The growing number of defamation lawsuits that most media outlets cannot financially handle
The organization SafeJournalists has published the Western Balkan Journalist Safety Index (WB-JSI), which is a research-based tool designed to measure and monitor changes in the respective social and political environment of the Western Balkan countries, which have a direct and indirect impact on the safety of journalists and media actors during doing your job.
The Western Balkan Journalist Safety Index primarily relies on research evidence collected and analyzed by partners in the SafeJournalists.net platform in accordance with a rigorous research procedure.
Collected data on various dimensions of the complex concept of “safety of journalists” were quantified and grouped into a composite indicator, the Index of Safety of Journalists, in order to monitor changes in the seven countries of the Western Balkans over time.
Among other things, the report states that the determination of the authorities in Republika Srpska to criminalize defamation caused stormy reactions within the media community, which characterized such moves as a stifling of freedom of expression and an attempt to silence independent media.
– An increasing number of defamation lawsuits are being recorded, which most media cannot afford financially. Politicians continue to use defamation lawsuits to put pressure on certain media and journalists, and the judiciary is in most cases on the side of the politicians. Laws protecting the confidentiality of journalistic sources remained unchanged in 2022 – it is stated.
As it was pointed out, the media legislation has not only not been improved, but the criminalization of defamation has been initiated as an additional legal instrument to restrict freedom of expression, and politicians and representatives of the judiciary continue to put pressure on journalists, while the working conditions of journalists are worse.
Violations of media freedoms and security risks for journalists have increased by 137 percent, and political influences and direct interference in the work of the media in Bosnia and Herzegovina are increasingly pronounced.
Also, the number of cases resolved in courts in favor of journalists has increased, even though investigations of attacks on journalists are still unlawfully lengthy and ineffective, and the final verdicts have no real, positive effects on the victims and the rule of law in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
During 2022, 22 cases of threats and pressure on journalists and seven threats and attacks on media houses were recorded. There has been a significant increase in political pressure in general and hate speech in the online sphere, which has affected the decline of Bosnia and Herzegovina by nine places in the world rankings of media freedom.
It is also warned that the authorities in Republika Srpska have announced that, in addition to criminalizing defamation, they will pass laws on preventing the spread of fake news and on preventing hate speech, while the existing laws do not contain provisions on the basis of which the media would be protected from SLAPP lawsuits.
Individual politicians and public officials file dozens of lawsuits against the same media. Considering the poor economic situation of the majority of media and journalists, an initiative was launched to establish a fund for the defense of journalists before the courts.
During 2022, there were no significant changes in terms of union organizing and association of journalists. Based on the expressed needs of members of the journalistic community, the Association of BiH Journalists initiated activities for the establishment of a Union of Journalists at the level of BiH, which would represent the interests of journalists as a partner in the dialogue with the authorities.
The report also points out that most journalists still work in unfavorable economic and working conditions. Although they have signed employment contracts, employers often violate their labor rights, especially in private media. In print media, more than 50 percent of journalists have a lower than average salary.
In 2022, 11 cases related to labor disputes or mobbing, as well as political pressure and censorship attempts, were reported to the Journalist Helpline. Gender-based violence and online violence against female journalists is on the rise.
– No progress has been made regarding the establishment of mechanisms for reporting hate speech and death threats by institutions. Threats and hate speech are usually first reported by journalists to the helpline for journalists and the police. In most cases, the police reacts in a timely manner, although in many cases of spreading hate speech online and hacking attacks on the media, the attackers remain unsanctioned – they stated.
Last year, there were also three cases of suspension of investigations by the prosecutor’s office with the explanation that there were no elements of a criminal offense, and in 2022 there was one case of granting temporary police protection to the newsroom of the Center for Investigative Journalism in Sarajevo, after threats to a CIN journalist. and directed by a high-ranking police officer.
At the same time, the number of attacks and pressures on journalists by politicians and public officials continues to increase – in 2022, 14 such cases were registered. So far, no politician has been sanctioned for verbal attacks, insults and pressure on journalists and the media.
The report states that the effectiveness of institutions in investigating attacks on journalists and other media professionals remains unsatisfactory. The perpetrators of the attacks mostly remain unidentified, and in a large number of reported cases, the competent prosecutor’s offices make decisions on suspending investigations.
– Despite the order given by the Parliamentary Assembly of BiH to the Council of Ministers, by the end of 2022, no amendments to the Criminal Code were adopted that would treat the attack on journalists as a separate criminal offense – the report reminds.
The number of cases of hate speech against journalists is increasing year by year, especially through social networks. Hate speech is still insufficiently clearly defined by law. Existing laws recognize only the criminal offense of inciting national, racial and religious hatred, and online harassment is also treated within that framework.
With the intention to advance and improve transparency, the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council of BiH adopted a four-year action plan – Communication Strategy as an umbrella strategy for courts and prosecutions at all levels, but that document is not binding for institutions.
Nevertheless, judicial institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina are still the target of criticism from journalists and the media due to non-transparent work and closedness to the public when it comes to access to certain information.