Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged authorities in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska (RS) entity to “treat journalists as partners instead of enemies and to refrain from undermining the right to information”, adding that local journalists have been insulted and that a proposed defamation law threatens press freedom.
RSF noted that, on March 8, the cars of two local journalists were damaged following verbal attacks on journalists by RS President, Milorad Dodik. The organisation also noted Dodik’s verbal attacks against journalists, notably Sinisa Vukelic, the head of the Journalists’ Club in Banja Luka, whom Dodik accused of “lying, subverting, racketeering for years” and wanting to “buy off the journalistic community to supposedly protect it”.
RSD added that these insults were prompted by criticism from journalists regarding a bill “that could undermine the right to information”.
“After being one of the first Balkan countries to decriminalise defamation 20 years ago, Bosnia and Herzegovina now seems to be on the point of reversing course. The government of Republika Srpska submitted criminal code amendments to its parliament in early March that aim to criminalise defamation again. They are strongly opposed by many local media, which fear legal proceedings designed to gag them”, the RSF statement said.
“We call on Milorad Dodik to apologise to journalists for his insults, which clearly exposed them to material attacks. The authorities must bring the perpetrators to justice. We also call on the parliament of Republika Srpska to oppose the bill aimed at criminalising defamation again and to involve journalists’ representatives in the legislative process. Journalists should be treated as partners, not as enemies,” said Pavol Szalai, Head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk
The organisation pointed out that, while protection against defamation is a legitimate right and, so far, the bill does not envisage prison sentences for those convicted of defamation, it could lead to “arbitrary judicial proceedings that force journalists to refrain from covering certain subjects, especially as there was absolutely no prior consultation with the Bosnian journalistic community.”
“The bill envisages fines of up to 25,000 euros, an astronomical sum that, if imposed, could threaten the survival of some media outlets,” it warned.
RSF also stressed that the UN rapporteurs on freedom of expression and freedom of association have denounced the bill as “a threat to press freedom because of its vague legal terms and disproportionate sanctions” and that it “runs counter to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s desire to join the European Union.”
“A year ago, the European Commission adopted anti-SLAPP measures – including the decriminalisation of defamation – that would-be EU member states are eventually supposed to adopt,” it said.