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Towards Legislative Amendments: Less Freedom of Speech And Freedom Of Expression

The conference titled “Freedom of Speech, Expression, and Media under siege” took place in Sarajevo, and brought together reps of the international community, authorities, and civil society, as well as journalists and lawyers to discuss the right to free expression and the protection of journalists.

The conference was organized by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN) and the Balkan Research Network in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIRNBiH), in cooperation with the Royal Embassy of the Kingdom of Sweden to BiH to discuss the persistent undermining of freedom of speech over the recent years, which has culminated with the announced amendments to the Criminal Code of Republika Srpska the aim of which is to criminalize defamation.

“The application of the Code, of course, is not limited to Republika Srpska, and all of us can be subject to this Code, if adopted.  It will open a considerable space for self-censorship of journalists and activists in civil society, but, of course, also of the opposition in a broader sense,” said CIN director Leila Bičakčić.

During his presentation in support of the amendments, SNSD deputy in the National Assembly of Republika Srpska, Srđan Mazalica, said that the amendments were not aimed to limit journalistic freedom, and that “the law would affect only those who knowingly spread untruths intending to cause damage to someone”.

According to Sabina Ćudić, a member of the House of Representatives of the BiH Parliamentary Assembly, the draft law had already made an effect because it caused fear, hence she holds that it would be best if it were withdrawn.

After a debate supported by views shared by lawyers, deputy Mazalica expressed his dilemmas regarding the draft, especially the excessive fines, which reach up to BAM 120,000:

“To be honest, I think we can live quite normally without criminalizing defamation (…) but I do believe that some other amendments to this law are needed.”

The conference participants warned not only about the intentions of the RS legislator but also of the possible negative implications of the draft Law on Misdemeanors in Sarajevo Canton, which stipulates that misdemeanors can be committed through the media and social networks, and for the first time sets misdemeanor penalties for violence on the Internet.

“The police will be determining what they consider to be ‘fake news’ and misinformation. (…) Such a serious matter should first and foremost involve discussion with journalists, the media, and our entire community”, warned Denis Džidić, director of the Balkan Research Network in BiH (BIRNBiH), highlighting that adoption of such legal norms must be preceded by more serious debate and argumentation.

Journalists from Hungary, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina warned that further deterioration of freedom of speech, restriction of media rights, and development of repressive mechanisms in a country significantly affect independent journalism, increase self-censorship and reduce the number of professional journalists, thus opening the space for manipulation and the development of non-democratic regimes.

Johanna Strömquist, the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Sweden to Bosnia and Herzegovina, commented on the trend of declining democracy and shrinking space for civil society and media freedom.

“Bosnia and Herzegovina was awarded a candidate status last year in December, hence we believe it is the right time to think about democracy. We know that human rights, democracy, and freedom of speech are key values of the EU, therefore we think that it is very important now to discuss these important topics in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Ambassador Strömquist concluded.

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