Freedom of expression is a driver for all human rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
In 1993, at the recommendation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) General Conference, 3 May was declared as World Press Freedom Day. Every year, this day reminds governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom.
This 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom day has particular resonance as it coincides with the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - the first ever global commitment by states to protect the civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights of everyone everywhere, based on the inherent dignity of every human being.
The right to freedom of opinion and expression is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and includes the “freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (Article 19).
Recognizing the indivisibility of all human rights, this year’s World Press Freedom Day puts the spotlight on the right to freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights.
Freedom of expression enables the exercise of other human rights, including participation in public affairs (such as the right to vote) and in cultural life, peaceful assembly and association, education, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, favourable conditions of work, and health.
The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of being able to access reliable information. Indeed, during that crisis, information was a matter of life.
UNESCO promotes “information as a public good”, emphasizing the special role of journalism in producing verified information in the public interest.
Unfortunately, the United Nations has reported that threats and attacks against journalists and media workers have been on the rise. According to the UNESCO 2021/2022 report on world trends in freedom of expression and media development, from 2016 to 2021, 455 journalists were killed for their work, while 85% of the world population experienced a decline in press freedom in their country.
The United Nations in Bosnia and Herzegovina is concerned about an increasingly challenging environment for media freedom and the safety of journalists.
In a report on the safety of journalists and access to information in Bosnia and Herzegovina published in 2022, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations in Bosnia and Herzegovina observed that journalists increasingly faced political and economic pressure, physical and verbal attacks, threats, including death threats, online harassment, and other forms of intimidation. According to the association “BH Journalists”, political pressure and attacks on journalists and independent media increased by 40 per cent in 2022 compared to 2021, with verbal threats, death threats and hate speech increasing by 137 per cent.
The report also highlights the increasing use of defamation lawsuits as a tool of intimidation and pressure, particularly by public figures. In July 2020, the Free Media Helpline registered 289 pending defamation lawsuits against journalists and the media, 80% of which were initiated by politicians.
In recent months, legislative initiatives to recriminalize defamation in Republika Srpska have raised serious concerns about a significant erosion of the space for free and safe public debate. The Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association addressed a communication to the authorities urging them to withdraw the draft legislation.
Several United Nations human rights mechanisms have cautioned against the criminalization of defamation. The 2021 United Nations General Assembly resolution 76/173, supported by Bosnia and Herzegovina, urges governments to ensure that defamation laws are not misused to censor and interfere with the work of journalists.
The authorities, at any governance level, of Bosnia and Herzegovina are obliged to uphold the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The protection of freedom of expression and media freedom is also a requirement of the European Union for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s accession.
The United Nations in Bosnia and Herzegovina urges all competent authorities across the country to further the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression to ensure that there is no regression in the enjoyment of this right, and to create the conditions for the free and safe expression and participation of civil society actors and citizens. This includes ensuring the effective protection of journalists, prompt, impartial and thorough investigations into any attacks (offline and online) against them and media outlets, refraining from publicly discrediting journalists and other civil society actors, and not weaponizing the law to muzzle critical voices.
United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bosnia and Herzegovina