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Media Freedom in Bosnia and Herzegovina

World press freedom ranks: Bosnia-Herzegovina (2006-2017)

Ethnically and politically divided Bosnia and Herzegovina struggles with politicised media in all entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska alike.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s score in the latest Reporters Without Borders Freedom of the Press Index shows a small improvement of the media freedom situation in the country. As 65th out of 180 countries in the ranking, the Balkan country clearly performs comparatively well by South East European standards, but significant deficits remain. Freedom House similarly views the media situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina as "partly free". All reports highlight that restrictions of media freedom are more common in the administrative entity Republika Srpska. According to the 2016 EU Progress Report, amendments to the Radio and Television of Republika Srpska (RTRS) law which were adopted in May further distance the entity’s broadcasting legislation from the state-level law and disrupt the functioning of the three public service broadcasters.

The legal situation of the media in Bosnia and Herzegovina reflects both the ethnic diversity and the administratively divided structure of the country, as well as the influence of international organisations in the state building process. On a constitutional level, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms directly applies, guaranteeing inter alia freedom of expression. Supportive legislation at state and entity level exists in all the main spheres and existing laws are regularly amended. However, the IREX Media Sustainability Index 2017 notes that the implementation of existing laws regulating media freedoms is still limited, while journalists remained vulnerable to intimidation and threats due to the unsteady political and economic climate. The RWB report 2017 also points out that "the country has the world’s most liberal media freedom laws but their implementation is held back by a saturated judicial system".

Concerning the transparency of media ownership, the IREX report 2017 states that media companies in Bosnia and Herzegowina have to be registered in court. However, many of them – especially online media – do not register so that their ownership is nontransparent thus they cannot be held responsible for propaganda and hate speech they are spreading. According to the IREX report 2017 last year also offers positive developments: "After years of negotiations, FB&H legislators amended the criminal law and defined "hate speech" as a criminal act, and adopted the Declaration Condemning Hate Speech. Similar declarations were adopted by RS and are being discussed by the state-level Parliamentary Assembly.

Defamation was decriminalised in 2003 at an early stage, but civil penalties can be significant and Freedom House criticise that the burden of proof lies with the defendant. Another uncertainty in this regard, which hinders the full application of the existing legislative framework, seems to be the question of whether interviewees or interviewers should be considered the author of a statement. The federal law currently states – contrary to European practice – that the person interviewed cannot be held responsible for defamation. Legislation regulating the access to information is less ambiguous, but also implemented to a limited extent. No less than 93 per cent of Bosnians believe there are limitations to the right to access public information, as a report prepared by the Association of BH Journalists and the country’s Press Council states. Like elsewhere, problems range from inconsistent interpretations of the law by different public bodies and unwillingness to apply it, over systematic non-harmonisation of other legislation with the act to the difficult balance between the public right to know and privacy concerns.

While incorrect application of the existing legislation is regrettable, pressure on journalists and media outlets mostly stems, again, from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ethnic and political cleavages. Both public and private media reflect these divisions. According to Freedom House "politicians exert considerable pressure on journalists and media outlets tend to be aligned with political parties." According to RWB 2016 "the situation is aggravated by the fact that the pro-government media continue to enjoy direct and indirect state subsidies."

The Communications Regulatory Agency (CRA) licenses and monitors the broadcast media. Although the regulatory body’s decisions were in the past seen as relatively impartial and fair, the November 2013 appointments of seven council members were considered politicised by a number of media representatives and experts. Moreover, the CRA’s director general is appointed by the CRA council, and the appointment must be approved by BiH’s Council of Ministers. Due to disputes within the Council of Ministers, the agency has been without a director for seven years (Freedom House 2015). Recent proposed changes to the legislative framework have also been criticised as endangering the independence of the regulator, for instance by OSCE Media Freedom Representative Dunja Mijatović.

Not only the politically heated climate, also the market is not supportive of independent and free media. The difficult economic situation and the resulting decrease in advertisement revenues has put pressure on the media to commercialise their content, but has also made them more dependent and desperate for outside funding. Compared to other Wester Balkan regions, the 2017 IREX report refers, Bosnia and Herzegowina shows particularly low salaries. These poor working conditions of journalists may encourage self-censorship but also leads to cutbacks in news production.

Self-censorship is enhanced by the number of growing physical attacks or threats thereof when journalists report critically of certain strong political or economic interests. The fact that these instances often happen without proper investigation into the motives poses a problem. Within the last year, "the Association of BH Journalists (BHJ) registered 13 physical attacks on and threats to journalists—by far the largest number in the last six years", the 2016 IREX report notes. One of these assaults is cited by the 2016 EU Progress Report: "In March, members of an extremist group registered in the Republika Srpska entity and in Serbia, physically and verbally attacked N1 and RTV TV crews. The Republika Srpska authorities did not condemn the attack in public and the Republika Srpska police issued only two minor offence orders to perpetrators."

Sources:

Lina Rusch, KAS Media Program South East Europe

2016 adjusted by Rebecca Kittel, KAS Media Program South East Europe

2017 adjusted by Lena von Holt, KAS Media Program South East Europe