EU Ambassador Johann Sattler in Banja Luka: Proposed legislation on media and civil society would represent a step back for the EU path if adopted

The Head of the EU Delegation/EU Special Representative in BiH, Ambassador Johann Sattler, the Ambassador of the Czech Republic, Ivana Hlavsová, and the Head of the OSCE Mission to BiH, Brian Aggeler, opened the conference „Media and Civil Society: Critical Voices Under Pressure“ which was held in Dom omladine in Banja Luka on 1 June.

Representatives of media, civil society, institutions and experts, discussed recent developments regarding freedom of media and defamation, as well as regarding civil society and the announcement of a law on the special register and publicity of work of non-profit organisations.

Ambassador Sattler noted that there are threats to media freedom and challenges for civil society organisations which are relevant across Bosnia and Herzegovina but that the risks in the Republika Srpska are more immediate, as a result of draft legislation to criminalise defamation and place restrictions on civil society organisations, which are currently in process.

„I want to be clear – the proposed legislation in these two domains would mean backsliding when it comes to fulfilling the EU criteria  in this important area. With regard to defamation, allow me to remind you that the decriminalisation of defamation in BiH in 2002 was a major milestone for the country. The criminalisation of defamation can be used to silence human rights defenders, journalists, civil society representatives and individual citizens. Stigmatizing and delegitimising civil society actors as ‘foreign agents’ would likely result in suppression and intimidation against civil society organisations and severely limit their rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and of expression, thereby fostering a climate of fear,“ said Ambassador Sattler.

“I am coming from a country which has its own experience under communism, when there was no freedom of media and civil society did not exist. The bravest among us tirelessly pointed at how important it was that we have free access to information, as well as the possibility to be active and fulfilled citizens in the society. Those were the ones who ended up with indictments and in prisons. I am here today to remind you the support to freedom of media, civil society and independent journalists is one of the priorities of our foreign policy and Embassy of the Czech Republic supports these efforts through various projects in BiH,” said Ivana Hlavsová, Ambassador of the Czech Republic in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

„The OSCE Mission to BiH, and other OSCE executive structures – the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights – are deeply concerned about a growing climate of hostility towards journalists and civil society in BiH. We are unified, together with our partners in the international community, in the strong opposition to the RSNA’s proposed criminal code amendments, which would re-criminalize defamation,” said the Head of OSCE Mission to BiH, Aggeler.

Siniša Vukelić, President of the Club of Journalists Banja Luka, urged the authorities of Republika Srpska not to proceed with the proposed legislation regarding defamation warning it would have negative consequences to freedom of expression and of the media.

“There is a need to have legislation which would regulate the media, but this does not include this law. The main precondition for involving the media community in this process is to withdraw the draft amendments to Criminal Code regarding defamation. Highest international institutions have said that such a law would endanger the existence of independent media and representatives of the local authorities in Republika Srpska should be able to hear these messages,” said Vukelić.

Ivana Korajlić, executive director of Transparency International in BiH, said: “All the proposed laws have the same goal. Apart from limiting criticism and speech, the laws will also serve the purpose of targeting media and organizations and creating internal enemies who will be blamed for all the wrong things happening in the society.”