Bosnia’s defamation law undermines free speech and democracy

The European Union, with its commitment to upholding democratic values, should take decisive action in addressing the erosion of freedom of speech in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has suffered a significant setback in its journey toward European integration. The Bosnian-Serb entity Republika Srpska, which makes up 48 per cent of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s land area, last year passed a law criminalising defamation, significantly restricting freedom of speech.

Media representatives and civil society opposed the enactment of this law, but 47 members of the National Assembly of Republika Srpska voted in favour. On August 18, 2023, entity president Milorad Dodik signed the decree enacting the law.

In early 2023, a draft law was proposed aiming to classify defamation and even insults towards individuals as criminal offences. After extended public debate, ‘insult’ was removed from the draft, and the penalties prescribed for defamation were reduced to 6,000 convertible marks (approximately 3,000 euros).

Republika Srpska’s Constitution protects the dignity and reputation of individuals. Before this law, this was determined through civil rather than criminal proceedings. By implementing amendments to the Criminal Code, defamation will now be classified as a criminal offence.

Consequently, the District Public Prosecutor’s Office will assume responsibility for initiating proceedings. Upon receipt of a criminal complaint, they will prosecute, interrogate suspects, collect evidence, conduct investigations, and file charges. This implies anyone accused of defamation could now face criminal prosecution.

This is just one in a series of paranoid moves by the populist government of Republika Srpska aimed at stifling the actions of the free media and the freedom of ordinary citizens to express critical opinions. This law erects unnecessary and dangerous barriers, jeopardising a fundamental human right.

It is disheartening that this violation of civil liberties comes after Bosnia and Herzegovina was granted official candidate status for EU accession at the end of 2022, marking a significant step backward in meeting EU accession criteria and making EU membership seem like a more distant prospect.

The law contradicts the 14 key priorities of the European Commission and opens up the possibility for authorities to misuse it against activists and journalists. Censorship and prosecution of dissenters are characteristic of authoritarian regimes, such as Russia.

It is known the authorities in Republika Srpska admire Russia and Vladimir Putin, so it is not surprising they seek to align themselves with that country rather than the West and the European Union.

A law of silence

The aim of this law is to achieve silence: silence from journalists, silence from non-governmental organisations, and silence from citizens. The only people entitled to speak are politicians, who have the right to insult and abuse citizens who cannot defend themselves for fear of criminal prosecution.

The law applies to politicians as well, but it’s unlikely to be enforced on them given the close ties between the courts of Republika Srpska and politicians. The only court that could challenge decisions of Republika Srpska’s courts is the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, it was decided in 2023 that the decisions of that court would not be applicable in the territory of Republika Srpska.

Republika Srpska, and Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole, should strive to be an open, pluralistic, and democratic society where freedom of expression is protected for all. It should also be a society which safeguards the rights, reputation, and honour of individuals through proportionate protective measures and mechanisms which do not restrict the fundamental right to freedom of expression.

Adding defamation to the framework of the Criminal Code does not contribute to this direction. Instead, it pulls our nation further away from the ideal of such a society. The European Union has the capacity and responsibility to issue a formal statement condemning this law and expressing support for freedom of speech and media within Bosnia and Herzegovina, making it clear EU membership talks are on hold until this issue is resolved.

Furthermore, the EU should engage in diplomatic discussions with authorities across both Republika Srpska and Bosnia and Herzegovina to underscore the importance of upholding democratic principles and respecting fundamental human rights.

The European Union, with its commitment to upholding democratic values, should take decisive action in addressing the erosion of freedom of speech in Bosnia and Herzegovina. By using its influence and resources, the EU can play a crucial role in upholding human rights and democratic principles in the region.

Photo by Camilo Jimenez on Unsplash.

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About the author

Tea Kljajić

Tea Kljajić

Tea Kljajić is an activist and author from Bosnia and Herzegovina. She is a frequent policy commentator, a writing fellow with Young Voices Europe, and a volunteer with Students for Liberty.

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