The Initiative for Monitoring the European Integration of B&H strongly opposes the adoption of the Draft Law on Amendments to the Criminal Code of the Republika Srpska, published on the website of the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Srpska on 03/03/23. The aforementioned amendments, which, among other things, criminalize defamation, are contrary to the requirements that Bosnia and Herzegovina must meet for the opening of negotiations with the EU and becoming its member. The true commitment of the authorities in the Republika Srpska to the protection, defense, and promotion of human rights and freedoms is questionable, given that soon after the granting of the EU candidate status for Bosnia and Herzegovina, they started adopting this and announced the adoption of other restrictive laws.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, that is, all levels of government must guarantee freedom of expression, media, and protection of journalists. The EU Delegation in Bosnia and Herzegovina warns that the criminalization of defamation in the Republika Srpska has the potential to worsen these freedoms, highlighting the already existing practice of politicians and public officials in Bosnia and Herzegovina to use the possibility of lawsuits to intimidate journalists and force them to self-censor. Part of the civil society organizations and media from the Republika Srpska points to the same in the recently signed declaration “Together against the restriction of rights and freedoms”, that is, in their objections to the aforementioned Draft Law.
Decision-makers in Bosnia and Herzegovina narrowly interpret priority 12, focusing only on ensuring appropriate judicial processing of cases of threats and use of violence against journalists and media workers, as well as ensuring the financial sustainability of the public RTV services. The mentioned priority especially emphasizes these points, but their fulfillment alone will not guarantee freedom of expression. The disputed Draft Law and announcements of other legislative activities that go in the direction of restrictions prove this. That is why a more detailed interpretation of the 14 priorities by the European Commission is necessary so that the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina do not arbitrarily determine the progress of the fulfillment of obligations.
This attempt to amend the Criminal Code also contradicts the priority that requires ensuring an encouraging environment for civil society in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In addition to the fact that the adoption of the Draft would significantly limit the already limited space for the activities of civil society organizations in the Republika Srpska, the very process of amending the law from which the civil society is completely excluded and the insulting statements directed to them by the President of the Republic of Srpska, Milorad Dodik, due to their disagreement with the Draft, all speak to the kind of environment they currently work in.
Although the proponent points out that defamation is a criminal offense in some European Union member states, they ignore the judicial practice and the development of democratic culture in those countries. Alternative reports of the Initiative for Monitoring the European Integration of B&H and reports of the European Commission have for years been warning that the judicial system in Bosnia and Herzegovina is ineffective and under constant pressure and/or direct influence of political actors. Accordingly, there is a justified concern that the controversial amendments would be used to limit the freedom of expression of journalists, activists, and all citizens of the Republika Srpska, that is, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In 2022, the European Commission called on member states to review “their legal frameworks applicable to defamation to ensure that existing concepts and definitions cannot be used by plaintiffs against journalists or human rights defenders in the context of manifestly unfounded or abusive court proceedings against public participation.” This recommendation, as well as the guidelines of international organizations calling for the decriminalization of defamation, indicate that the aforementioned amendments to the Criminal Code of the Republika Srpska are a step backward for freedoms and the European path of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Due to all of the above, we call on the authorities in the Republika Srpska to withdraw the Draft Law on Amendments to the Criminal Code of the Republika Srpska. We invite all the media, civil society organizations, the academic community, and the citizens of the Republika Srpska, that is, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to react publicly and point out the negative consequences that the adoption of this Draft may have on the exercise of rights and freedoms.
 COMMISSION RECOMMENDATION (EU) 2022/758 of 27 April 2022 on protecting journalists and human rights defenders who engage in public participation from manifestly unfounded or abusive court proceedings (‘Strategic lawsuits against public participation’), L 138/30 (EN), 17.5.2022, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32022H0758