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Defamation Is A Criminal Offense In The Republika Srpska

Deputies of the RS National Assembly (NSRS) adopted amendments to the Criminal Code thus making defamation a crime punishable by a fine, and possibly imprisonment. The media community has been warning for months that this law will limit freedom of expression.

Deputies of the RS National Assembly (NSRS) voted criminalization of defamation with 47 votes in favor and 16 votes against, anticipating a fine of BAM 1,000 to 6,000 for those who commit an act of defamation.

Under the Code, those who are unable to pay a fine may be sent to prison for up to a maximum of two months.  A day spent in prison equals BAM 100.

Fines originally proposed in the draft law were reduced after public hearings from a maximum of BAM 120,000 to BAM 6,000. The insult as a crime was removed from the draft law, hence it will remain a misdemeanor.

According to Miloš Bukejlović, the RS Justice Minister, the criminalization of defamation has a foothold, among other things, in the RS Constitution, which stipulates that “human dignity, physical and spiritual integrity, human privacy, personal and family life are inviolable”. The amendments to the law were proposed by this Ministry, at the special insistence of RS President Milorad Dodik.

Under the amendments, in the future, slander (damage to honor and reputation) will be proven in criminal proceedings instead of civil proceedings, as was the case so far.  Whoever says “something untrue” about another person through “the press, radio, television, computer network, at a public meeting or makes such a statement available in some other way to a large number of people shall be fined from BAM 1,000 to 5,000.” If such content led to “severe consequences for the injured party”, the fine will range from BAM 3,000 to 6,000.

Media professionals, activists, and citizens have been pointing out for months that these amendments were trying to stifle freedom of speech and that not only journalists but also the citizens will bear the consequences for speaking publically, and expressing opinions and criticism.  In their opinion, politicians, as public officeholders, are subject to greater criticism from the public and should therefore tolerate a higher level of criticism.

Siniša Vukelić, editor of the portal and president of the Banja Luka Journalists’ Club, says that the journalistic community will not give up and will use all legal means to overturn the law.

“The law now goes to the RS Council of the People, which must approve it. Then it goes to the president for signing and publication in the Official Gazette, after which we will probably have to launch an initiative to assess the constitutionality of this law before the RS Constitutional Court,” says Vukelić.

Ivana Korajlić from Transparency International BiH fears that the adoption of this law could lead to self-censorship among a certain number of media and non-governmental organizations.

“Reducing monetary sanctions and removing insult as a crime did not remove the consequences that the criminalization of defamation and other stipulated offenses will have for everyone. Essentially, it will still provide for criminal prosecution of a spoken word, a written word, or published information,” says Korajlić.

And longtime judge and now lawyer, Đorđe Stojaković holds that this law will silence the media.  “The journalist will not be allowed to publish anything from now on.”

The Criminal Code now has a new article that refers to the unauthorized publication and display of “other people’s writings, portraits, photographs, videos, films or phonograms of a personal nature”. Whoever publishes or displays the above-mentioned contents that may be harmful to the persons concerned, without their prior consent, shall be punished by a prison sentence between two and ten years if this leads to the death of the injured person.

Referring to the recent case of suicide of a young man from Laktaši due to a published video, Vukelić agrees that this area must be regulated, but this provision, as he said, must be made more specific.

“It is too general and leaves it to a judge to decide on punishing journalists for releasing someone’s photo without permission,” says Vukelić.

Targets Have Been Painted! Reporters Terrified For A Reason
Reporters who publicly criticized the proposal of the RS authorities to criminalize defamation became the target of insults and attacks.

Although RS has a Defamation Act under which an injured party may seek damage in civil court, in March this year deputies proposed the criminalization of defamation. In May, public hearings were held in Banja Luka, Bijeljina, Trebinje, and Istočno Sarajevo, where journalists, representatives of non-governmental organizations, and citizens expressed their objections to the amendments to this law and requested the withdrawal of the law from the parliamentary procedure. Most of them believe that the ultimate goal of these amendments is to protect politicians who are in power.

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