constitutional Court decisions technically impose restrictions on symbolic speech considered “hate speech,” including the use of Nazi- and Ustasha (the World War II regime)-era symbols and slogans, NGOs and advocacy groups complained that enforcement of those provisions remained inadequate.

Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. Restrictions on material deemed hate speech apply to print and broadcast media. Many private newspapers and magazines were published without government interference. Observers said, however, that information regarding actual ownership of some local radio and television channels was not always publicly available, raising concerns about bias, censorship, and the vulnerability of audiences in the country to malign influence.

On February 22, the Sisak city council prohibited Croatian Radio Television (HRT) journalist Igor Ahmetovic from entering an open city council session for reporting purposes. The Croatian Journalists’ Association (CJA) publicly demanded Sisak overturn that prohibition, stating the prohibition was a violation of the constitutional right to free reporting and access to information. A lawsuit filed by Ahmetovic against the city remained ongoing at year’s end.

Violence and Harassment: NGOs reported that physical attacks and threats, especially online threats, against journalists had an increasingly chilling effect on media freedom and that the government was insufficiently addressing this problem.

For example, in July the Zadar district attorney indicted soccer player Jakov Surac on charges he committed battery and made death threats against journalist Hrvoje Bajlo. The indictment stated Surac committed the crime specifically because of Bajlo’s work as a journalist. The case was ongoing.

Additionally, in August the Split district attorney declined to press criminal charges against war veteran Stipe Perkovic Tabak for online statements that Index.hr journalists should be killed. The CJA condemned this decision, stating the court allowed Perkovic Tabak’s veteran status to give him immunity.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Members of the press reported practicing self-censorship for fear of receiving online harassment, upsetting politically connected individuals, or losing their jobs for covering certain topics.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, 67 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. State prosecutors continued to prosecute several major corruption cases involving mayors, politicians, and public figures, and the judiciary generally imposed statutory penalties in cases in which there was a conviction. High-profile convictions for corruption, however, were frequently overturned on appeal. Corruption remained a problem, and significant numbers of high-profile corruption cases were underway. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: Several corruption cases against former high-level government officials reported in previous years were still pending. In 2017 the Zagreb County Court began trial proceedings against former HDZ transportation minister Bozidar Kalmeta and several other codefendants for corruption charges related to the embezzlement of 2.85 million euros ($3.42 million). The trial was ongoing.

Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandic and two codefendants were acquitted October 19 in Zagreb County Court on charges they gave preferable treatment to conservative NGO “In the Name of the Family” in exchange for political support. The indictment alleged Bandic allowed “In the Name of the Family” to use city-owned stalls for free–a benefit worth at least 308,000 kuna ($47,700)–to collect signatures for a petition to ban same-sex-marriage in 2013. Zagreb County Court found the action to be within Bandic’s discretionary rights as mayor. Separately, Bandic was standing trial in a case of alleged fraud, for defrauding the city budget of 25 million kuna ($3.87 million), as well as for several counts of abuse of power and embezzlement.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials to declare their assets and income, and government officials generally complied with this requirement. This information was available to the public. Fines are the penalty for noncompliance.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, and domestic violence. The law was in most cases effectively enforced. A separate law, the Law on Protection against Family Violence, came into force in January. Sentences range from fines to time in jail, depending on the crime’s gravity. Conviction for rape, including spousal rape, is punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Conviction for domestic violence is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, and the law provides for misdemeanor punishments and further protects victims’ rights. Violence against women, including spousal abuse, remained a problem.

Police and prosecutors were generally responsive to allegations of domestic violence and rape, but there were isolated reports that local police departments did not consistently adhere to national guidelines regarding the treatment of victims of sexual assault. According to Ministry of Justice data, from the total number of perpetrators (11,506), 68 percent were men and 32 percent were women. Only 7 percent of these perpetrators were convicted, of which; 63 percent were fined or given suspended jail sentences. The government adopted the Fourth National Strategy for Protection against Domestic Violence for 2017-22.

In October the trial of Pozesko Slavonska County prefect Alojz Tomasevic began in Slavonski Brod Municipal Court on charges of domestic violence against his wife, who testified that he almost killed her. Tomasevic was removed from his political party but retained his position as prefect.

Sexual Harassment: The law criminalizes and provides for a maximum prison sentence of one year for sexual harassment of both men and women. The law was not enforced effectively. Protection is also prescribed by the law, under which NGOs reported there were few serious sanctions for perpetrators. The ombudsperson for gender equality reported that in 2017 all new allegations of sexual harassment related to the protection of women. The ombudsperson’s report stated victims of sexual harassment were increasingly filing complaints anonymously, through third parties, or dropping charges entirely due to fear of reprisal.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive population control methods.

Discrimination: Women have the same legal status and rights as men. The law requires equal pay for equal work. In practice women experienced discrimination in employment and occupation (see section 7.b.).

Children

Birth Registration: Authorities registered all births at the time of birth within the country or abroad. Citizenship is derived by descent through at least one parent who is a citizen of the country or through birth in the country’s territory in exceptional cases.

Child Abuse: The law criminalizes abuse of children. Penalties range depending on the crime’s gravity, and include long-term imprisonment if the consequence is death of a child. Child abuse, including violence and sexual abuse, remained a problem. The ombudsperson for children reported that police and prosecutors generally were responsive in investigating such cases.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18; children older than 16 may marry with a judge’s written consent.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation of children; sale; offering or procuring for prostitution; and child pornography, and authorities enforced the law. Cases of such abuses were isolated. The Ministry of the Interior conducted investigative programs and worked with international partners to combat child pornography. The ministry operated a website known as Red Button for the public to report child pornography to police. The minimum age for consensual sex is 15.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html.

Anti-Semitism

According to the Coordination of Jewish Communities in Croatia, the country’s Jewish community numbered between 2,000 and 2,500 persons. Some Jewish community leaders continued to report anti-Semitic rhetoric online and in the media and an increase in anti-Semitic and Ustasha graffiti in the streets. NGOs reported cases of violent reprisal against community members who attempted to paint over swastikas.

The Jewish community also stated government officials did not sufficiently condemn, prevent, or suppress Holocaust revisionism.

On April 22, the government held its official annual commemoration for victims killed by the Ustasha regime at Jasenovac concentration camp. The Jewish community, along with the Serb National Council (SNV) and the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Fighters, boycotted the official commemoration for the third year in a row, holding their own commemorations instead. Jewish community leaders said the boycott was necessary to condemn the government’s insufficient response to historical revisionism and lack of progress on property restitution.

Police prevented members of the Autonomous Croatian Party of Rights (A-HSP) from entering the Jasenovac Concentration Camp Memorial Site to hold meetings on April 22 and May 6. Prior to both attempts, A-HSP President Drazen Keleminec sent the media an online invitation that included the Ustasha salute “Za Dom Spremni” (For the Homeland Ready).

In June Jasenovac officials condemned a presentation on HRT by writer Igor Vukic in which Vukic denied that crimes were committed at Jasenovac. They expressed concern that state-owned television presented a Holocaust denier as an authority on the subject of the concentration camp at Jasenovac.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities, including their access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, or other state services, but the government did not always enforce these provisions effectively. While the law mandates access to buildings for persons with disabilities, building owners and managers did not always comply, and there were no reported sanctions.

Children with disabilities attended all levels of school. They were included in classes with nondisabled peers, although NGOs stated the lack of laws mandating equal access for persons with disabilities limited educational access for students with disabilities.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Constitutional protections against discrimination applied to all minorities. According to the ombudsperson for human rights, ethnic discrimination was the most prevalent form of discrimination, particularly against ethnic Serbs and Roma.

According to the SNV, the Serbian national minority faced hate speech, graffiti, and other vandalism of Serb monuments, and significant discrimination in the justice system, particularly regarding missing persons and war crimes cases. They also stated that counterprotestors often infringed on their right to free assembly by shouting threats and hate speech during solemn Serb commemorations. The SNV reported police provided significant protection of a recent Serb commemoration in the town of Glina.

The government allocated funds and created programs for development and integration of Romani communities, but discrimination and social exclusion of Roma remained problems. An August study by the Government Office for Human Rights and Rights for National Minorities found Roma to be the most marginalized community in the country, living largely in isolated, impoverished communities without access to basic infrastructure, education, or employment. The study found 28 percent of Roma older than 14 finished only elementary school, 44 percent were unemployed, and only 50 percent had a bathroom in the home.

In a report released May 15, the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) noted an escalation of hate speech in public discourse in the country between April and December 2017. The report pointed out a rise in youth nationalism, often in the form of praising the country’s World War II Ustasha regime. The report described racism and xenophobia against Serbs; Roma; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; and refugees in the media and on the internet, abusive language toward the Roma population, and even some physical attacks against those groups and their property. The report said authorities failed to condemn hate speech and promote tolerance sufficiently.

Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation, nationality laws, housing, access to education, and health care based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Minority groups said these provisions were not consistently enforced. In May ECRI reported the country was becoming increasingly hostile to LGBTI persons. In response to civil society concerns, the government revised the 2016-20 National Plan for Combating Discrimination better to address LGBTI issues.

LGBTI NGOs noted uneven performance by the judiciary on discrimination cases. They reported members of their community had limited access to the justice system, with many reluctant to report violations of their rights due to concerns regarding an inefficient judicial system and fear of further victimization during trial proceedings. NGOs reported that investigations into hate speech against LGBTI persons remained unsatisfactory. Police initiated court proceedings in only two of 19 cases in 2017.

Organizations which opposed the ratification of the Istanbul Convention invoked anti-LGBTI sentiment in their rhetoric, declaring same-sex couples, same-sex parents, and transgender persons a threat to the country and to traditional society. In February anti-LGBTI protestors burned a poster-sized effigy of a book for young children of same-sex parents (My Rainbow Family) during a children’s carnival in the coastal town of Kastela.

In May vandals destroyed a large rainbow Pride flag marking the entrance to an event celebrating the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. Subsequent police presence was heavy. A police investigation was ongoing.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Societal discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS remained a problem. The NGO Croatian Association for HIV (HUHIV) reported some physicians and dentists refused to treat HIV-positive patients. HUHIV reported violations of confidentiality of persons diagnosed with HIV, with some facing discrimination including employment discrimination after disclosure of their status. There were reports that transplant centers refused to place HIV-positive patients on their lists of potential organ recipients.

HUHIV reported that the government’s recently implemented National Plan for Fighting HIV helped combat the stigmatization and discrimination of persons with HIV/AIDS. Additionally, HUHIV reported that an HIV diagnosis was no longer listed on government-supplied sick leave forms, protecting the privacy of HIV-positive individuals.

Kosovo

Executive Summary

Kosovo is a parliamentary democracy. The constitution and laws provide for an elected unicameral parliament, the Assembly, which in turn elects a president, whose choice of prime minister the Assembly must approve. The country held parliamentary elections in June 2017 that international observers considered free and fair. The Assembly elected Hashim Thaci as president in 2016.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control of the security forces.

Human rights issues included refoulement; endemic government corruption; crimes involving violence or threats of violence against journalists; and attacks against members of ethnic minorities or other marginalized communities, including by security forces.

The government sometimes took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses in the security services or elsewhere in the government. Many in the government, the opposition, civil society, and the media believed that senior officials engaged in corruption with impunity.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press. While the government generally respected this right, credible reports persisted that some public officials, politicians, businesses, and radical religious groups sought to intimidate media representatives. The media also encountered difficulties in obtaining information from the government and public institutions as provided by law. An Independent Media Commission regulates broadcast frequencies, issues licenses to public and private broadcasters, and establishes broadcasting policies.

Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, generally without restriction, although reports persisted that government officials, some political parties, businesses connected to the government, religious groups, and disgruntled individuals exerted pressure on media owners, individual editors, and reporters not to publish certain stories or materials.

Financial difficulties of media outlets put the editorial independence of all media at risk. While some self-sufficient media outlets adopted editorial and broadcast policies independent of political and business interests, those with fewer resources sometimes accepted financial support in exchange for positive coverage or for refraining from publishing negative stories harmful to funders’ interests.

Violence and Harassment: The Association of Journalists of Kosovo and media outlets reported 16 instances during the year in which government officials, business interests, community groups, or radical religious groups abused press freedom, including by physical assaults and verbal threats directed at journalists and pressure on outlets not to publish certain materials.

In March, ethnic Serbs in Mitrovica/e North attacked ethnic Albanian photojournalist Blerim Uka with sticks during his coverage of a controversial police raid following an allegedly illegal visit by a Serbian official, inflicting minor injuries. Ethnic Serb journalists covering the same gathering claimed KP teargassed them, pushed them to the ground, and destroyed their equipment. An investigation into the police raid was underway, but it was not clear whether investigators were examining attacks on journalists.

In October, journalists who exposed a high-profile pension fraud case reported receiving threats from high-level politicians and anonymous callers. Also in October, Member of parliament Milaim Zeka advocated publicly criminalizing any speech impugning Kosovo Liberation Army veterans.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were no reports of direct censorship of print or broadcast media, although journalists claimed that pressure from politicians and organized criminal groups frequently resulted in self-censorship. Some journalists refrained from critical investigative reporting due to fear for their physical or job security. Journalists occasionally received offers of financial benefits in exchange for positive reporting or for abandoning an investigation. According to the Association of Journalists of Kosovo, government officials, as well as suspected criminals, verbally threatened journalists for perceived negative reporting. According to some editors, government agencies and corporations withdrew advertising from newspapers that published material critical of them.

Journalists complained that media owners and managers prevented them from publishing or broadcasting stories critical of the government, political parties, or particular officials. In some cases owners reportedly threatened to dismiss journalists if they produced critical reports. Journalists also complained that owners prevented them from reporting on high-level government corruption.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

As of August, the Regulatory Authority of Electronic and Postal Communications reported that approximately 85.4 percent of households had broadband internet connections.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides for criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. A lack of effective judicial oversight and general weakness in the rule of law contributed to the problem. Corruption cases were routinely subject to repeated appeal, and the judicial system often allowed statutes of limitation to expire without trying cases.

Corruption: The Kosovo Anticorruption Agency (ACA) and the National Audits Office shared responsibility for combating government corruption. As of June, the SPRK had received 44 cases from the ACA. Convictions on corruption charges continued to represent a small proportion of those investigated and charged.

NGOs and international organizations identified numerous alleged failures by the judiciary system to prosecute corruption, noting that very few cases brought against senior officials resulted in indictments. Sentencing of high-level officials convicted of corruption was often lenient. NGOs reported that indictments often failed because prosecutors filed incorrect charges or made procedural errors.

On April 6, the SPRK filed an indictment in the so-called Pronto II Affair against former Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) caucus chief Adem Grabovci, PDK innovation minister Besim Beqaj, and nine other politicians on charges related to nepotistic hiring in public institutions. A trial began in November.

On August 13, Special Prosecutor Elez Blakaj, who was working on the “Pronto” case and a veteran’s pension fraud case, resigned citing political intimidation and anonymous death threats. Prior to the threats, Blakaj brought charges against high-level officials for their alleged role in fraudulently granting veteran status to approximately 20,000 unqualified beneficiaries. SPRK officials, President Thaci, and the mayor of Pristina condemned the threats. In September, police arrested Assembly member Shkumbin Demaliaj on suspicion of inciting violence against Blakaj, though no indictment was issued as of November. On September 14, the SPRK filed indictments against nearly a dozen officials in the veterans’ pension case.

On November 5, the Pristina Basic Court convicted Shukri Buja, the former mayor of Lipjan/Lipljane, and five other individuals of accepting kickbacks from contractors working for the municipality.

Financial Disclosure: The law obliges all senior public officials and their family members to declare their property and the origins of their property annually. Senior officials must also report changes in their property holdings when assuming or terminating their public service. The ACA administers the data, verifies disclosures, and publishes them on its website. Authorities may fine officials charged with minor breaches of the requirement or prohibit them from exercising public functions for up to one year. The ACA referred all charges against those who had not filed to prosecutors.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape against all persons but does not specifically address spousal rape. By law, rape is punishable by two to 15 years in prison. EULEX noted that courts often applied penalties lighter than the legal minimum in rape cases. EULEX found that courts rarely took steps to protect victims and witnesses, nor did they close hearings to the public as required by law.

A section of the Office of the Chief State Prosecutor helped to provide access to justice for victims of all crimes, with a special focus on victims of domestic violence, trafficking in persons, child abuse, and rape.

According to the Kosovo Women’s Network, more than two-thirds of women had been victims of domestic violence. The law treats domestic violence as a civil matter unless the victim suffers bodily harm. Failure to comply with a civil court’s judgment relating to a domestic violence case is a criminal and prosecutable offense, although prosecutions for this offense were rare. When victims pressed charges, police domestic violence units conducted investigations and transferred cases to prosecutors, though the rate of prosecution was low. Advocates and court observers asserted that prosecutors and judges favored family unification over victim protection, with protective orders sometimes allowing the perpetrator to remain in the family home while a case was pending. Sentences ranged from judicial reprimands to six months’ to five years’ imprisonment.

In 2017 the judicial system adopted stricter procedures to prioritize the assignment of prosecutors for domestic violence cases. NGOs reported it was too early to assess the impact of the changes.

On August 8, Pjeter Ndrecaj, who was indicted and awaiting trial on domestic violence charges, allegedly murdered his wife and nine-year-old daughter in Gjakova/Djakovica. The victim’s relatives claimed she had contacted KP multiple times in the months preceding the killing to request assistance. The KP claimed the victim never requested police protection and said they made every attempt to locate the husband following the victim’s report of death threats four hours before the murder. The incident sparked protests in Pristina and Gjakova/Djakovica. NGOs demanded the dismissal of the local police chief and other KP officials. In November, the Gjakova Basic Court found Ndrecaj guilty of murder and sentenced him to 24 years in prison.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare included a family violence unit. The government and international donors provided support to seven NGOs to assist children and female victims of domestic violence. There were 10 shelters for victims of domestic violence, which also housed victims of trafficking and other crimes.

In 2017 the government created an independent commission to verify the status of and compensate wartime sexual assault survivors. As of July, the commission had granted this status–and its accompanying pension–to 130 of 645 applicants. It rejected 106 applications due to incomplete documentation; 84 rejected applicants filed a request for a second review. The remaining applications were pending review. The SPRK designated one prosecutor for cases of wartime sexual violence. The KP established a unit for war crime cases, including cases of wartime sexual violence.

Sexual Harassment: The law defines sexual harassment in civil proceedings. While the criminal code includes the offense of sexual harassment, it does not contain a specific standard or definition. The code stipulates enhanced penalties for sexual harassment against vulnerable victims, including victims of sexual abuse. NGOs believed internal procedures and regulations for reporting sexual harassment hampered implementation of these laws.

According to women’s rights organizations, harassment was common at workplaces in both the public and private sectors and in public institutions of higher education.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: The law provides the same legal status and rights for women and men. The law requires equal pay for equivalent work. The law stipulates that the partners in marriage and civil unions have equal rights to own and inherit property, but men usually inherited family property and other assets. In rare instances, Kosovo Albanian widows, particularly in rural areas, risked losing custody of their children due to a custom requiring children and property to pass to the deceased father’s family while the widow returned to her birth family.

Relatively few women occupied upper-level management positions in business, police, or government. NGOs claimed women were often subject to discriminatory hiring practices.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: According to the Kosovo Agency for Statistics, in 2017, the male-to-female gender ratio at birth was 111.2 to 100. According to the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the government did not take steps to address the imbalance.

Children

Birth Registration: Children acquire citizenship from citizen parents or by birth in the country to parents from certain minority communities whose citizenship was not documented. Those not registered at birth were primarily from the Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptian communities. UNICEF indicated that lack of registration could adversely affect a child’s access to social assistance, particularly for repatriated children. Children who were not registered were considered stateless.

Child Abuse: The Criminal Code does not specifically criminalize child abuse, but addresses various elements of child abuse, including in sections on sexual assault, rape, trafficking in persons, and child pornography, among others. Penalties range from five to 20 years’ imprisonment. NGOs urged the Assembly to pass the Law on Child Protection, which would explicitly define child abuse as a crime. The incidence of child abuse in the majority population is unknown, but in 2015 UNICEF found that 30 percent of children in the country and 40 percent of ethnic Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptian children were victims of abuse.

Early and Forced Marriage: The law allows persons to marry at age 16. Child marriage was rare but continued in certain ethnic communities, including among Roma, Ashkalis, Balkan Egyptians, and Gorani. According to a government report that focused on these communities, approximately 12 percent of children, mostly girls, married before the age of 15.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits possession, production, and distribution of child pornography. Persons who produce, use, or involve a child in making or producing pornography may receive a prison sentence of one to five years. Distribution, promotion, transmission, offer, or display of child pornography is punishable by six months’ to five years’ imprisonment. Possession or procurement of child pornography is punishable by a fine or imprisonment of up to three years.

The minimum legal age for consensual sex is 16. Statutory rape is a criminal offense punishable by five to 20 years in prison.

International Child Abductions: Kosovo is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html.

Anti-Semitism

Approximately 50 Jewish persons resided in the country, according to the Jewish Community of Kosovo. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution and law prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, and guarantees equal access to education, employment, and other state services. The government did not effectively enforce these provisions, and persons with disabilities faced discrimination.

According to Handi-Kos, a disability rights organization, health and rehabilitative services, social assistance, and assistive devices for persons with disabilities remained insufficient, and physical access to public institutions remained difficult even after the implementation of bylaws on building access and administrative support.

The law regulates the commitment of persons to psychiatric or social care facilities and protects their rights within such institutions but has not been implemented. The KRCT described mental health facilities as substandard. The KRCT also reported overcrowding of mental health facilities.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Security incidents against Kosovo Serbs persisted. On January 16, unknown assailants killed prominent Kosovo Serb opposition politician Oliver Ivanovic in front of the office of his political party, Serbia, Democracy, and Justice, in Mitrovica/e North. Ivanovic was facing a retrial for a war crimes indictment. An investigation was ongoing, but police had not identified any suspect as of September.

In the first seven months of the year, there were more than 100 incidents involving thefts, break-ins, verbal harassment, and damage to the property of Kosovo Serbs and the Serbian Orthodox Church. International organizations stated at least six incidents showed explicit ethnic motivations, while ethnic motivations for other incidents were likely but difficult to prove. The government condemned the incidents, and the KP initiated investigations, which in some cases resulted in the arrest of perpetrators. In May the KP arrested an ethnic Albanian suspected of vandalizing of two Serbian Orthodox churches in Ferizaj/Urosevac municipality. The mayor pledged the municipality would cover the cost of repairs.

The Kosovo Security Force (KSF) Ministry reported 51 Kosovo Serbs from the south resigned from the KSF between May and July, citing alleged pressure from Serbian authorities and local Kosovo Serb community representatives. There were no resignations reported from KSF Serb members living in the four northern municipalities. Despite the resignations, the number of Kosovo Serbs in the KSF remains three times higher than in 2015. The KSF indicated it would conduct additional recruitment of Serbs and other minorities.

Access to justice for Kosovo Serbs improved somewhat during the year due to the 2017 integration of the judiciary system in the four northern Serb majority municipalities and integration of Kosovo Serb judges and staff in other Basic Courts in Kosovo. Poor or delayed translation in proceedings before the courts, a backlog of cases in the north, the nonexecution of court decisions, limited numbers of non-Albanian staff, and inconsistency between Albanian and Serbian translations of legislation, continued to hinder the proper delivery of justice for Kosovo Serbs and other minority communities.

Ethnic minorities, including the Serb, Roma, Ashkali, Balkan Egyptian, Turkish, Bosniak, Gorani, Croat, and Montenegrin communities, faced varying levels of institutional and societal discrimination in employment, education, social services, language use, freedom of movement, the right to return to their homes (for displaced persons), and other basic rights.

Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptian communities experienced pervasive social and economic discrimination. They often lacked access to basic hygiene, medical care, and education and were heavily dependent on humanitarian aid for subsistence.

The prime minister’s Office of Community Affairs and the Ombudsperson Institution noted discrimination in public sector employment in almost all local and national institutions. Although the law mandates that 10 percent of employees at the local and national levels of government be members of minorities, their representation remained limited and generally confined to lower-level positions. Smaller communities, such as Gorani, Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptians were particularly underrepresented. There were no legal remedies to address these concerns.

The EU, the OSCE, and NGOs reported attempts by universities to discriminate in admissions and hiring against persons wearing Muslim religious garb, including hijabs. The law prohibits the wearing of religious symbols in elementary and secondary schools, but antidiscrimination statutes protect religious dress at the university level. Islamic community leaders believed the prohibition against religious symbols in elementary and secondary schools led some Muslim families to keep their female children out of school, and saw the law as discriminatory.

The law requires equal conditions for all schoolchildren and recognizes minority students’ right to public education in their native languages through secondary school. This law was not enforced. Bosniak, Croat, Gorani, Montenegrin, Romani, and Turkish community leaders cited unavailability of textbooks and other materials.

The Office of the Language Commissioner monitored and reported on the implementation of legislation that conferred equal status to the country’s two official languages, Albanian and Serbian, as well as official languages used at the local level, including Bosnian, Romani, and Turkish. The commissioner reported that local municipal administrations did not fully respect the Law on Use of Languages. He also noted the lack of translation into Serbian language within most public institutions, including during court proceedings. Courts regularly failed to provide adequate translation services to minority defendants and witnesses, and did not provide adequate translation of statute and court documents as required by law.

Amendments to administrative rulings permit Bosniaks, Roma, and Turks to have identity documents issued in their own languages, but minority representatives often complained of poor implementation.

Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The constitution and law prohibit direct or indirect discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, health care, and education. When the motivation for a crime is based on gender, sexual orientation, or perceived affinity of the victim with persons who are targets of such hostility, the law considers motivation to be an aggravating circumstance.

According to human rights NGOs, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community faced overt discrimination in employment, housing, determination of statelessness, and access to education and health care. NGOs reported that societal pressure persuaded most LGBTI persons to conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity and noted that police were insensitive to the needs of the LGBTI community.

According to NGOs, as of November, LGBTI persons had not reported any hate crimes during the year, although they emphasized that fears of retribution discouraged reporting.

An Advisory and Coordinating Group consisting of representatives of eight ministries, the Office of Good Governance, and two NGOs cooperated to protect and promote the human rights of the LGBTI community, including through passage of the 2016-2018 National Action Plan for LGBTI Rights in Kosovo. Implementation of the plan began in April and includes revision of school textbooks to provide descriptions of human rights and training for KP officers and social workers on human rights, including LGBTI issues. Government officials signaled support for the human rights of the LGBTI community by sponsoring and attending numerous public events on the issue.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

There were no confirmed reports of official discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS during the year.

Montenegro

Executive Summary

Montenegro is a mixed parliamentary and presidential republic with a multiparty political system. Voters choose both the president and the unicameral parliament through popular elections. The president nominates, and the parliament approves, the prime minister. The observation mission of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR) stated that the 2016 parliamentary elections were conducted in a competitive environment and fundamental freedoms were generally respected. The opposition coalition did not accept the election results and began a continuing boycott of parliament, although all but two parties have since returned. On April 15, Milo Djukanovic, president of the Democratic Party of Socialists, was elected president of the country, winning approximately 54 percent of the vote in the first round. This is his second term as president, having additionally served six terms as prime minister. The OSCE/ODIHR, the European Parliament delegation, and the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly noted the April 15 election proceeded in an orderly manner but had a few minor irregularities that did not affect the outcome. Despite opposition protests, elections were generally considered free and fair.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included corruption; trafficking in persons; attacks on journalists; and crimes involving violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons.

Impunity remained a problem, since the government did not punish officials who committed human rights abuses.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights.

Press and Media Freedom: Independent media generally expressed a wide variety of political and social views, including through articles and programs critical of the authorities. The NGO Center for Civic Education warned in each of its annual reports since 2012, however, that selective and nontransparent public funding through the purchase of advertising continued to exert undue influence on the media market. According to the NGO, such funding was provided to reward media outlets favorable to the government and withheld from media that questioned official policies or practices.

The independent television station and newspaper Vijesti continued to blame unfair media conditions, economic pressure from the government, and selective prosecution for its difficulties in making regular tax payments. On April 25, the Commercial Court rejected a 2014 lawsuit brought by Vijesti’s parent company, Daily Press, against the progovernment tabloid Pink M Television for allegedly discrediting Vijesti’s reputation.

Violence and Harassment: Attacks directed at journalists continued to be a serious problem.

On May 8, an unknown assailant shot and wounded investigative journalist Olivera Lakic of the daily Vijesti in front of her home in Podgorica. Lakic, whose reporting covered crime and corruption in the country, was previously attacked in 2012 for her reporting. Government officials, political parties, and international and multilateral organizations condemned the attack. On May 9, journalists, citizens, and civic activists rallied to demand that authorities stop violence against journalists. Also on May 9, in an interview with Radio Danilovgrad, then president-elect Milo Djukanovic condemned the assault on Lakic, but drew heavy criticism for stating, “There is no difference if somebody from a narcotics-trafficking clan or from the media draws a target on their opponents.”

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent and pro-opposition media complained about unfair treatment and economic pressure from government ministries and agencies. The Center for Civic Education claimed that selective and nontransparent distribution of public funds to media outlets created an unfair media environment and constituted “soft censorship.”

On June 7, the managing council of the public broadcaster Radio Televizija Crna Gora (RTCG) dismissed the RTCG’s director general, Andrijana Kadija. Six representatives of the nine-member council voted for Kadija’s dismissal. All six were affiliated with the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). In its decision, the council said the RTCG improperly ceded editorial control to a NGO for an EU-funded project. Kadija denied that the EU-funded grant hampered the editorial independence of the RTCG and asserted her only fault was her apolitical stance and commitment to shield the RTCG from political control.

The EU and the OSCE sharply criticized Kadija’s dismissal. Independent journalists, civil society activists, and opposition politicians asserted that Kadija’s dismissal was the final step in the DPS’s campaign to regain control of the public broadcaster. That campaign, they said, began late in 2017 when parliament dismissed two RTCG council members, film director Nikola Vukcevic and NGO activist Goran Djurovic, because of alleged conflicts of interest. Both Vukcevic and Djurovic denied the allegations. Parliament later appointed two DPS-affiliated members, Slobodan Pajovic and Goran Sekulovic, as their replacements. On November 30, the RTCG managing council elected Bozidar Sundic, who also had strong DPS ties, as its new director general.

Additionally, in December 2017 parliament dismissed another NGO representative, Darko Ivanovic, from the managing council of the Agency for Electronic Media (AEM), citing an alleged illegal conflict of interest. Ivanovic denied the accusation and claimed he was dismissed because he had advocated punitive measures against the progovernment tabloid television station PinkM, which the AEM had cited on numerous occasions for violations of the agency’s program principles and standards.

In its 2018 Report on Montenegro, the European Commission (EC) noted that the country made no progress in advancing freedom of expression since November 2016. The EC specifically warned that “recent political interference in the national public broadcaster council and the Agency for Electronic Media are a matter of serious concern.”

Some media outlets continued to demonstrate a willingness to criticize the government. However, a lack of training and unprofessional journalistic behavior, combined with low salaries and political pressure, contributed at times to biased coverage.

Libel/Slander Laws: There is no criminal libel law, but media outlets faced libel charges in civil proceedings. During the year the AEM issued nine warnings to Pink M for “violating program principles and standards.” Some civil society representatives urged the AEM to take more severe disciplinary measures against the broadcaster.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no official reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. However, MANS did complain of government surveillance of their communications.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, an estimated 71 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and corruption remained a problem. Some government officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The public viewed corruption as endemic in the government and elsewhere in the public sector at both local and national levels. This was particularly the case in the areas of health, higher education, the judiciary, customs, political parties, police, urban planning, the construction industry, and employment. The Agency for Prevention of Corruption continued to operate, but NGOs and the EC criticized its lack of independence and priorities.

Agencies tasked with fighting corruption acknowledged that cooperation and information sharing among them was inadequate; their capacity improved but remained limited. Politicization, poor salaries, and lack of motivation and training of public servants provided fertile ground for corruption.

Corruption: Most citizen reports of corruption to the Agency for Prevention of Corruption involved public administration, the private sector, and the judiciary. In one example, a case was brought against former Podgorica mayor, Miomir Mugosa, who, according to his indictment, enabled the illegal selling of underpriced municipal land to a private company, Carine, without a tender procedure, costing the government seven million euros (eight million dollars).

Police corruption and inappropriate government influence on police behavior remained problems.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires government officials to report any increases in value of personal property of more than 5,000 euros ($5,750) or any gift exceeding 50 euros ($58) to the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption. Violations of the obligation to file and disclose are subject to administrative or misdemeanor sanctions. Most officials complied with the requirements in a timely fashion. However, in the first six months of the year, the agency filed 320 requests to initiate misdemeanor proceedings against public officials who did not submit regular annual reports on income and assets or for breaking campaign finance laws; 56 of these proceedings resulted in fines that amounted to 15,250 euros ($17,500).

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: These acts are illegal, and authorities generally enforced the law. In most cases the penalty provided by law for rape, including spousal rape, is one to 10 years in prison. Actual sentences were generally lenient, the average being three years.

Domestic violence is generally punishable by a fine or a one-year prison sentence.

According to NGO reports, courts often failed to prosecute domestic violence. When they did so, sentences were lenient. Lengthy trials, economic dependency, and a lack of alternative places to live often forced victims and perpetrators to continue to live together.

The country aligned its legislation with the Istanbul Convention on violence against women and domestic violence, but domestic violence remained a persistent and common problem. The law permits victims to obtain restraining orders against abusers. When abuser and victim live together, authorities may remove the abuser from the property, regardless of ownership rights.

Within the Romani communities, domestic violence was a serious problem. In a UNHCR report during the year, over half of Romani men and women surveyed agreed with the statement, “A man has the right to beat his wife in certain instances.” As a corollary, only 3 percent of the general population agreed with this statement.

According to NGOs and the ombudsman, female victims of domestic violence often complained that government-run social welfare centers did not respond adequately to their appeals for help. NGOs reported that state institutions did not provide physical protection for victims. In February an operative team for domestic violence was formed, composed of representatives of the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, the Ministry of Health, State Prosecution, the Supreme Court, the Higher Court, the Organization for the Civic Control of Police, and six NGOs.

The government, in cooperation with an NGO, operated a free hotline for victims of family violence. NGOs continued to report that, despite some progress, particularly in the law, government agencies responded inadequately to prevent domestic violence and help survivors recover.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: In many Romani communities, the practice of paying a traditional “bride price” of several hundred to several thousand euros for girls and women to be sold into or purchased from families across the border in Kosovo or Albania led to concerns about trafficking in persons. The potential to be “remarried” existed, with some girls being sent back to their families, being resold, and the money then given to the former spouse’s family. These practices were rarely reported, and police rarely intervened, viewing the practices as “traditional.” These practices also led to girls being pulled out of school at a rate much higher than boys, limiting their literacy and ability to provide for themselves and their families, essentially trapping them in these situations.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is not defined as a crime under the law. According to the Center for Women’s Rights, sexual harassment, including street harassment, of women occurred often, but few women reported it. Public awareness of the problem remained low. Victims hesitated to report harassment due to fears of employer reprisals and a lack of information about legal remedies. Stalking or predatory behavior with physical intimidation is punishable by law with a fine or up to three years’ imprisonment.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. All property acquired during marriage is joint property. The government enforced these laws somewhat effectively. The NGO SOS noted that women often experienced difficulty in defending their property rights in divorce proceedings due to the widespread public belief that property belongs to the man. Sometimes women ceded their inherited property and inheritance rights to male relatives due to tradition and pressure from their families, but this practice continued to decline. A consequence of these factors was that men tended to be favored in the distribution of property ownership.

The Department for Gender Equality worked to inform women of their rights, and the parliament has a committee on gender equality. The government adopted the 2017-2021 strategy on gender equality.

According to Romani NGOs, one-half of Romani women between the ages of 15 and 24 were illiterate. Romani women often noted that they faced double discrimination based on their gender and ethnicity.

Gender-biased Sex Selection: Although it is illegal, medical professionals noted that gender-biased sex selection took place, resulting in a boy-to-girl ratio at birth of 108:100. The government did not actively address the problem.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship from their parents and, under some circumstances, by birth in the country, through naturalization, or as otherwise specified by international treaties governing the acquisition of citizenship. Registration of birth, a responsibility of the parents, is required for a child to have the necessary documents to establish his or her citizenship. Births of all children in hospitals and medical institutions were registered automatically. The parents of Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptian children not born in hospitals registered their births at much lower rates than other groups, mostly due to lack of awareness of the registration process or the parents’ own lack of identification documents. It was difficult for the unregistered children of Romani and Balkan Egyptian parents to access such government services as health care, social allowances, and education. Of the Romani and Balkan Egyptian children in primary school, 10 percent were not registered.

Education: The law provides for free, compulsory elementary education for all children. Secondary education is free but not compulsory.

Child Abuse: Child abuse laws are covered by the 2017-2021 strategy for the prevention and protection of children from domestic violence. The Ministry of Health reported that every third child was subject to emotional abuse, while every fourth child was a victim of physical abuse. Many children, particularly high school students, were exposed to alcohol, drugs, and violence. The ombudsman noted that child sexual abuse victims were usually girls between the ages of 14 and 16. The abusers were mostly close relatives of the children, and abuse usually occurred at home. The very low number of reported cases of sexual violence against children raised concerns about identification of victims.

Authorities prosecuted child abuse when they had cases with enough evidence, and the government worked to raise public awareness of the importance of reporting cases. Facilities and psychotherapy assistance for children who suffered from family violence were inadequate, and there were no marital or family counseling centers. Authorities sometimes placed juvenile victims of domestic violence in the children’s correctional facility in Ljubovic or the orphanage in Bijela.

Early and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18 in most cases, but persons as young as 16 may marry with the consent of the court or a parent. Punishment for arranging forced marriages ranges from six months to five years in prison, but convictions were rare, generally owing to a lack of evidence or poor understanding of the law.

Child marriage was a serious problem, particularly in the Romani and Balkan-Egyptian communities. According to a 2018 UNICEF report, 56.4 percent of Romani women were married before the age of 18, and 36 percent had a live birth before the age of 18. Of girls, 18.2 percent said they were married before the age of 15. For boys, nearly 35 percent were married before age 18, 6.5 percent of whom were before age 15. Of persons aged 15 to 19, 28 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys were married. There were reports of girls as young as 13 being sold into “traditional” marriages without their consent or input. These marriages generally did not meet the criteria necessary for legal, documented marriages. As such, they were difficult to track and regulate, regardless of legality.

The custom of buying or selling virgin brides continued in the Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian communities. Brides found not to be virgins prior to marriage faced severe repercussions, including violence, from the groom’s family, their family, and the community at large.

The government implemented some measures to prevent underage marriage, including enforcing mandatory school education.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation, sale, and offering or procuring for prostitution. The country partially enforced the law, omitting “traditional” practices of selling children into forced marriage as a concern in some Romani communities. The age of sexual consent is 18. There is a statutory rape law. Sexual activity with a juvenile carries a prison sentence of up to three years. Paying a juvenile for sexual activity carries a prison term of three months to five years. Authorities may fine or imprison for one to 10 years any person found guilty of inducing a minor into prostitution.

Child pornography is illegal, and sentences for violators range from six months in prison for displaying child pornography to eight years for using a child in the production of pornography.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html.

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community was approximately 500 individuals. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution and law prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities. The government was implementing the Strategy for Integration of Persons with Disabilities 2016-2020, but NGOs claimed that it did not do so effectively. During the year, 10 NGOs that worked with persons with disabilities formed a network to coordinate and monitor implementation of the government’s strategy better.

Authorities generally enforced the requirement that new public buildings be accessible to persons with disabilities, but most public facilities, including buildings and public transportation, were older and lacked access. Although election laws specifically require accessible polling places, the majority of polling stations remained inaccessible.

Despite legal protections, persons with disabilities often hesitated to bring legal proceedings against persons or institutions seen to be violating their rights. Observers ascribed this reluctance to the adverse outcomes of previous court cases or, according to the ombudsman, to insufficient public awareness of human rights and protection mechanisms relating to disabilities. The NGO Association of Youth with Disabilities initiated several discrimination cases against the Kotor Basic Court and Kotor Social Center this year while court processes against the national parliament, the Podgorica municipality, and social centers in Podgorica, Tivat, and Budva continued.

The Ministries of Health; Labor and Social Welfare; Education; Sports; Finance; Justice; Human and Minority Rights; Sustainable Development and Tourism, as well as the Secretariat for Legislation, the State Employment Agency, and five NGOs provided assistance and protection within their respective spheres. Together, they constituted the Council for Care of Persons with Disabilities, chaired by the minister of labor and social welfare with the responsibility for policies protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.

According to NGOs, services at the local level to children with mental and physical disabilities remained inadequate. Associations of parents of children with disabilities were the primary providers of these services. The law permits parents or guardians of persons with disabilities to work half time, but employers did not respect this right.

The government made efforts to enable children with disabilities to attend schools and universities, but the quality of the education they received and the facilities to accommodate them remained inadequate at all levels. NGOs also stated that supported-living assistance at home and similar services were not provided to families and parents of children with disabilities.

Persons with disabilities were generally institutionalized, or encouraged towards institutions, which perpetuated stigmatization. Persons with physical disabilities had difficulty obtaining high-quality medical devices to facilitate their mobility through health and social insurance.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptians remained the most vulnerable victims of discrimination, mainly due to prejudice and limited access to social services. Lack of required documentation often limited their access to services. The law relating to citizenship and its accompanying regulations makes obtaining citizenship difficult for persons without personal identity documents or those born outside of a hospital. For example, access to health-care services remained difficult for members of these communities due to their lack of medical care cards. The government adopted the Strategy for Social Inclusion of Roma and Balkan Egyptians 2016-2020, which, as implemented, resulted in some improvements in the number of Romani children attending school, access to health care, and access to housing.

According to the Roma Education Fund, the poverty rate among Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptians was 36 percent compared with a rate of 11 percent for the general population. Many Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptians lived in illegal squatter settlements that often lacked services such as public utilities, medical care, and sewage disposal.

Albanians and Bosniaks in the southern and northern parts of the country frequently complained about central government discrimination and economic neglect. Ethnic Serb politicians claimed that the government discriminated against the Serbian national identity, language, and religion.

Government-supported national councils for Serbs, Bosniaks, Albanians, Muslims, Croats, and Roma represented the interests of those ethnic minorities. NGOs, legal observers, and the media continued to accuse the government of misappropriating money from a fund established to finance the national councils.

Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The law forbids incitement to hatred based on sexual orientation and prohibits discrimination against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Anti-LGBTI bias motive is an aggravating circumstance when prosecuting hate crimes.

The NGO Queer Montenegro reported four physical attacks against LGBTI individuals in the first nine months of the year. LGBTI NGOs stated that most of these cases were prosecuted as disorderly conduct and not as hate crimes. They also reported that transgender persons were susceptible to the most severe violence. Queer Montenegro reported an attack against a transgender person in September 2017 that was being prosecuted as a hate crime. The NGO considered this a positive development that should be standard practice, not an exception.

LGBTI advocates reported that young persons perpetrated 80 percent of the violent crimes against members of the LGBTI community. Hostile individuals used social media and LGBTI dating sites to attack and bully known and suspected LGBTI persons anonymously. In the first five months of the year, the NGO LGBT Forum Progress reported to police 78 persons for hate speech and incitement to violence targeting LGBTI persons on the internet. They also submitted reports to police against two politicians and some high-ranking religious leaders for anti-LGBTI statements.

Negative public perception of LGBTI persons led many to conceal their sexual orientation, although there was a trend toward greater visibility as LGBTI persons came out to their families and colleagues. In 2017, the last year for which data was available, the Ombudsman’s Office received three reports of discrimination based on sexual orientation, the same as in 2016. There were also reports of beatings, with some based on LGBTI identity, in prisons and detention centers across the country.

On October 29, the Constitutional Court found in favor of a complaint registered on behalf of LGBTI groups following a 2015 police ban on holding a pride parade in Niksic, reversing a 2016 Supreme Court ruling. The Constitutional Court found that the police decision to ban the pride parade in that town for security reasons had violated the rights of organizers to peaceful assembly and that the state failed to provide adequate protection for an event legally registered with police. NGO representatives assessed the Constitutional Court’s ruling as an encouraging message to the LGBTI community and public that the rights of all citizens must be respected.

Every police station had an officer whose duties included monitoring observance of the rights of LGBTI persons. During the year a “team of confidence” between police and LGBTI NGOs continued working to improve communication between police and the community.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Juventas and the Montenegrin HIV Foundation stated that persons with HIV/AIDS were stigmatized and experienced discrimination, although most discrimination was undocumented. Observers believed that fear of discrimination, societal taboos relating to sex, and the lack of privacy of medical records prevented many persons from seeking testing for HIV. NGOs reported that patients often faced discrimination by medical personnel and received inadequate treatment. There has been no official response to these claims.

North Macedonia

Executive Summary

The Republic of North Macedonia is a parliamentary democracy. A popularly elected president is head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. The unicameral parliament exercises legislative authority. Parliamentary elections were last held in 2016 and presidential elections in 2014. In its final report on the parliamentary elections, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) observed that the elections were transparent, well administered, and orderly but took place “in an environment characterized by a lack of public trust in institutions and the political establishment” and failed to meet some important OSCE commitments for a democratic electoral process. The OSCE/ODIHR’s final report on the 2014 presidential elections noted the elections respected citizens’ fundamental freedoms, but that there was inadequate separation between party and state activities.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included high-level corruption.

The government also took steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed abuses.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press. The government made progress respecting media freedom and freedom of expression, but problems remained, including weak media independence, and violence and intimidation of journalists.

The April 17 EC report on the country noted that the “climate for media freedom and freedom of expression has improved, with more open political debate and critical media reporting,” and that there was a “decrease in pressure on journalists.” Freedom House’s Nations in Transit 2018 report, released on April 11, characterized the media landscape as, “improved slightly, reflecting positive developments in the credibility of media reporting as a result of the change in power at the central level.” The report noted that media outlets remained largely polarized along political, ethnic, and linguistic lines and that they “are still far from acting independently from political influence.”

In an open letter dated July 27, the heads of the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM), the Independent Union of Journalists and Media Workers (IUJMW), and the Media Ethics Council criticized July 25 amendments to the electoral code, alleging they allowed political advertising to be paid out of the state budget. The letter asserted the amendments disregarded independent media outlet’s opposition to using taxpayer money for political advertising in the commercial media, a practice that was supposed to have ended in 2017. The Agency for Audio-Visual Media Services (AAVMS) and the Council of Europe’s platform for the protection of journalism released their own statements echoing these concerns.

In August a Judicial-Media Council was established to improve cooperation between the judiciary and journalists through increased transparency of courts and objective reporting.

Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits speech that incites national, religious, or ethnic hatred and provides penalties for violations. Individuals may criticize the government publicly or privately.

Press and Media Freedom: While outlets and reporting continued to be largely divided along political lines, the number of independent media voices actively expressing a variety of views without overt restriction increased. Laws that restrict speech inciting national, religious, or ethnic hatred also cover print and broadcast media, publication of books, and online newspapers and journals.

Prepared by Metamorphosis Foundation, Agora, and the Platform for Investigative Journalism and Analysis (PINA), a periodic report on the status of media reforms published on March 6 found that media reforms progressed with differing paces and quality, and most were only partially fulfilled. In its April 17 report on the country, the EC stated: “The new government put an end to government advertising in the form of commercial advertisements on commercial broadcasters (except on social media and at the local level) in August 2017, following the previous moratorium in place since 2015. To achieve one of the “Urgent Reform Priorities,” the new government also published figures on government advertising expenditures from 2008-2015, albeit with some data missing. The extent to which government advertising had been a tool to exercise influence on broadcasters, and to which the previous system had been distorting the market, was reflected in the market’s reaction to the loss of this revenue source, which had already had a financial impact in the broadcasting sector and led private media to seek to measure viewership due to the need to compete for listeners and advertising.”

The EC report also noted “the quality of reporting by some private television stations improved; however, low professional standards persisted at some media outlets, undermining objective reporting. The monitoring by the council of media ethics shows that further work was needed to improve respect for ethical standards. Investigative reporting remained limited.”

On September 25, the AAVMS released its first report on media coverage of the 2018 referendum (on the country’s change of name), asserting that the citizens did not receive balanced coverage of all different views on the referendum. In addition the agency filed misdemeanor charges against ITV for exceeding the maximum allowed 4.5 minutes per hour of advertising for ‘parliament’s “For” referendum campaign and TV Sonce for exceeding the allowed 4.5 minutes per hour of advertising for supporters of the “Boycott” campaign. The AAVMS stated it reprimanded several other broadcasters for violating referendum ad time limits, warning that unless the outlets fixed the problem they would also be subject to misdemeanor charges. The OSCE/ODIHR reported that “media generally provided fair coverage” with the lack of an “Against” or “Boycott” campaign in traditional media complicating the media’s ability to provide equitable coverage. In addition the OSCE/ODIHR noted that media outlets did not always respect AAVMS regulations for equal division of publically funded airtime with a larger share going to the “for” campaign.

Violence and Harassment: There were several cases of alleged threats, violence, and police harassment against journalists during the year.

On March 8, the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) president Naser Selmani complained publicly he received threats against his and his family’s lives from an individual affiliated with the Democratic Union for Integration party. On March 19, the Skopje Basic Prosecution Office opened a preliminary investigation.

On September 8, the Skopje Criminal Court sentenced Matija Kanikov to six months in prison for assaulting an A1On reporter during the 2017 “United for Macedonia” protests. Journalists’ associations welcomed the verdict for sending a clear message that the system would not tolerate violence against journalists, improving journalists’ safety.

In a statement following a meeting with OSCE freedom of the media representative Harlem Desir on September 17, AJM president Naser Selmani, emphasized that security of journalists had improved as acts of violence and harassment against journalists were “drastically reduced.” He also noted that, “for the first time ever,” a court had in 2017 convicted and sentenced a person to prison for physically attacking a journalist. Selmani added the environment of impunity in the country remained a problem, however.

On May 29, Minister of Interior Oliver Spasovski told a news conference that, according to a report prepared by the Ministry, authorities had filed 12 charges against individuals for attacks against journalists between June 2017 and May 29. “We addressed all cases. We filed criminal charges against two individuals for violence and threats to security, three misdemeanor charges against six individuals. In one case, we notified the respective prosecution office of threats to security; in one case, we determined a civil lawsuit should be initiated; and only one case remained unresolved,” he said.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were some reports that the government pressured journalists into self-censorship. In its April 17 report on the country, the EC noted, “There was no improvement in the union protection or labor conditions of journalists. As a result, journalists still practice self-censorship.”

The AJM reported that, as of August 27, two television reporters complained of censorship. Snezana Lupevska, author of the Kod investigative program, claimed that Telma TV management censored her show. In response to public reactions, Telma TV broadcast the original program without edits. Kristina Atovska, a former employee of 24 Vesti TV, complained that two editors regularly censored her pieces.

Libel/Slander Laws: Persons found guilty of defamation, libel, and slander were subject to fines according to a schedule based on nonmaterial damage. The EC noted that there was a decreasing trend in defamation cases.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. There were no reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The State Statistical Office estimated that 75 percent of households had access to the internet in the first quarter of the year, up from 69 percent in 2016.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of corruption by officials. The government generally implemented the law, but there were reports that officials engaged in corruption. NGOs stated the government’s dominant role in the economy created opportunities for corruption. The government was the country’s largest employer; some analysts estimated it employed as many as 180,000 persons, despite official statistics showing public sector employment of approximately 128,000 persons. As of September 28, the Organized Crime Prosecution Office was investigating more than 100 former and existing officials for misuse of official position and corruption-related charges.

Corruption: In its April 17 report, the EC noted that the legislative and institutional framework to combat corruption was in place and a track record on prevention and prosecution of corruption was being established, although final court rulings on high-level corruption cases were limited. The capacity of institutions to effectively tackle corruption showed structural and operational deficiencies and political interference occurred. As of September 28, the Organized Crime Prosecution Office was investigating more than 100 former and active officials on misuse of official position and corruption related charges.

There were numerous cases of corruption by high-level officials during the year. One example was the March 1 launch of a criminal inquiry into allegations of misuse of public funds by the State Anticorruption Commission. On March 6, commission president Igor Tanturovski and member Goran Milenkov submitted their resignations. Following the resignations, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev told press he welcomed the decision, adding the country “needs an institution that will set an example and serve as a corrective to the shortcomings of the system as part of its commitment to combat corruption.” As of September 20, parliament had not appointed a new Anticorruption Commission.

On May 23, the Skopje Criminal Court convicted former prime minister Nikola Gruevski and sentenced him to two years in jail in a case involving the fraudulent procurement of a 600,000 euro ($690,000) armored Mercedes Benz in 2012. On November 9, the court rejected his appeal and ordered him to report to prison in order to start serving his two-year sentence. On November 12, Gruevski announced he had fled to Hungary, where he was subsequently granted asylum.

As of September 18, the Special Prosecutor’s Office, investigating allegations of corruption between 2008 and 2015, had 23 active trials against 130 defendants, charged 168 criminal offenses, and opened three investigations against 26 suspects. It had also initiated 182 new preliminary investigations into apparent criminal behavior relating to or arising from the content of illegally intercepted communications. Since the creation of the Special Prosecutor’s Office in 2015, the VMRO-DPMNE party repeatedly obstructed the work of the office and publicly criticized Special Prosecutor Katica Janeva, claiming she was incompetent and a politically biased tool of the SDSM party.

Financial Disclosure: The anticorruption law requires appointed and elected officials and their close families to disclose their income and assets and provides penalties for noncompliance. The public may view disclosure declarations on the website of the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption. The commission also received and checked 1,460 conflict of interest statements submitted by public officials.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of men and women, including spousal rape, is illegal. The penalties for rape range from one to 15 years’ imprisonment, but those laws were poorly enforced. Domestic violence is illegal but was a persistent and common problem.

The Ministry of Labor and Social policy had registered 620 victims of domestic violence in the period January-June, of which 12 were victims of sexual abuse.

The government ran seven limited-capacity shelters, and one NGO operated a shelter that could accommodate 30 at-risk women. A national NGO operated a hotline in both the Macedonian and the Albanian languages and ran two crisis centers to provide temporary shelter for victims of domestic violence.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace of both men and women and provides a sentencing guideline of three months to three years in prison for violations. The government effectively enforced the law. Women’s rights activists formed a new social movement with the hashtag #ISpeakUpNow (English translation) to show the normalization of sexual harassment in society. Sexual harassment of women in the workplace was a problem, but victims generally did not bring cases forward due to fear of publicity and possible loss of employment.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: Women have the same legal status as men under family, religious, personal status, labor, property, nationality, and inheritance laws. The laws were effectively enforced. In some communities the practice of men directing the voting or voting on behalf of female family members disenfranchised women. As of September the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy had not received any complaints concerning unequal treatment of women in political life.

Children

Birth Registration: The law determines citizenship primarily by the citizenship of the parents. It also allows orphans found in the country to acquire citizenship, unless authorities discover before the orphan reaches the age of 18 that his or her parents were foreigners. The government automatically registers the births of all children in hospitals and medical institutions, and the law requires that parents register the births of all children born in other places, including those born at home, at magistrate offices within 15 days of birth. Some Romani families delayed the registration of newborns, making it difficult for them to access educational, medical, and other benefits later in life due to lack of proper identity documents.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy identified 204 children requiring additional personal registration because the parents did not have a valid identification document or because of disputed maternity due to the use of another person’s health benefits card.

Child Abuse: There are laws against child abuse, and penalties for conviction include fines, imprisonment, and closure of businesses. Child abuse was a problem in some areas. The government operated a hotline for domestic violence, including child abuse.

Early and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18. A court may issue a marriage license to persons between the ages of 16 and 18 if it finds them mentally and physically fit for marriage. Early and forced marriage occurred occasionally in the Romani community and, to a much lesser extent, in some Albanian communities. There are no official statistics on minor mothers.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits all forms of commercial sexual exploitation of children, including the offer, sale, or procurement of children for prostitution. The penalty for the commercial sexual exploitation of children is 10 to 15 years in prison. The law prohibits child pornography and provides penalties of five to 15 years in prison for violations. Authorities enforced the law. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16.

Authorities considered child commercial sexual exploitation a problem but did not know its extent. The country had an online registry, searchable by name and address, of convicted child traffickers and sex offenders that listed photographs, conviction records, and residential addresses. Offenders could ask authorities to remove them from the register 10 years after they completed their sentence, provided they did not commit a new offense.

Displaced Children: According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, there were 78 displaced children of different ethnicities registered as of June. A 2016 report from the ombudsman’s office estimated 236 children lived without shelter. With international support, the ministry operated two day centers for street children. The government also maintained a transit shelter for street children, but its small size limited its effectiveness in providing social services (see section 2.d.).

Institutionalized Children: Advocates and the ombudsman reported a lack of accountability for child neglect and abuse in orphanages, shelters, and detention centers.

In February the Center for Social Work-Skopje notified the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy of possible trafficking and sexual exploitation of a child in custody of the Public Institution for the Care of Children with Educational Social Problems and Disturbed Behavior. Authorities transferred the child to the Center for Victims of Trafficking in Persons, where she received assistance. The Ministry of Interior filed criminal charges against multiple individuals for child trafficking. The ombudsman’s office recorded two additional cases of abuse of institutionalized children, both of Romani origin.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html.

Anti-Semitism

According to the Jewish community, approximately 200 to 250 Jewish persons resided in the country. On March 7, police announced that they filed charges against a minor suspect for painting swastika graffiti on the memorial museum of the uprising against fascism as well as some other buildings in the city of Prilep.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, including their access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, or other state services, but the government did not always enforce these provisions effectively. On October 30, the Basic Court in Gostivar ordered pretrial detention for three individuals accused of abuse of a 13 years old child who reportedly had an intellectual disability. As of December 4, the case was still in the indictment stage. The law allows persons who have experienced discrimination to submit complaints to the Commission for Protection from Discrimination. The commission was located in an office sometimes inaccessible to persons with physical disabilities.

A separate law regulates a special government fund for stimulating employment of persons with disabilities. The Employment Agency manages the fund with oversight by the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy. The fund provided grants for office reconstruction or procurement of equipment for workstations to provide reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities. The law requires persons with physical or mental disabilities to obtain approval from a government medical commission to serve in supervisory positions in the private and public sectors.

The law establishes accessibility standards for new buildings; existing public structures were to be made accessible for persons with disabilities by the end of 2015. NGOs reported many public buildings did not comply with the law. Although all buses purchased since 2013 by the government for Skopje were accessible to persons with physical disabilities, public transportation remained largely inaccessible in other regions.

The Ministry of Education and Science made efforts to provide suitable support to enable children with disabilities to attend regular schools. It employed special educators, assigned either to individual selected schools or as “mobile” municipal special educators covering all schools in their municipality, to support teachers who had children with disabilities in their regular classes. School authorities also installed elevators in several primary schools and deployed technology to assist students with disabilities in using computers in selected primary and secondary schools. Despite these efforts, a large number of students with disabilities continued to attend separate schools.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

According to the country’s most recent census in 2002, the ethnic composition of the population was 64.2 percent Macedonian , 25.2 percent Albanian, 3.9 percent Turkish, 2.7 percent Romani, 1.8 percent Serbian, 0.8 percent Bosniak, and 0.5 percent Vlach. According to the ombudsman’s annual report, ethnic minorities, with the exception of Serbs and Vlachs, were underrepresented in the civil service and other state institutions, including the military, police, intelligence services, courts, national bank, customs service, and public enterprises.

The law provides for primary and secondary education in the Macedonian, Albanian, Romani, Turkish, and Serbian languages. The number of minority students who received secondary education in their native language continued to increase, especially after secondary education became mandatory in 2007, although the government was unable to provide full instruction in Romani due to a shortage of qualified teachers.

On January 11, parliament adopted the Law on the Use of Languages, seen by many ethnic Albanians as resolving the last remaining issue from the Ohrid Framework Agreement. Passage of the law figured prominently in SDSM’s coalition negotiations with the leading ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration. Opposition VMRO-DPMNE members of parliament were absent from parliament during the vote and released a statement calling the law unconstitutional. President Ivanov refused to sign the law, maintaining it was unconstitutional and threatened the country’s sovereignty, unitary character, and territorial integrity. Though the law was adopted by a majority twice in parliament, without the president’s signature it remained unimplemented.

Ethnic Albanians continued to criticize unequal representation in government ministries and public enterprises, as well as inequitable budget allocations. The country’s police academy continued to fall short of the number of minority trainees needed to comply with the constitution, which stipulates that the administration reflect the ethnic composition of the state. Ethnic Albanians alleged the government designed the testing process in the academy unfairly to deny access to minority groups. In particular, ethnic Albanians complained of cultural biases in the tests. Ethnic Albanian and other minority representation within the civilian administration of the Ministry of Defense remained low. Some elite units of the police and the military had almost no representation of ethnic minorities.

Roma reported widespread societal discrimination. NGOs and international experts reported that employers often denied Roma job opportunities, and some Roma complained of lack of access to public services and benefits. The Ministry of Health and the NGO Hera, in partnership with UNICEF, sponsored the Roma Health Mediators Program to provide health, social, and early childhood development services in seven municipalities with high Romani populations.

Ethnic Turks complained of underrepresentation in state institutions.

Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The constitution and law prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment, nationality laws, access to government services such as health care, and the government enforced such laws. Sexual acts between members of the same sex are legal.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community remained marginalized, and activists supporting LGBTI rights reported incidents of societal prejudice, including hate speech. The Helsinki Human Rights Committee received no reports of physical assaults or other violence against members of the LGBTI community. According to the committee, the Skopje public prosecutor remained ineffective at processing pending cases involving hate speech targeting members of the LGBTI community. In addition the perpetrators of an attack on an LGBTI center in 2014 have not been apprehended.

As a result of 2017 complaints from LGBTI organizations and with support from the ombudsman, the Ministry of Education withdrew a number of textbooks found to be discriminatory on the basis of gender and family status. The state universities of Cyril and Methodius and Kliment Ohridski did not comply with the directive, and as of August discriminatory texts were still in use at these institutions.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

There were isolated reports of discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS in the health-care sector.

Serbia

Executive Summary

The Republic of Serbia is a constitutional, multiparty, parliamentary democracy. The country held extraordinary parliamentary elections in 2016 and presidential elections in 2017. International observers stated that the elections were mostly free, but that campaigning during both periods benefited progovernment candidates. In 2017 Aleksandar Vucic, president of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), was elected president, winning approximately 55 percent of the vote in the first round.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included government corruption, including by some high-level officials; violence against journalists; and crimes including violence targeting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) individuals.

The government took steps to prosecute officials who committed human rights abuses (and punish them, if convicted), both in the police force and elsewhere in the government, following public exposure of abuses. Nevertheless, many observers believed numerous cases of corruption, social and domestic violence, and other abuses went unreported and unpunished.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but a lack of transparency of media ownership, continuing government involvement in media ownership, and threats and attacks on journalists undermined these freedoms. Independent observers claimed that 2017 was one of the worst years on record for press freedom in the country. The trend of decreased media freedom continued during the year.

Press and Media Freedom: Although independent media organizations continued to exist and express a wide range of views, press organizations and international monitors claimed government pressure on media was deepening. The government reportedly controlled media outlets through advertising revenue and the allocations of media grants. According to a 2017 study by Reporters without Borders, the government is the biggest advertiser in the country and uses its purchasing power to support progovernment editorial content and stifle critical viewpoints. A number of independent journalists and outlets claimed that they were being pressured by targeted tax investigations, smear campaigns, threats, and politically motivated attacks.

Violence and Harassment: The law prohibits threatening or otherwise putting pressure on public media and journalists or exerting any other kind of influence that might obstruct their work. The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia reported at least 92 cases in which journalists had been attacked, threatened, or exposed to political pressure in 2017. These attacks included vandalism, intimidation, and physical attacks.

In May 2017 six journalists were attacked while reporting on the presidential inauguration by members of the security service of the SNS, which were securing the event. Despite photographs of the journalists’ being dragged and choked, state prosecutors dropped criminal charges because they claimed there were no elements of a criminal act. The journalists filed an objection to the high prosecutor’s office in late 2017; there were no developments on the case during the year.

N1 television was a frequent target of government criticism. Some observers blamed the criticism for a January attack against an N1 journalist, Nikola Radisic. Two unidentified men insulted, spat at, and threatened Radisic after recognizing him in the street.

According to Amnesty International’s 2017-18 report on the country, investigative journalists were subjected to smear campaigns by ministers and media close to the government. In particular, the report noted that journalists working for the Network for Investigating Crime and Corruption (KRIK) received death threats, and that the apartment of its investigative reporter Dragana Peco had been the subject of a home invasion. KRIK’s investigative reporting into the unexplained source of funding that allowed Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin to purchase property in Belgrade was also met with a smear campaign. The Movement of Socialists immediately responded to the story by publishing a statement accusing KRIK’s editor in chief, Stevan Dojcinovic, of being a drug addict and foreign agent.

Watchdog organizations also noted that past killings of several journalists have yet to be resolved, including the killings of journalists Slavko Curuvija (1999), Dada Vujasinovic (1994), and Milan Pantic (2001).

A study by the Slavko Curuvija Foundation, Media Freedoms and Control: Journalists’ Testimonies, found that 74 percent of Serbian journalists believed “there [were] serious obstacles to exercising media freedoms” or that they had no media freedom at all. Nearly two-thirds of journalists interviewed believed that the political establishment had the strongest influence over the media community.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were reports that the government actively sought to direct media reporting on a number of issues.

Economic pressure sometimes led media outlets to practice self-censorship, refraining from publishing content critical of the government, based on a fear of economic consequences. State-controlled funds were believed to contribute a significant percentage of overall advertising revenue, giving the state leverage over media outlets. According to the regional media advocacy group fairpress.eu, the government allocated more than two billion dinar ($19.2 million) each year for media support; the recipients of these funds were not publicly disclosed.

Watchdog organizations believed the media market was too saturated for outlets to be financially viable without government support or access to government advertising contracts.

According to a report from the Center of Investigative Journalism of Serbia, the progovernment tabloids Srpski Telegraf and Informerwere granted about 23.5 million dinars ($225,000) by the government, notwithstanding their frequent breach of the country’s Code of Journalism. Meanwhile the daily newspaper Danas, the weekly news agency Beta, the weekly Novi Magazin, and the Media Center of the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia–none of which had ever received even a sanction or warning from the press council–did not receive state funding. The report concluded: “The situation is completely clear: progovernment media obtain money at state-run contests.”

Between October 2017 and mid-January, research by the Center for Research Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) showed that government representatives received four times more coverage in the media than representatives of the opposition. After the research results were published, progovernment broadcaster TV Pink used its platform to discredit CRTA and journalist Tamara Skrozza, who is also a member of CRTA’s board of directors. The Center for Investigative Journalism Serbia reported that Pink International, TV Pink’s corporate parent, received loans in excess of 10 million euros ($11.5 million) from the Serbian Export Credit and Insurance Agency in 2014, plus assurances of another 2.5 million euros ($2.9 million). In 2017 it reportedly received another loan of 3.2 million euros ($3.7 million) from the same agency. The government did not provide information to explain why a governmental agency tasked with supporting exports had funded a private television company.

Nongovernmental Impact: During the year several media outlets published articles that accused numerous journalists, NGO activists, and independent institution representatives of being “traitors” to the country and attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.

Shortly after the Independent Journalists Union of Serbia (IJAS) objected to the slow progress in solving the January 16 killing of Oliver Ivanovic, a prominent politician in Kosovo’s Serb community, President Vucic denounced IJAS president Slavisa Lekic, IJAS vice president and Beta editor in chief Dragan Janjic, and others for suggesting that the killing may have been politically motivated. Janjic’s photograph and home address were posted on a website, together with the statement, “This is what a man who hates all things Serbian looks like.” Responses on Facebook included, “Put a bullet in his head,” and “Hang him in the public square.”

INTERNET FREEDOM

There were no reports that the government restricted or disrupted access to the internet, monitored private online communication without appropriate legal authority, or censored online content.

Although the internet remained unrestricted, the law obliges telecommunications operators to retain certain data for one year. This data included the source and destination of a communication; the beginning, duration, and end of a communication; the type of communication; terminal equipment identification; and the location of the customer’s mobile terminal equipment. While intelligence agencies can access this metadata without court permission, the law requires a court order to access the contents of these communications.

According to National Institute of Statistics’ most recent data, 68 percent of the country’s population had an internet connection.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. There is a widespread public perception that the law was not being implemented consistently and systematically and that some high-level officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The EC’s Serbia 2018 Report stated that the country made some progress in its fight against corruption. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.

As of March 1, four new specialized anticorruption and economic crimes prosecutorial units, along with four corresponding judicial departments and eight police units, were established pursuant to laws adopted in 2016. The law gives prosecutors the right to form criminal task forces and improves information sharing between government agencies and public prosecutors. The law also mandates designated liaison officers at relevant government agencies, including the Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering, the Anticorruption Agency, the Public Procurement Office, and the State Audit Institution.

On March 1, amendments to the country’s criminal code, adopted in 2016, came into effect. These amendments expanded the set of criminal offenses pertaining to commercial crime and changed the tax evasion provision. Under the amendments prosecutors no longer have to prove that income subject to the statute was illegally acquired, and tax evasion could be charged in situations when the defendant had not declared illicit income. In addition, the new money laundering statute does not require proof of an underlying crime, only that the defendant knew that the laundered assets originated from criminal activity.

The country’s new Anticorruption Agency (ACA) is intended to be an independent institution that monitors financial disclosures of public officials, political party financing, and potential conflicts of interest. In January Dragan Sikimic was appointed director of the ACA. Media reports expressed concern about Sikimic’s financial support for the ruling political party and called into question his suitability to lead the ACA. Freedom House downgraded the country’s score on political pluralism and participation, based on the ACA’s decreased funding and activity during the year.

EU experts noted continuing problems with the overuse of the vague “abuse of office” charge for alleged private-sector corruption schemes. Despite the government’s publicly stated commitment to fight corruption, both the country’s Anticorruption Council and the NGO Transparency Serbia continued to point to a lack of governmental transparency.

Corruption: While the legal framework for fighting corruption was broadly in place, anticorruption entities typically lacked adequate personnel and were not integrated with other judicial entities, which inhibited information and evidence sharing with the prosecution service.

There were numerous cases of corruption during the year. As one example, in August police refused to assist in enforcing an order by the Ministry of Construction for the demolition of an illegally built restaurant on the summit of Pancic Mountain in Kopaonik National Park. While the license for the restaurant allowed for the construction of a 1,614 square-foot removable structure, an unknown investor built a 10,760 square foot permanent structure on the site. Police refused to provide necessary protection to the state authority for demolition, and demolition did not occur.

In September 2017 the Appellate Court reviewed the 2016 tax evasion conviction of Miroslav Miskovic, the owner of Delta Holdings. The court overturned part of the verdict that sentenced him to five-and-a-half years in prison and a fine of eight million dinars ($77,000) and instructed the Special Court to retry the case due to violations of criminal procedure. The Appellate Court also dismissed the abuse-of-power charges related to the privatization of a road company and annulled a lower court sentence of five years in prison and fine of eight million dinars ($77,000) in connection with the defendant aiding his son in evading taxes. The retrial on the charges of the tax evasion before the Organized Crime Department of the Belgrade Higher Court was ongoing. Judicial activists raised concerns that Miskovic’s arrest and trial were politically motivated.

Two years after the demolition of the Savamala residential neighborhood, the Ministry of Interior filed criminal charges against the sole police officer on duty Goran Stamenkovic, alleging dereliction of duty. On May 23, Stamenkovic pled guilty and received a suspended sentence of five months imprisonment and two years’ probation. Neither high-level officials nor the masked individuals who did the actual demolition have been arrested or charged.

During the summer months, the new anticorruption prosecutorial departments reported an increase in anticorruption activities. Between March, when the new anticorruption prosecutorial units became operational, and November, the Public Prosecutor’s office secured 142 corruption-related convictions, an increase over 2017. The number of cases proceeding through the courts indicated that the anticorruption prosecutorial departments had made progress in working with other government agencies, investigating malfeasance and indicting suspects.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires income and asset disclosure by appointed or elected officials. Under the law the ACA oversees the filing of disclosures and verifies their completeness and accuracy. Declarations are publicly available on the ACA website and upon request. Failure to file or to disclose income and assets fully is subject to administrative and/or criminal sanctions. Significant changes to assets or income must be reported annually. Officials also must file a disclosure form immediately after leaving office and must inform the ACA of any significant changes to their assets for two years after leaving office.

The ACA continued to initiate administrative and criminal proceedings against several former and current government officials who failed to file or incorrectly filed asset disclosure forms. The ACA stated in its 2017 report, published in March, that 41 requests related to conflicts of interest were received in 2017, and 20 requests for misdemeanor proceedings were filed. The ACA initiated 203 procedures based on suspicion of accumulation of functions without prior approval of the ACA and 170 procedures for other situations related to conflict of interest or nepotism. In 2017 the ACA received 11 trial judgments from the misdemeanor courts, which resulted from requests to initiate misdemeanor proceedings filed in 2016 and 2017. Most of these cases resulted in fines.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of men and women, including spousal rape, is punishable by up to 40 years in prison. The government did not enforce the law effectively.

Domestic violence is punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment. While the law provides women the right to obtain a restraining order against abusers, the government did not enforce the law effectively. According to the Ministry of Interior, 25 women were killed in domestic violence through August 15. The number of victims of domestic violence for the first four months of the year doubled compared with the same period in 2017. In May Jelena Grbic was killed in the Kosjeric municipality in front of her three minor children. Her alleged killer and common law partner, Ivan Radovanovic, was arrested, indicted for aggravated murder, and is currently in pretrial confinement. The alleged killer had previously been convicted of domestic violence. According to the Ministry of the Interior, seven men were also killed in family violence through July 25.

The Law on the Prevention of Family Violence strengthens protective measures for domestic violence victims by temporarily removing the perpetrator from a home from a minimum of 48 hours to a maximum of 30 days. This law requires that police, prosecutors’ offices, courts, and social welfare centers maintain an electronic database on individual cases of family violence and undertake emergency and extended measures.

Women’s groups were critical of the implementation of the law, citing lack of precision in statistical reporting as well as very few actual detentions.

Throughout 2017 and the first half of the year, the Justice Ministry conducted training for prosecutors, police officers, and centers for social welfare on the implementation of the law.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment of men and women is a crime punishable by imprisonment for up to six months in cases that do not involve domestic abuse or a power relationship, and for up to one year for abuse of a subordinate or dependent. The Autonomous Woman’s Center published polling data indicating that one in three women in the country has experienced unwanted physical contact, and 80 percent of the young men and women have been sexually harassed. While the legal framework was generally in place, the law was rarely enforced and did not provide an adequate deterrent to prevent sexual harassment. In October, the police charged a man with sexually harassing and inappropriately touching a teenage girl who was riding public transportation in Belgrade. Woman’s organizations contended that cases of sexual harassment and inappropriate touching were rarely investigated.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men in all areas, including family, religion, personal status, labor, property, nationality, and inheritance, but the government did not always enforce these laws. Women were discriminated against both at home and in the labor force; in marriage, divorce, child custody, employment, credit, pay, owning or managing businesses or property, education, the judicial process and housing. According to the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia, women did an average of over twice as many hours of domestic work as men.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived from a child’s parents. The law on birth records provides for universal birth registration. Some Romani children were not registered at birth. Subsequent birth registration was possible but complicated (see section 2.d., Stateless Persons). Children who were not registered did not have access to public services, such as health care.

Education: Education was free through the secondary level, but compulsory only from preschool through age 15. Ethnic discrimination and economic hardship discouraged some children from attending school. In Romani and poor rural communities, girls were more likely than boys to drop out of school and normally did so at an earlier age.

Child Abuse: There are laws prohibiting child abuse, and the penalties ranged from two to 10 years of imprisonment. According to research and reports, children were exposed to direct and interpersonal violence, physical and sexual violence, emotional abuse, and neglect. Children in the country also suffered structural violence, stemming from existing patriarchal social structures that enabled marginalization; this problem was manifested through different types of discrimination, child marriage, and child labor. Children in historically marginalized groups, such as Roma, suffered various types of social exclusion and were more prone to marginalization. According to the ombudsman, one-third of complaints filed with his office had to do with child abuse. Serbia’s efforts to prevent child abuse have largely focused on protection of victims rather than prevention of child abuse through targeted intervention; these programs have included training for police, schools, and social workers as well as hotlines and other platforms for reporting violence.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage is 18. A court can allow a minor older than 16 to marry if the minor is mature enough to “enjoy the rights and fulfill the responsibilities of marriage.” Child marriages occurred in Romani communities, but these marriages were not legal marriages, and statistics on their prevalence did not exist. Romani activists anecdotally reported a decline in number of child marriages, but this decline could not be verified.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation of children, to include selling, offering, or procuring for prostitution, and practices related to child pornography; the government enforced the law, but, nonetheless, these activities occurred. Evidence was limited, and the extent of the problem was unknown. The minimum age for consensual sex is 14, regardless of sexual orientation or gender.

Displaced Children: According to local NGOs and media reports, an estimated 2,000 homeless children lived on Belgrade’s streets.

Institutionalized Children: Children in orphanages and institutions were sometimes victims of physical and emotional abuse by caretakers and guardians and of sexual abuse by their peers. The law on social protection prioritizes the deinstitutionalization of children, including those with developmental problems, and their placement in foster families. Children with disabilities who were housed in institutions faced problems including isolation, neglect, and a lack of stimulation. Institutions were often overcrowded, and children were mixed with adults in the same facility. The Mental Disability Rights Initiative Serbia expressed concern over the violation of rights of institutionalized children, noting that 60 percent of institutionalized children with disabilities were excluded from the educational system.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html.

Anti-Semitism

According to the 2011 census, 787 persons in the country identified as Jewish. While the law prohibits hate speech, Jewish community leaders reported that translations of anti-Semitic literature were available from ultranationalist groups and conservative publishers. Anti-Semitic literature was available in some bookstores, and the Jewish community reported incidents of anti-Semitic comments in online media.

Holocaust education continued to be a part of the school curriculum at the direction of the Ministry of Education, including in the secondary school curriculum. The role of the collaborationist National Salvation government run by Milan Nedic during the Nazi occupation was debated. Some commentators continued to seek to minimize and reinterpret the role of the national collaborators’ movements during World War II and their role in the Holocaust. On July 11, the High Court in Belgrade ruled against the rehabilitation of wartime Prime Minister Milan Nedic, holding that the petition to the court by his family and several organizations representing political prisoners and victims of the communist regime was unfounded. The court document stated that the presumption that “Milan Nedic was arrested without any court or administrative decision and was a victim of persecution for political or ideological reasons” was groundless.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution and supporting laws prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, including their access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, and other state services. The government did not enforce these laws effectively. Persons with disabilities and their families experienced stigmatization and segregation because of deeply entrenched prejudices and a lack of information. The Commissioner for the Protection of Equality’s 2017 annual report highlighted a case in which the city of Zajecar failed to provide a personal assistant to a disabled schoolchild in accordance with the child’s individual support plan.

Persons with disabilities were exposed to discrimination in almost every aspect of life, including access to justice, health services, education, employment, and political participation. The 2017 annual report by the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality noted that 20 percent of all complaints filed with the office were cases of discrimination on disability grounds. According to the report, as a category women with disabilities experienced the most severe multiple discrimination. According to the World Health Organization, persons with disabilities represented 15 percent of the country’s population. The law requires all public buildings to be accessible to persons with disabilities, but public transportation and many older public buildings were not accessible. Many children and adults with intellectual disabilities remained in institutions, sometimes restrained or isolated.

The law also prohibits physical, emotional, and verbal abuse in schools. NGOs and journalists reported that thousands of children with disabilities (institutionalized and noninstitutionalized) were not enrolled in school.

The Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veterans, and Social Issues, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Health had sections with responsibilities to protect persons with disabilities. The Ministry of Labor had a broad mandate to engage with NGOs, distribute social assistance, manage residential institutions, and monitor laws to provide protection for the rights of persons with disabilities. The labor minister told media on May 17 that his ministry’s priority was to develop partner relations with disability organizations and provide expert and financial support to associations that implement programs that promote rights of persons with disabilities.

According to the National Employment Agency (NEA), the number of unemployed persons with disabilities in early June was approximately 15,500; approximately 6,500 persons with disabilities registered with NEA became employed in 2017. The agency had a budget of 550 million dinars ($5.29 million) for the employment of persons with disabilities.

The media reported that 51 companies throughout the country employed 5,000 persons with disabilities. The trade union Nezavisnost reported in September that persons with disabilities who worked for several companies employing persons with disabilities were receiving salaries under 16,000 dinars per month ($154), which was below the national minimum wage (approximately $240).

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

According to the commissioner for the protection of equality, Roma were subject to discrimination in many ways; independent observers and NGOs stated that systemic segregation and discrimination of Roma continued. A Human Rights Defender’s report noted that Roma often considered such treatment normal and noted that hate crimes against Roma were not prosecuted. According to the report, a significant number of Romani citizens were without personal documents and experienced discrimination in the labor market and in schools. The report condemned the situation as “particularly appalling” in housing, health, and access to justice.

National Minority Councils (NMC) represented the country’s ethnic minority groups and had broad competency over education, media, culture, and the use of minority languages. Amendments to the Law on National Minority Councils and the Law on Protection of Rights and Freedoms of National Minorities were adopted on June 20. On November 4, regular elections were held for national minority council seats; 22 of Serbia’s 23 recognized national minorities participated in these elections; the Jewish NMC elects leadership on a different cycle in accordance with its bylaws.

Ethnic Albanian leaders in the southern municipalities of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac, along with Bosniaks in the southwestern region of Sandzak, complained they were underrepresented in state institutions at the local level.

According to the director of the Government Office for Human and Minority Rights, more than 60,000 minority schoolchildren attended education in their mother tongue. The government made some progress in approving new mother tongue textbooks, although not all the textbooks in minority languages were available at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.

The government took some steps to counter violence and discrimination against minorities. The stand-alone government Office for Human and Minority Rights supported minority communities. Civic education classes, offered by the government as an alternative to religion courses in secondary schools, included information on minority cultures and multiethnic tolerance.

Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Although the law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the law does not describe specific areas in which discrimination is prohibited but is generally interpreted as applying to housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care. The government did not enforce these laws effectively, and violence and discrimination against members of the LGBTI community were serious problems. Transgender individuals were not permitted to update legal identity documents to reflect their gender identity unless they had undergone sex reassignment surgery.

According to civil society organizations, there were 500,000 LGBTI persons in the country. Credible NGOs noted a lack of significant progress in establishing dialogue, educating the public on LGBTI issues, and addressing hate crimes and bias-motivated violence.

According to NGOs, activists, and independent institutions, discrimination against members of the LGBTI community continued. The Commissioner for the Protection of Equality found that LGBTI persons seldom reported instances of violence and discrimination because they lacked trust in relevant institutions, and feared stigmatization and secondary victimization. Data available from a number of research papers and reports indicated that homophobia and transphobia were deeply rooted in society.

According to data from the Equal Rights Association, 26 percent of the country’s population would cease contact with a person if they learned that person was LGBTI; 38 percent of population believed that homosexuality was a disease; 48 percent of parents would try medical treatment for their LGBTI child; 70 percent opposed the right of an LGBTI person to inherit the property of their deceased partner, and 90 percent opposed child adoption by LGBTI persons. The NGO Let It Be Known recorded eight hate crimes involving violence against LGBTI persons from January through November 2017. The organization also reported 11 cases of psychological violence and threats, five cases of hate speech, and two discriminatory incidents during the study period.

On April 29, a transgender person was severely injured in an attack in front of a Belgrade nightclub. Police identified three of five attackers, two of whom were minors, and filed criminal charges against them. Police also initiated internal control procedures against a police officer for unprofessional conduct when the survivor was reporting the attack at the police station.

In October a man who attacked a transgender woman in 2014 was sentenced to one year of probation. Activists criticized the sentence as being too light, because the attacker was not prosecuted under a provision of the criminal code that mandates harsher punishment for hate crimes.

On September 16, the Belgrade Pride parade was held for a fifth consecutive year after police stopped several dozen counterprotesters walking towards the parade route; no security incidents were reported. Police shut a portion of central Belgrade to secure the route and prevent harassment of the nearly 1,000 participants who marched through central Belgrade. The law enforcement presence was significantly less than in previous years. Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, other ministers, and Belgrade’s mayor attended the march. Organizers of Pride Week demanded the protection of human rights of LGBTI individuals.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

According to government officials and NGOs, there was significant prejudice against persons with HIV/AIDS in all aspects of public life, including employment, housing, and access to public services. According to a survey performed by the Union of Persons Living with HIV and Aids of Serbia, 92 percent of Serbians have a discriminatory attitude towards persons living with HIV/AIDS. The commissioner for protection’s 2017 annual report noted that the majority of persons with HIV/AIDS did not disclose their health status to anyone besides their attending physician, and only approximately half of persons with HIV/AIDS disclosed their status to family members. The government adopted a strategy for prevention and control of HIV/AIDS for 2018-25 that promotes the protection from discrimination and human rights of persons with HIV/AIDS.

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