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Bosnia and Herzegovina: Reject criminalisation of defamation

On Thursday 2 March, the Bosnia and Herzegovina entity Republika Srpska adopted draft amendments to the criminal code that would re-criminalise defamation. This is an alarming development that, if approved by the National Assembly, would endanger free speech and allow for prosecution of journalists, civil society and anyone who speaks up. Transparency International urges policymakers to reverse this dangerous direction and protect freedom of expression at a time when civic space is threatened across the country. We call for the Ministry of Justice to withdraw the proposal, and for National Assembly members to reject the provisions in discussion.

Amidst ongoing pressure on journalists and others critical of the government, the proposed provisions seem designed to encourage censorship and block criticism of the regime and other powerful figures. The draft allows for arbitrary interpretation of what constitutes an insult or the “intent to incur damage to someone’s reputation or honour”, and even bans reference to someone’s family circumstances, which could block reporting on conflicts of interest that arise from family ties. These can be applied to anyone – from journalists to organisations reporting on corruption and even members of the public who speak up via social networks. The penalties for violation are very high, allowing for fines of over US$60,000.

Defamation is frequently used as a justification to curtail dissent. International bodies such as the UN Human Rights Committee, as well as the European Union, have repeatedly underscored the dangers of criminalising defamation, and called for it to remain a civil matter. Proponents of the new amendments in Republika Srpska claim they are in line with EU practices, but such harsh provisions clearly contradict EU stances. In their statements, officials have openly admitted they want to introduce order and end “abuse of public space”. Republika Srpska first decriminalised defamation in 2000, making these new developments a reversal that would threaten already fragile freedoms.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has significantly declined on the Corruption Perceptions Index in recent years, dropping eight points since 2013, in part due to the capture of government – especially the judiciary. Allowing more leeway to criminalise the expression of opposition will only further hinder democracy and basic rights in the country.

Daniel Eriksson, CEO of Transparency International, said:

“Freedoms of expression and the press are essential to hold power to account. At this critical time, the media, civil society and the public must retain the ability to shine a light on corruption and other abuses to prevent Bosnia and Herzegovina from falling further into authoritarianism. Transparency International calls on policymakers to stop such dangerous proposals and protect free speech and democracy.”

Note to Editors

See the 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index analysis for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which highlights ongoing issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina.