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Harsh laws and editorial pressures make Bosnian journalists the ‘slaves’ of media owners: 2015 Media Freedom Report

AEJ 2015 CONGRESS: SPECIAL MEDIA FREEDOM REPORT ON BOSNIA HERCEGOVINA by Arman Fazlic (Sarajevo)

The media community in Bosnia and Herzegovina is bearing the brunt of failings in the country’s democratic development. BiH is ranked 66thout in 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index. Almost 20 years after the agreement to end the war, civil society and national institutions are struggling on many fronts against  political forces causing serious damage to the media community. The absence of genuine  rule of law manifests itself through the prevalence of impunity for attacks on journalists.  In the last 8 years, there were 400 evidenced cases of media and journalists freedom violation, 65 criminal attacks against journalists. These offences include cases of death threats (17), cases of physical assaults and exclusions of journalistic materials and equipment. The final judgment was solved only 9 cases in favorite to journalists (15 % accordance to all these attacks. Only two attacks of them were treated as criminal proceedings and others as offences.

The ineffectiveness of rule of law is clearly shown with the big amount of lawsuits for  criminal defamation regarding the published media content, submitted against journalists, editors and publishers. Numerous complaints (around 100 per year) are usually submitted by politicians and other public officials. Bosnian judiciary system does not apply the recommended standards of relevant EU institutions. The ignorance of the standards and the practice of the ECHR results with a high number of cases resolved in favor of politicians and other public officials.

Another challenge for the media community and BiH citizens is the latest question of  existence of the Public Broadcasting System and the  legitimacy of the main states regulatory institution (Communication Regulatory Agency). Both issues are believed to be caused by particular political interests: in the first case several members of the Parliament boycott the fee as the main financial source for the PBS and the constitution of the Council of CRA is trying to be changed by processes that are legally questionable.

In 2015, the public broadcasters have faced serious threats to their financial existence due to the lack of an efficient and stable system of charging the RTV fee for the three public broadcasters (BHRT, RTVFBiH and RTRS). Also, due to political pressure, and the attempts of further divisions of the public information systems according to the ethnic and political interests, and not according to the information needs of the BiH citizens, the survival of public broadcasters as independent and professional media has been seriously jeopardized. If we add the fact that BiH will be the only country in the Western Balkans and Europe whose public broadcasting services will not switch to digital broadcasting to this, thus preventing the other TV stations from receiving the digital signal, it is reasonable to conclude that BiH citizens are under the threat of “information blackout” and information isolation from the rest of the world.

Of special concern are  the influences on the editorial policies in the public media (BHRT, RTVFBiH and RTRS, as well as on the public broadcasters at the local level) who, based on non-professional criteria and usually according to their political preference, conceptualize their relationship with the public and the various socio-political groups, their activities and results in the field of improving the position of citizens and strengthening the democratic processes in BiH.

Also under strong political influence is also the  Communications Regulatory Agency which has had no full-time director since 2008, nor is capable of resisting various influences and assuming a more active role in the field of BiH electronic media market regulation. Although the Law on Communications forbids the interference of various political and ethnic lobbies in the selection and appointments of the members of the CRA Council and the Agency Director, the events which took place in the previous years and the refusal of the BiH Council of Ministers to initiate the procedure for the appointment of CRA director point to strong political influence on the choice of key people of the Agency, who make decisions of importance for the broadcasting market in BiH.

During the  ten years of the BiH Law on Protection against Defamation application, positive jurisprudence has been created, including the court’s endeavor to follow the standards and decisions of the European Court on Human Rights. The disturbing fact is that there is still a large number of defamation lawsuits (on average a hundred new cases annually) and that the processes last for years, contrary to the objectives of the legislations, which was adopted in order to protect freedom of expression. It is particularly worrying that the defamation laws at different levels of BiH legislative power are not harmonized, especially concerning the proof of liability for defamation and the estimation of non-pecuniary damage caused by defamation, which results in differential treatment of BiH citizens before the competent judicial institutions.

In BiH,  media ownership dictates its character. The media, especially private, is a “slave” of the interests of their owners, and their editorial policies reflect their political preferences rather than citizens’ interests and needs as reflected in the work of the public authorities and civil society organisations. Media clientelism, the creation and structuring of the informational program content according to the political and/or ethnic interests, or the interests of business lobbies, have caused the professional journalist standards and work in the interest of public to be put into the background.

There are  no laws in BiH to regulate transparency of the media ownership and protect the journalistic profession from the owners’ influence. Media reflect the favour of their owners towards individuals, social groups and the state authorities. Indeed, there is a Press Code and codes for broadcasters which require the media to report in a professional manner, but there is no consistent and effective respect for those documents, nor are they accepted by all the media in BiH.

The  Freedom of Access to Information Act in BiH even today, more than ten years after its adoption, is not used by many citizens or the journalists, reflecting a low level of interest by the public to engage in the decision making process and the fight against corruption. Additionally, a large number of public authorities are still not fully complying with their legal obligations, in particular with regard to the appointment of their information officers.

Impunity related to attacks on journalists and threats to their security  have become a grave legal problem in BiH, particularly in the context of journalists’ and media workers’ access to justice and the (in)equality of citizens before the law. After the BH Journalists’ Association found that 65 criminal attack were committed against journalists and media from 2006 to the end of 2015, representatives of the media and the media institutions launched a series of protests in early 2015, after which an initiative for the legal protection of journalists to fulfil their professional duties was defined.

The issues of low media independence, violations of individual journalist’s rights, and freedom of expression and the practice of self-censorship, all make Bosnian journalists into  underpaid employees and degraded professionals. Political interference causes divisions among the media community and makes it relatively impotent by  fragmenting its members and unions. The journalists are often working under economic and political pressures.

The  unions of media employees are facing organizational atrophy, leading to low work and social status of journalists. It is estimated that about 40% of media employees in a precarious relationship with their employer, without permanent contracts or company contributions t their taxes and social security payments.