Dražana LEPIR: Public Space Belongs to Us

Dražana Lepir, Oštra nula Banja Luka

Text is published by Heinrich Böll Fondation

I recently read a tweet: “Civil rights are not inherited. Every generation has to start from the beginning”. Honestly, as much as such a thought is based on the fight for our rights, personally, I cannot accept that restrictions imposed by institutions must be of this intensity.
Citizens Association “Oštra nula”21 was established in December 2009. We started as an informal group, but due to bureaucratic obstacles, we decided to formally register an organisation in October 2010. A combination of youth enthusiasm and dissatisfaction was the trigger for us to gather and demonstrate through public actions that we do not accept the corruption, nepotism, arrogance and discrimination that those of us who are not in familial-political relations to the governing political establishment are exposed to.

At the beginning, our activities were mainly street performances and debates that we financed ourselves. We had support from our friends from other non governmental organisations. The distinct nature of our activities attracted significant media attention.
I would like to mention that, although we didn’t have experience and knowledge in terms of legal and bureaucratic issues, we always followed the rules and gave our best to coordinate our activities with legal regulations. But, as we became increasingly present in the media due to our activities, we started receiving misdemeanour tickets and the city authorities refused to issue a permission to use public areas. The propaganda of media influenced by the
Republika Srpska (RS) regime was aimed at discrediting our work and similar activities.
Our biggest problems started in February 2011 when we organized protests in Banja Luka with an informal group, “Glas naroda”22. The reason for these protests was the statement of Milorad Dodik, who was Prime Minister of the RS at the time, that “they will abolish veteran’s subsidies if war veterans get on the street” but also the bad social and economic situation of our citizens. These were the first spontaneous protests in Banja Luka that gathered about 3000 citizens and were organized through social media. These protests were very important because they showed that people were unsatisfied in the RS. At that time, the policy led by Milorad Dodik focused on brainwashing, stating that the RS is more progressive than other parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and how everybody wants the RS to disappear. Soon, we organized second protests when we also experienced mighty authority propaganda which until today is governed by fear and terror when it comes to freedom of speech and expression. On the day of these second protests, SRNA (the RS News Agency) published an article in which they used parts of our statements from other articles and out of context with the aim of discrediting us as people who live in Banja Luka. They called us traitors, anti-Serbs, promoters of Sarajevo’s war story and so on. They also used our cooperation with organisations from the Federation of BiH as a final proof that we are against the RS. Considering the fact that we don’t have independent media, this kind of media spin and propaganda is still one of the most powerful weapons of the governing structures in the RS.

Restrictions of Public Space

I would also like to state something about the legal mechanisms available to us because it is important to say that city administration regulations are not the same in each municipality in the RS. I will now emphasize regulations which are valid for Banja Luka. As we started street
actions and, in general, decided to organize most of our activities in public space, the first restriction we faced was that, as physical persons, we could not obtain a permission to use public space. Until we registered, other legal persons would apply for permission for our actions. On the other hand, the application does not provide an option to sign up for street
actions or performances, i.e. our laws do not recognise this kind of activism. The result of this setup is that we never know for sure if we will get the permission or not.
This mainly depends on internal decisions of city administration officers. The second thing important to emphasize is that protests can be announced by a physical person at the Centre for Public Security at least 24 hours in advance. If nobody from the Ministry of Interior calls you until the day of the protests, it is considered that you have a permission to hold protests.

Since 2008, protests in front of public institutions are forbidden in the RS, or rather, it is allowed, but in a distance of not less than 50 meters. If one decides to organize a protest which involves moving, one has to consider this decision during the planning of the route. In addition, the problem is whether one would even be able to protest on the move. We mostly witness prohibition of protests if their organizers do not find some other solutions, such as
adjusting the protest route or accepting the authorities’ proposal to move the protest outside of city centre and other similar workarounds. This worked for a while in the case of Picin Park, where there was no formal organizer of the protest, no leader to address and the protests were organized through Facebook, until the police just started blocking entire streets, or denying protests in a certain location.

In Banja Luka it is allowed to gather in public on two locations determined by the City administration: Krajina Square (Trg Krajine) and Dr. Mladen Stojanović Park. At the same time, if one wants to submit an application to use public space, they are also limited to these two areas implying that the space for public activity is legally limited to these two locations.
As I mentioned before, our problems started a year and a half ago following our active involvement and action. Granted, our actions were different than those of other organizations. They were different in the sense that we pointed to the nonchalance and inactivity of responsible authorities and to social and economic problems within our society. Due to our creative actions we had much sympathy and, to put it this way, a silent support of the public. Besides our street actions, we have organized debates, public discussions and other activities through which we wanted to animate young people to be active. Our aim was to promote critical thinking and awareness of our citizens. We didn’t limit our work to Banja Luka only but we have been trying to set other cities in the RS in motion.

Politics of Penalties

In October 2011 we organized an action called “I just don’t want to leave”. With this we wanted to say that our activism is the result of the fact that we do not want to go from here. In addition, we wanted to point to the fact that the state level government wasn’t established even one year after the parliamentary elections and we also wanted to point out the debt made by RS by that date. In this regard, we placed a banner with this quote on a cinema fence on the Krajina Square. Very soon after that police showed up and removed the banner and gave us a misdemeanour ticket. As part of the same campaign, we placed stickers with the same message in public spaces in the city, for which we also received a fine. The overall fine was about 1.400 BAM (~715 Euro). The reason for this fine was “impermissible promotion on the territory of Banja Luka City”, i.e. our banner and stickers were processed as misdemeanours on that basis. We decided not to pay this fine and launched an appeal. A month later we received one more misdemeanour ticket for the same sticker, photographed on another location. The overall fine was 2.100 BAM (~1074 EUR).
We also went to court with this misdemeanour ticket whereas this time, we approached the Human Rights Ombudsman.
They advised us to have a meeting with the Head of the Communal Police and explain in writing why we implemented that campaign, and to admit that we had made a mistake due to mitigating circumstances in the process. The meeting with the Head of the Communal Police, Mr. Dragan Lukač (he is now the Minister of Internal Affairs of the RS) was not the most pleasant one. We verbally agreed to remove our stickers and that they would not issue
misdemeanour tickets until we removed them. We solved the issue with the tickets in 2013 at the Municipal Court when the fine was modified into suspension of sentence on probation for 6 months for each penalty. It’s important to say that we had a total of 6 hearings because there were separate trials for the legal entity and for the responsible person (the president of our Association). During the whole process we had support23 from the public but it was very difficult to get legal aid. Eventually, we engaged a lawyer who was in favour of our case and who charged a minimum for her services. We also immediately initiated a solidarity fund and succeeded in collecting money in case we would have to pay a penalty.
During this period, it was very hard to continue with our work because many people who were part of our organisation slowly withdrew, and the pressure was big.

Luckily, we managed to continue with our work, but the pressure still remains. As an
organisation and as individuals we were actively involved in different local and state initiatives. We took part in protests for the preservation of a park in 2012 which lasted from May to October that year. We supported the JMBG protests (Baby Revolution) in 2013 in Sarajevo. At that time, together with several other activists, we were labelled traitors and destroyers of the RS. In 2014, we supported Tuzla workers, by organizing a solidarity walk together with the Helsinki Parliament of Banja Luka.
After this unannounced event, organized spontaneously thanks to social networks, the so-called black list of non-governmentalorganisations (NGO) in the RS was published, led by the SNSD. Our organization was not on that list, but at the front page of the daily paper “Glas Srpske”24, it was declared that we cooperated with activists of the Free Republic(Slobodna republika) to burn down the War Veteran Organization of the RS, together with buildings of the Eastern Sarajevo Administration. Thanks to Transparency International BiH (TI-BIH) we filed an appeal for slander but, to date, this case has not been processed.
After being constantly called out by the media, having received misdemeanour tickets and acuity of our actions, and support that we gave to other initiatives, we found ourselves in a situation to be seen as a “risky” organization. During this whole period we continued with our activities involving young people from BiH and visits to other cities as the organisers of different social and cultural activities.

Occupation of Public Space by Officials

Out of many bureaucratic difficulties we are facing, it is important to highlight the issue with obtaining permits to use public property. For each action we are organizing, we need to file a request to use public property and pay a 12 BAM fee. More than once, we were denied permission, without any written explanation. At the end of 2014, we did not get a permission to organize an event to mark November 9 (Day of Remembrance of Victims of Fascism) and December 10 (International Human Rights Day) and later also Day of the City celebrated on April 22. Even though we did not get permission to organize these events, we decided to still proceed with the organization. As we did not get any written rejection and had submitted the request on time, we assumed that we did not get any answer due to bureaucracy. On November 9, at the first of these events, the communal police appeared and gave us an 800 BAM (~400 Euros) misdemeanour ticket for disturbance of public order and use of public property without permission. We decided to pay this fine, as there was no legal basis for the court to decide in our interest and, if we accepted the guilt and paid the fine within 7 days, we needed to pay only half of the amount. For other actions, we were verbally informed that
there was an internal decision not to issue any permission due to other events which were planned to be held on that property. As of 2013, a commercial street festival is held in our city on Krajina Square, Zimzograd. Due to Krajina Square being occupied from December until mid–January, the City Administration brought an internal decision not to issue any permission for the use of public property to anybody during this period. That was the reason why we could not hold an International Human Rights Day event in 2014. Due to these circumstances, we approached legal experts from TI-BiH who suggested submitting the request for permission to use public property several months earlier instead of 14 days before the event, because we could then refer to the silence of the administration in case we did not get an answer. When we did that, we received permission for some activities, but not to mark November 9 and December 10 2015.

We were told that they could not know if the space would be free for our event (although for our activities we mostly need a small space of 2 m2). For these two cases we decided to use all available legal mechanisms to get an official answer from the administration about why our applications were rejected which eventually resulted with a change of decision and
issuance of permission for our event.

Punish First, than Prove what Happened

What lies ahead is a legal recognition of activism, freedom of speech and other democratic, non-violent mechanisms. It’s important to emphasize that we speak about political activism which is denied or impeded if we want to draw attention to indolence and political autocracy. The National Assembly of the RS has prepared several laws which will additionally limit the freedom of speech through legal regulations and definitions which will be used according to this principle: “Punish first, than prove what happened”. The Law on Public Order has insufficiently defined what an insulting message is and has thus left space for loose interpretation and selective appliance of penalty regulations in this regard. In the end, we have to ask ourselves what we leave to future generations if we are not allowed to be political stakeholders, if we have to expurgate each of our messages or activities to soften the reactions of the regime, as they will always be present, no matter how cautious we are.
The energy that each of us has to invest in our activities is huge, but we have no mechanisms to protect ourselves from authorities’ arbitrary decisions and media pressures, except the law which is written to serve only those in power, affluent people and their subjects. This energy disperses and forces us to quit the idea of leading a normal life in this region, surrender this fight or become followers of political parties who expect votes for a working place, in case we even get it.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has a chance to live a peaceful and democratic future, but the initiative for this has to come from its citizens. The changes that our society needs cannot and will not come exclusively from the EU accession process.
The permanent changes we need require political literacy of our citizens, a task for all civil society members to work on, since laws which are not being implemented properly are just dead letters on paper. It is this effort that should be supported and recognized by the EU and the rest of the international community, if we are to ever start moving forward.

The entire publication is available HERE.