Blog by the EU HoD/EUSR in BiH, Ambassador Johann Sattler: „World Press Freedom Day 2023: The picture for media freedom in BiH remains challenging“

It is said that the author Margaret Atwood, whose book ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has become iconic in popular culture as a warning of the dangers of a totalitarian and dystopian future, was once at a dinner party where she was seated next to a brain surgeon. “You are an author? How lovely,” the surgeon said, continuing, “When I retire I would love to write a novel!” Atwood’s quick-witted response was cutting: “What a coincidence,” she said. “When I retire, I should love to try my hand at brain surgery”.

In a modern world of blogs, social media posts and instant access to information, many people fancy themselves as writers, not fully appreciating the years of craft and effort that go into good writing. And the same is even more true for journalists. Journalism is a highly skilled profession, requiring advanced analytical skills, the ability to sift through vast amounts of information, a talent for seeing the bigger picture, while at the same time also having an eye for detail.

Across the world, this essential profession, which has the responsibility of holding those with power to account, is under severe pressure. People have become accustomed to receiving news as soon as it breaks, while in parallel having become unaccustomed to paying for it. The result is felt in newsrooms everywhere – incredible time pressure, a shift towards cheap to source opinion over expensively researched news, and slashed budgets. It is no wonder that every year that many principled journalists choose to leave their jobs in despair at the current state of journalism. Those who doggedly remain true to their calling have my full admiration and respect.

The state of the media is usually a mirror that reflects the society it operates in. Countries with strong rule of law, low corruption, and transparent and accountable governance also do well in international media freedom rankings. Compared with much of the world, EU member states have relatively vibrant and independent media sectors, however as announced by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her State of the Union address in 2021, it is essential to do more to safeguard media independence and pluralism.

The ground-breaking European Media Freedom Act, currently going through legislative procedure in the EU, will provide new safeguards against political interference in editorial decisions and against surveillance. It puts a focus on the independence and stable funding of public service media as well as on the transparency of media ownership and of the allocation of state advertising. It also sets out measures to protect the independence of editors and disclose conflicts of interest. The Act will also address the issue of media concentrations.

On its path to the EU, these are the standards that Bosnia and Herzegovina will need to adopt, including increasing transparency about media ownership, transparency of financing of media, as well as introcuding a law on electronic media. Moreover, the financial sustainablity of public broadcasting, its independence and quality will need to be enhanced. Strengthening freedom of expression and freedom of the media is one of the 14 key priorities that BiH needs to address before accession negotiations can even open. Regrettably, the picture for media freedom across BiH remains challenging.

The decision of the RS leadership to criminalise defamation represents a serious step back for freedom of expression and freedom of the media. Proponents of this law argue that EU criticism of this proposal is hypocritical given that defamation is criminalised in the majority of EU member states. To this, I would respond firstly that criminalised defamation is generally considered outdated, with experts in the field and international organisations recommending decriminalisation of defamation everywhere. There are better legislative methods for dealing with the problem of false allegations. I would also add that context is everything. And the current context for media freedom in the RS is one of serious pressure on the media. Senior RS politicians have threatened or insulted journalists and media, critical journalists have had their property damaged, journalists have been beaten up and law enforcement agencies have put undue pressure to reveal journalistic sources. This an environment that is hostile to media freedom. Weaknesses in the rule of law moreover mean that journalists do not have the institutional and legal protections they need. This is the context within which the proposals to criminalise defamation are taking place.

While the focus for those defending media freedom in BiH in recent weeks has justifiably been on proposals to criminalise defamation in the RS, it is also important to note that threats and pressure on media is something that is an issue for the whole of BiH. There are a number of high-profile cases in the Federation of politicians and institutions using their power to attack and put pressure on journalists. Insults, threats and humiliation of journalists incite members of the public to take matters into their own hands – at the protests outside the FBiH Parliament building last Friday, there were unacceptable assaults on journalists. We expect that the newly formed Federation government will take steps to strengthen freedom of expression and media freedom.

Across BiH, there is a worrying lack of institutional follow up to reports of threats or attacks on journalists. It is very rare that reported cases result in convictions. Many authorities lack systems for specifically recording threats against journalists.

There is also a worrying tendency for civil suits to be used to silence critics or unfavourable reporting. To prevent an environment that forces journalists into self-censorship, courts should step up their efforts to ensure an expedient processing of defamation cases and consistency of case-law on damages awarded. Legislation on free access to information and hate speech remains fragmented and is not in line with international and European standards. Legal provisions on data protection and on access to information are still interpreted in a way that protects private rather than public interests.

Freedom of expression and freedom of the media are cornerstones of any free society. BiH needs greater freedoms, and progress on the EU path. Let’s leave the threats, intimidation, pressure on the media and shrinking civic space as something to peacefully read about in dystopian fiction, rather than as the everyday lived reality of too many journalists in BiH.