Dozens of journalists and rights activists protested Tuesday outside parliament in Bosnia’s Serb-run part as lawmakers debated whether to advance a contested law which critics say would restrict freedom of expression and silence critical media.
The draft law championed by the Bosnian Serb president, Milorad Dodik, would recriminalize libel and insult offences, repealed in 2001, and introduce stiff fines of up to 60,000 euros ($64,000). That’s 100 times the average monthly salary in Bosnia, which stands at some 600 euros ($640).
The head of a Bosnian Serb journalists’ association, Sinisa Vukelic, said during the protest that, if the law were approved, “news reporting will become mission impossible, investigative journalism will cease to exist and ordinary citizens will face the threat of criminal prosecution for their speech, even for what they say in private gatherings.”
The protest was held in the northwestern town of Banja Luka.
The draft law has prompted condemnation from European Union and U.S. officials, the global anti-corruption group Transparency International, the International Federation of Journalists, which represents more than 600,000 media workers across the world, and other national and global groups.
Last week, unidentified perpetrators vandalized vehicles belonging to two prominent Bosnian Serb journalists who had vocally criticized the recriminalization of defamation in Republika Srpska, as Bosnia’s Serb-run part is called.
Dodik, however, doubled down accusing the journalists of staging the attack to grab public attention, and promised to soon also introduce to parliament a Russian-style foreign agent registration bill.
In response, the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo tweeted that the proposed laws would “make it harder for citizens to hold the (Bosnian Serb) government accountable and make it easier for corruption to flourish unchecked.”
“We have seen this move before, and we know how it ends …Russian authorities have used their repressive legislation to suppress dissent, eviscerate civil society, and eradicate free media,” the embassy tweet added.
Staunchly pro-Russian Dodik has been the most influential Bosnian Serb leader for nearly two decades — despite being sanctioned by the West for advocating the separation of Republika Srpska from the rest of the country and actively blocking the reforms required if Bosnia wants to reach its stated goal of joining the EU.
The EU mission to Bosnia, in Sarajevo, tweeted last week that “freedom of expression and of the media are fundamental principles and values” that every EU candidate country, including Bosnia, is expected to uphold. “Journalists must be able to do their important work without fear of intimidation,” the tweet added.
Over the years, Dodik weathered countless accusations by national and international rights and media freedom groups of curbing media independence and popularizing rhetoric against Western diplomats and political opponents of all ethnic stripes.
Russia has backed Dodik, fueling fears in the West that Moscow might try to create further instability in the volatile Balkan nation to divert some attention from its war in Ukraine.
Separatist ambitions among ethnic Serbs sparked Bosnia’s devastating 1992-95 war, which killed more than 100,000 people, displaced millions and shattered the country for years to come. A U.S.-brokered peace agreement that ended the war created the Serb and Bosniak-Croat entities.
They’re linked by shared, state-wide institutions, and all actions at a national level require consensus from all three ethnic groups.