European Commission Report: Serious concern over political pressure and intimidation of journalists in BiH

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Sarajevo, October 20, 2021 – Bosnia and Herzegovina made no progress on addressing the Opinion key priority 12 on guaranteeing freedom of expression and of the media and the protection of journalists by ensuring the appropriate judicial follow-up to cases of threats and violence against journalists and media workers, and ensuring the financial sustainability of the public broadcasting system – it was pointed out in the report of the European Commission for BiH for 2021.

The Report states that the political influence over public broadcasters persists, and their financial sustainability has not been secured. The law on the public broadcasting system remains unimplemented and entity-level legislation is still not harmonised with this Law.

Political pressure, intimidation and harassment towards journalists, including physical and verbal attacks continued during the reporting period, without appropriate institutional follow-up:

– Serious concerns continue to persist over political pressure, intimidation and threats against journalists. High-level politicians have resorted to public attacks and disparaging remarks against journalists, analysts and media workers, particularly women. The authorities continue to downplay the issue and there is no data collection by public institutions on threats and attacks against journalists and media workers.

The Report adds that BH Novinari association recorded 69 cases of violation of journalists’ rights in 2020, up from 56 in 2019. The Ombudsman received 11 complaints, compared to 18 in 2019 and 9 in 2018.

– Authorities are expected to act swiftly and demonstrate zero tolerance for threats or attacks against the media, including by ensuring effective police investigations and judicial prosecution leading to final convictions of perpetrators – says the Report.

It is stated that despite the decriminalisation of defamation since 2002, politicians continue to use civil suits to intimidate journalists. Courts should step up their efforts to ensure an expedient processing of defamation cases and consistency of case law on damage awards, to prevent any chilling effect that would force journalists into self-censorship. The legislation on freedom of access to information and on on hate speech remains fragmented and not in line with international and European standards. The legal provisions on data protection and on access to information are still interpreted in a way that protects private rather than public interests.

The Communications Regulatory Agency (CRA) still lacks full political and financial independence. The procedure to appoint the CRA management needs to be revised to improve its public perception as a neutral and independent body. The former head of the Republika Srpska’s public television, RTRS, was appointed as new CRA director in July 2020; the CRA had sanctioned RTRS multiple times during his mandate for non-respect of editorial standards, including for historical revisionist statements as regards the May 1995 massacre in Tuzla:

– The 2003 law on the public broadcasting system continues to be only partially enforced, and entity laws on broadcasting are still not aligned with it. Therefore, the three public broadcasting services continue to be exposed to political influence, in particular through politically controlled steering boards, with a worrying trend of self-censorship. The country continues not to have an appropriate model for collecting fees, as provided for by the law. The substantial unpaid debts of entity broadcasters towards the state-level broadcaster are subject to lengthy litigation. Such issues continue to pose a threat to the financial independence and sustainability of the public broadcasting system.

The European Commission emphasizes that Bosnia and Herzegovina also needs to proceed with the digital switchover, which is now overdue. With analogue transmission licenses expiring by end 2021, several local private and public stations risks seeing their broadcasts restricted, affecting access to information for the poorest residents in rural areas.

No steps were taken to adopt legislation on media ownership transparency, to ensure transparency and prevent hidden media concentration, nor legislation on advertising or criteria for the distribution of subsidies. The advertising practices of publicly owned enterprises, such as telecom companies, and advertising agencies linked to political parties continue to harm media integrity. Local broadcasters which receive funds from local authorities remain subject to political pressure and influence.

Self-regulation of online media is of limited effect, and online platforms continue to be used to spread hate speech and disinformation. Criminal prosecution is limited to the offence of inciting religious and ethnic hatred through the internet or social networks.

Journalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a precarious profession, with low wages and little job security, further deteriorating even more during the pandemic. Labour rights are hardly respected, unionisation is low, and there are no branch collective agreements for media workers, concludes the Report.

In the coming year, Bosnia and Herzegovina should in particular: ensure the protection of journalists and a systematic institutional follow-up on threats and violence against them; ensure the financial sustainability and political independence of public broadcasters, and harmonise entity legislation with the state-level law on the public broadcasting system; adopt legislation on media ownership transparency and criteria on public advertising.