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 an increased number of death threats, against journalists and media outlets continued during the year, 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 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 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.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction, but sometimes this resulted in pressure or threats against journalists. 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.
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 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 to grow throughout the year. On a number of occasions, public officials obstructed the work of journalists. During one weekend in February, for example, the FMHL registered three such incidents. In one of the incidents in Banja Luka, police stopped journalists from E-Trafika and Dnevni Avaz, who were clearly displaying press credentials, from reporting on the “Justice for David” protests there.
The practice of pressuring journalists to censor their reporting continued during the year as well. Investigative stories on corruption in the country’s judicial sector focusing on high-level officials resulted in additional pressure on journalists. In June, for example, the BiH Prosecutor’s Office issued a threatening press release announcing that it was opening a case to investigate the motives of persons disseminating negative reports in the media about their work. The BiH Journalists Association (BH Journalists) strongly criticized the statement. In April the country’s chief prosecutor, Gordana Tadic, told investigative journalists that they were to run their stories, accompanied by supporting evidence, by prosecutors or police offices before publishing them. This “advice” came after prosecutors questioned journalists who wrote high-profile investigative stories about fake university diplomas and alleged Croatian intelligence activities in the country.
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 under 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) and 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. 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 failed to elect a steering board or appoint organizational management and remained open to political influence. As a result, RTV FBiH continued to demonstrate political bias and a selective approach to news.
The RS government continued directly to control RTRS, which demonstrated strong support for the ruling political parties in the RS. The BHRT, which previously had a reputation for being balanced and nonbiased, caved 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.
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 August the FMHL recorded 37 cases involving violations of journalists’ rights and freedoms, five death threats, and six physical assaults. According to data from BH Journalists covering the period from 2006 to 2019, authorities prosecuted approximately 30 percent of criminal acts reported against journalists and investigated more than one-third of alleged violations of journalists’ rights.
On March 28, for example, Huso Cesir, the head of the municipal council of Novi Grad in Sarajevo, shoved and verbally harassed Adi Kebo, a cameraman at the online news magazine Zurnal, while he was filming the entrance to Cesir’s company as part of an investigation into the politician’s business dealings. Cesir’s son joined his father and also harassed Kebo, briefly taking Kebo’s camera. Kebo sustained light injuries and his camera was damaged during this attack. BH Journalists reacted and strongly condemned the attack, while Party for Democratic Action (SDA) leaders made light of it, stating that Cesir attacked the camera, not the cameraman. Sarajevo Canton police filed a case with the canton prosecutor.
Early in the year, journalists at TV Sarajevo, the public television service of Sarajevo Canton, complained they were frequently censored and harassed by their SDA-allied management and reported the case to the FMHL. In February a former TV Sarajevo employee set fire to the car of the then director of the station. The director, Edina Fazlagic, blamed false accusations about the station’s employment policies for triggering the attack. The SDA condemned the attack, calling it political pressure against press freedom. In March, BH Journalists issued a press release condemning political pressures against TV Sarajevo. The FMHL contacted the Ombudsman and cantonal labor inspector concerning the alleged violation of TV Sarajevo’s employees’ rights, which the labor inspector ultimately confirmed. Following a political reshuffle, the Sarajevo Canton government–now formed without the SDA–made Kristina Ljevak the acting director of the station in May. The SDA strongly criticized her decisions, and right-oriented web portals took issue with her ethnic background and questioned her suitability for the position, as she had spent the war in the RS. An SDA member of the Sarajevo Canton Assembly, Samra Cosovic Hajdarevic, referring to Ljevak’s appointment, commented on Facebook that Muslim names in important positions were being replaced with other ones. The comment sparked strong reactions from media professionals, who condemned it as discriminatory, while the multiethnic Social Democratic Party and Democratic Front party condemned it as hate speech.
On July 12, the Banja Luka District Court convicted Marko Colic, one of the attackers in the 2018 attack on journalist Vladimir Kovacevic. Kovacevic, a BNTV journalist based in Banja Luka, was severely beaten as he came home after covering a protest. Colic was sentenced to four years in prison. The second attacker, identified as Nedeljko Dukic, was never apprehended. Journalist associations continued to assert that this unresolved case had a chilling effect on press freedom in the country.
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 for causing “mental anguish.”