Bosnia and Herzegovina
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the 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, including a number of death threats, against journalists and media outlets continued during the year without a systematic institutional response. Numerous restrictive measures introduced to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic were in some instances misused to limit access to information. A considerable amount 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 Speech: 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 law 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.
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 the number of defamation cases against journalists and editors remained high especially in instances were journalists were investigating crime and corruption. Incorrect implementation of the defamation laws had caused direct pressure against journalists and media that jeopardized journalists’ right to freedom of expression.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, but sometimes this resulted in pressure or threats against journalists. Officials confronted with criticism continued the practice of calling journalists traitors or labeling them as members of opposition political parties in order to discredit them. The law prohibiting expression that provokes racial, ethnic, or other forms of intolerance applies to print and broadcast media, the publication of books, and online newspapers and journals but was not enforced.
The Communications Regulatory Agency (CRA) did not register any cases of hate speech in the broadcast media. The Press Council that operates as a self-regulatory membership-based body for both online and printed media outlets across the country registered 231 complaints related to hate speech, of which 223 were related to online media, one to an article published by a news agency, and seven related to content published on social media. Of the complaints, 194 were related to comments from web portal visitors. As of September, 80 complaints had been resolved through self-regulation.
Political and financial pressure on media outlets continued. Negative economic effects of the pandemic eroded the financial stability of media across the country, making them more vulnerable to outside pressure. Some media outlets noted that allegations of tax evasion and elaborate financial controls continued to be powerful tools in attempts to intimidate and control outlets. The number of physical attacks against journalists increased during the year.
Attacks on journalists’ professional integrity and freedom of the press continued throughout the year. On a number of occasions, public officials obstructed the work of journalists. This period was marked by attempts to restrict access to information related to the pandemic. Sarajevo-based journalists filed a complaint to the FMHL in March because local authorities had limited the possibility of asking questions at press conferences and additional updates about COVID-related issues. In April a group of journalists reported to the FMLH that the press office of University of Sarajevo Clinical Center did not treat media even handedly and that the general manager shared information with selected outlets only. The Federation’s (COVID-19) crisis headquarters as well as crisis headquarters in Herzegovina Neretva Canton and Sarajevo Canton adopted decisions that banned some journalists from attending press conferences, claiming it was a heath protection measure.
The practice of pressuring journalists to censor their reporting continued during the year as well. Reaction to investigative stories focusing on the corruption of high-level judicial officials continued generating pressure on journalists. In addition, journalists who worked on stories exposing procurement irregularities during the pandemic were exposed to undue pressure. In June several edited videos were published on social media in an attempt to discredit reporters who wrote about a controversial purchase of medical ventilators in the Federation that involved the Federation’s prime minister.
The 2019 press release by the Prosecutor’s Office threatening to sue journalists who criticized its work was not followed by any legal action. Journalists reported that the press release triggered additional political pressure and increased charges of slander against them. During the year the tense relationship between the Prosecutor’s Office and the investigative reporters continued. On August 28, the Association of BiH Journalists (BH Journalists) strongly protested against a statement issued by the Prosecutor’s Office announcing that the main prosecutor would press slander charges against the daily newspaper Oslobodjenje and outlets that picked up its story alleging that the main prosecutor misused housing compensation benefits. BH Journalists underscored that the Prosecutor’s Office and the main prosecutor continued to pressure media and journalists, noting that public servants, government, and other officials cannot sue journalists for slander in their official capacity (only privately) and that the main prosecutor used official communication channels of the BiH Prosecutor’s Office to threaten journalists with slander charges. BH Journalists characterized this as unacceptable pressure on media and misuse of the position of the main prosecutor.
An additional challenge to freedom of expression came shortly after the introduction of the state of emergency due to the pandemic. On March 16, the RS introduced a decree prohibiting the spread of panic and disorder, stipulating fines of 1,000 to 3,000 convertible marks ($630 to $1,900) convertible marks for individuals and 3,000 to 9,000 convertible marks ($1,900 to $5,700) for companies that spread panic and fake news via media and social networks. The Federation minister of interior proposed an urgent adoption of a similar decree on March 22, but that initiative was not supported. Nevertheless, BH Journalists warned that the Federation Ministry of Interior and cybercrime units had started monitoring information on social networks and that five criminal proceedings were initiated for the alleged spreading of false information and panic. Numerous local organizations expressed concern that these actions were an additional step in suppressing freedom of expression. On April 14, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Harlem Desir, and the head of the OSCE Mission to BiH expressed their concern over the introduction of measures against spreading panic and “fake news” regarding COVID-19. BH Journalists reiterated that the entities had no right to suspend the right to freedom of expression. Following these reactions, on April 16, the RS government withdrew the decree.
Authorities continued exerting pressure on media outlets to discourage some forms of expression, and party and governmental control over a number of information outlets narrowed the range of opinions represented in both entities. Public broadcasters remained vulnerable to strong pressure from government and political forces due to a lack of long-term financial stability. Public broadcasters remained exposed to political influence, especially through politically controlled steering boards. 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), the entity radio and television broadcasters RTRS, and RTV FBiH. The law on the public broadcasting system is only partially implemented and entity laws are not in line with state level law, which left public broadcasters vulnerable to political influence, especially through politically influenced steering boards. Public broadcasters continued to be in a difficult financial situation, primarily due to the lack of an efficient, unified, and stable system of financing.
The institutional instability of the governing structures of RTV FBiH continued, as the broadcaster again failed to elect a steering board or appoint organizational management and remained open to political influence. As a result, RTV FBiH continued to demonstrate a selective approach to news.
The RS government continued directly to control RTRS, which demonstrated strong support for the ruling coalition in the RS. The BHRT yielded to increased political pressure and censored its own reporting. 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.
The Communication Regulatory Agency (CRA), which regulates the audiovisual media market, lacked full financial and political independence. In April the CRA appointed a new general manager, Drasko Milinovic, a former director of the politically controlled RTRS station. Following the vote, CRA Council president Plamenko Custovic resigned, claiming the vote was politically motivated. The new general manager took over the position on July 28. Independent broadcasters expressed concern with the appointment in view of the allegations about Draskovic’s political connections.
Violence and Harassment: Intimidation and threats against journalists continued during the year. Cases of violence and death threats 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 July the FMHL recorded seven cases involving alleged violations of journalists’ rights and freedoms, four death threats, and two physical assaults. According to data from BH Journalists covering the period from 2006 to 2020, authorities prosecuted approximately 30 percent of criminal acts reported against journalists and investigated more than one-third of the alleged violations of journalists’ rights, illustrating that inefficient investigations into attacks against journalists by police and prosecutors’ offices continued.
Vanja Stokic, editor in chief of the E-trafika portal from Banja Luka, received a message on her Facebook profile from an individual who threatened he would “decapitate” migrants as well as “all you soul caregivers who welcome them.” The perpetrator was arrested only after he repeatedly threatened and intimidated Stokic and her friends and after a strong public reaction. On May 22, Stokic, who was reporting on the migrant situation in the country, found a disturbing message after posting a photograph with two migrants on her Facebook profile. She attempted to report the threats to police but was told to come back on Monday–three days after the threats were made. According to Stokic, police initially did not take her report seriously and refused to take a statement, allowing the threats and intimidation to continue. After a strong reaction from professional associations and media, police arrested the alleged perpetrator.
Nikola Vucic, a Sarajevo-based reporter with the television channel N1, received death threats via social media. On May 26, commenting on reports that the West Herzegovina Canton declared itself a “COVID-free zone,” Vucic sarcastically asked on his Twitter account if a “fascism-free zone” would be declared soon. The post was followed by threats and calls for violence against him, including statements that Vucic should be “thrown in the river.” Vucic closed his Twitter account. BH Journalists and the FMHL strongly condemned the threats and were threatened themselves as a result.
On June 5, Sinan Gluhic, a journalist from a local public outlet RTV Zenica, was physically attacked by Sulejman Spahic, a member of the A-SDA party. The attack followed days of verbal threats and insults to Gluhic over the telephone and through social media. Gluhic was on his way to work when he was physically attacked by Spahic. In front of witnesses, Spahic hit Gluhic in the face and neck and threatened his life. The incident was reported to police. The same day, the A-SDA party issued a statement denying the attack happened. Zenica police opened an investigation.
Legal proceedings continued against two persons accused of attempted murder in the brutal attack on BNTV journalist Vladimir Kovacevic in 2018. One attacker, Marko Colic, was originally sentenced to four years in prison. After the prosecutor’s appeal, the sentence was increased to five years. A second attacker, Nedeljko Djukic, surrendered to RS police in late 2019, and his trial was ongoing. The motives of the attack remained unknown.
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. Government institutions restricted access to information in some instances related to the COVID-19 crisis.
In some instances, media sources reported that officials threatened outlets with loss of advertising or limited their access to official information. Prevailing practices reflected close connections between major advertisers and political circles and allowed for biased distribution of advertising time. Public companies, most of which were under the control of political parties, remained the key advertisers. Outlets critical of ruling parties claimed they faced difficulties in obtaining advertising. The temporary lockdown in the spring and numerous restrictions related to the pandemic had a direct negative impact on the finances of media in the country, making them more vulnerable to economic and political pressure.
Libel/Slander Laws: While the country has decriminalized defamation, a large number of complaints continued to be brought to court 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 for causing “mental anguish.”
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, including hate speech, but authorities did not enforce these prohibitions for online media.
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.
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.
The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. On May 12, however, RS police disbanded an informal gathering and conversation of approximately 10 members of the informal group Justice for David in the Banja Luka city center, warning the participants that their public gathering was not announced to police. The leader of the group, Ozren Perduv, was summoned by police for interrogation the same day, where he was told that any similar gatherings in the future, even if spontaneous, would not be tolerated. Justice for David reported that there were an estimated 60 active court cases against Justice for David supporters in the RS court system. In 30 additional cases, the court rejected all charges.
The Justice for David movement emerged in response to the 2018 killing of 21-year-old David Dragicevic, which had not been solved as of September. Dragicevic’s family mobilized thousands of citizens in support of their search for the facts of the killing and demand for justice. The RS government justified its decision to ban all public gatherings of the group, including protests, claiming the movement failed to respect the law fully during previous rallies. Some journalists and protesters alleged that during the arrests police used excessive force on protesters and produced photographs that appeared to support their claims.
The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community had planned to organize a second pride march on August 23 in Sarajevo. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers decided not to hold an actual march and moved the event online. Even before moving the event online, however, organizers faced many bureaucratic obstacles, as the Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Traffic rejected their request for a change in the march route, citing purported financial losses to public transportation companies, notwithstanding that the march would be on a Sunday, when public transportation use is significantly lower. The cantonal Ministry of Interior also required the organizers to pay for excessive security measures, including the presence of two ambulances, two fire trucks, and concrete barriers at nine locations along the march route. Similar security requirements were regularly waived for other large, non-LGBTI events.
There are 10 laws governing the right to free assembly in different parts of the country, all of which were generally assessed to be overly restrictive. Examples include the prohibition of public assembly in front of numerous public institutions in the RS, while some cantonal laws in the Federation (e.g., in Central Bosnia Canton) prescribe criminal liability for failing to fulfill administrative procedures for holding a peaceful assembly.
In July the Brcko District adopted a law on peaceful gatherings that expanded freedom of assembly. The law is aligned with EU Peer Review Recommendations and OSCE guidelines.
The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Under the law, NGOs can register at the state, entity, and cantonal levels in a generally streamlined and simple administrative process. Cooperation between the government and civil society organizations at the state and entity levels remained weak, while government support for civil society organizations remained nontransparent, particularly regarding the allocation of funds. Independent NGOs complained that government distributed funding to NGOs connected to ruling political parties.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, but some restrictions remained.
Although the law on asylum provides for freedom of movement for asylum seekers, authorities of Una-Sana Canton imposed restrictions without a due legal basis. This resulted in asylum seekers–including some who were duly registered–being forcibly removed from public transport at the entrance of the canton territory and prevented from using buses and taxis within the canton. Groups of asylum seekers and migrants were regularly marched involuntarily from Bihac to a location several kilometers away, where their movement was restricted. The location itself offered very poor humanitarian and safety conditions. The legal aid partner of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) legally challenged the restrictions.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council of Ministers issued a decision on April 16 limiting the movement of undocumented migrants who did not have valid identification documents. The decision prohibited migrants’ movement and accommodation outside of migrant centers, including for migrants who declared an intent to file asylum applications and who possessed valid proof of the expressed intention to apply for asylum as well as those who already applied for asylum. Some NGOs challenged the decision, explaining that it was legally groundless and violated migrants’ basic human rights. This practice was abolished with the end of lockdown in May, although no formal decision about it was issue.
On April 22, the BiH Constitutional Court ruled that a prohibition of all movement in the Federation for individuals younger than 18 and older than 65 during the COVID-19 lockdown in April violated the civil rights of those individuals, noting that the ban was disproportional to the public health crisis and that the measures were not limited in time and not periodically reviewed. The court did not remove the restriction, but it gave the Federation Government and Civil Protection Headquarters five days to adjust its measures in accordance with the BiH Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. Federation authorities complied with the decision and adjusted the measures, allowing movement of individuals in the two age groups during specific days of the week before abolishing the measures on May 14.
Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees statistics indicated that 96,421 persons still held internally displaced person (IDP) status resulting from the 1992-95 conflict. The majority of Bosniaks and Croats fled the RS, while Serbs fled the Federation. At the beginning of the year, UNHCR was directly providing protection, assistance, or both to 807 IDPs. According to UNHCR, an estimated 3,000 persons, including IDPs, continued to live in collective accommodations throughout the country. While the accommodations were meant to be temporary, some had been living in them for 20 or more years. A substantial number of IDPs and returnees lived in substandard conditions that affected their livelihoods.
The country’s constitution and laws provide for the voluntary return or local integration of IDPs consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The government actively promoted the safe return and resettlement or local integration of refugees and IDPs, depending on their choice. The government allocated funding for returns and participated in internationally funded programs for return. Isolated attacks against minority returnees continued but were generally not investigated or prosecuted adequately. Minority returnees continued to face obstacles in exercising their rights in places of return.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum (refugee or subsidiary protection status), and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Asylum seekers with pending claims have a right to accommodation at the asylum center until the Ministry of Security makes a final and binding decision on their claims. Only asylum-seeking families are referred to the asylum center. Provision of adequate accommodation remained one of the biggest problems since the beginning of 2018 due to increased arrivals of asylum seekers and migrants. It was common practice for some migrants to apply for asylum to gain access to temporary benefits and services, even if they had no plans to remain in the country. The increase of arrivals delayed registration procedures and created backlogs affecting access to and efficiency of asylum procedures as well as access to rights and services, including legal, medical, and basic needs, such as food and basic hygiene facilities and items, which were tied directly to the accommodation facilities.
In official reception centers, international organizations, NGOs, volunteers, or local actors provided services on an ad hoc basis. In 2018 an additional facility, the Salakovac Refugee Reception Center, was opened for the accommodation of asylum seekers. Seven temporary reception centers for refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants were opened and managed by the International Organization for Migration in cooperation with the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs. Nevertheless, adequate shelter capacity was lacking, in particular for families, unaccompanied and separated minors, and other vulnerable categories. The swift processing of asylum claims was another area of concern, as there were many obstacles to registering an asylum claim, including the obligation for asylum seekers not accommodated in an official government-run center to register their address. While the situation improved during the year, the Ministry of Security’s Sector for Asylum, which has responsibility for the asylum policy and its implementation, still lacked resources to ensure that applicants had full and timely access to asylum procedures. Asylum authorities also lacked sufficient personnel, making the asylum process very lengthy and discouraging refugees from seeking asylum in the country.
The COVID-19 pandemic further impeded the registration process. As part of sanitary prevention measures and in correlation with movement restrictions, some field offices of the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs temporarily reduced their capacity and work hours while two of them completely stopped registering new arrivals and issuing attestations on intent to seek asylum. In Tuzla–one of the main entry points to BiH–the field office had not resumed those activities as of year’s end, significantly hindering access to asylum and basic services by asylum seekers in the canton and the rest of the country.
In April the BiH Council of Ministers issued a decision restricting the freedom of movement to reception centers for undocumented foreigners and asylum seekers without a registered address. The decision was not implemented as of May, although it remained in place formally.
Asylum seekers have the right to appeal a negative decision before the Court of BiH. The system for providing protection to refugees seeking asylum continued to suffer from a lack of transparency.
Authorities appeared to have stopped their previous practice of placing foreigners with irregular status or without documentation in immigration detention centers and issuing expulsion orders without giving asylum seekers the ability to present applications. The change came with the increase of new arrivals since 2018. NGO legal aid providers had limited access to the immigration detention center and the asylum center, especially since the initial COVID-19 measures at the end of March.
UNHCR paid ad hoc visits to the immigration center of the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs, where foreigners were detained. UNHCR’s main concern with regard to the center was the difficulty experienced by legal aid NGOs that wanted to access it on a regular basis and the fact that authorities occasionally detained families with children there, pending their voluntary readmission to countries of origin.
In the first seven months of the year, 10 individuals known to UNHCR expressed their intention to seek asylum while staying at the Immigration Center. Information on the right to seek asylum was not readily available to potential asylum seekers in the center. UNHCR expressed concern that foreigners in detention might not have access to asylum procedures and that authorities might prematurely return some potential asylum seekers under readmission agreements before they had been afforded an opportunity to file a claim for asylum. In addition, some provisions of the BiH laws on extradition give authorities the possibility of extraditing a person who has expressed the intention to seek asylum if the request was made after the country had received an extradition request. UNHCR also reported that applicants for refugee status did not have sufficient legal assistance; that there were no clear standards of proof or methods of assessing the credibility of claims, including country of origin; and that guidelines for determining whether there was a risk of persecution were unduly strict.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The law provides for the application of the concept of “safe country of origin or safe third country.” Under this provision, authorities may deny asylum to applicants who cannot prove they were unable to return to their country of origin or to any country of transit. The application of this concept would require a list of safe third countries and countries of origin to be made by the BiH Council of Ministers.
Durable Solutions: The laws provide a program for integration and return of refugees and displaced persons. The country was party to a regional housing program funded by international donors and facilitated in part by UNHCR and the OSCE to provide durable solutions for up to 74,000 refugees and displaced persons from four countries in the region, including 14,000 of the most vulnerable refugees, returnees, and IDPs from the country. The process of selecting program beneficiaries was protracted due to capacity and management problems that resulted in extended delays in the reconstruction of homes. Fragmented institutional arrangements added administrative delays to the process, as did the political imperative to select beneficiaries proportionally from among the country’s constituent peoples.
Temporary Protection: The government provided subsidiary protection status to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. In the first seven months of the year, authorities provided subsidiary protection to 15 individuals and extended existing subsidiary protection to 24 others.
As of July, UNHCR reported 81 persons, mostly Roma, who were at risk of statelessness, including persons lacking birth certificates and citizenship registration. UNHCR continued to support free legal aid and capacity-building assistance to BiH authorities to facilitate birth and citizenship registrations. From 2009 to year’s end, UNHCR helped 1,765 individuals confirm their nationalities through its implementing partner, the NGO Vasa Prava. UNHCR also continued to work with authorities to simplify the process for birth and citizenship registrations, particularly for those at risk of statelessness. During the year the BiH Ministry of Civil Affairs confirmed the citizenship of 35 individuals.