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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.”

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