Porous anti-instigation laws enable hate speech in Bosnia and Herzegovina

“People who are or have been married to people of a different ethnicity are not real Serbs and as such they cannot represent the people of Serbia,” recently said Milorad Dodik, member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and the leader of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats.

The statement referred to a member of the Central Election Commission of BiH who, according to Dodik’s interpretation, cannot be a good Serbian woman because she is married to a Muslim. The press quoted Dodik’s populist statement at a press conference, but it provoked almost no reaction. BiH’s inadequate legal regulation of hate speech, the lack of a clear penal policy,  and an insufficiently sensitized public to recognize hate speech are some of the reasons there was little to no reactions to Dodik’s hate speech.

Hate speech is not uncommon in BiH. Apart from politicians, it is also widespread in the public. It is present everywhere: in the media, public appearances, social networks. It can usually be heard in discussions about politics, history, ethnonational identities, and it is targeted at all “vulnerable categories”, such as Roma, LGBT people, migrants, national minorities. Recently, hate speech has been particularly prevalent in comments and posts on social networks.

There are many definitions of hate speech. The Ombudsmen of Bosnia and Herzegovina note that the term hate speech shall be understood as covering all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities, migrants, and people of immigrant origin.

In the complex setup of the State as it is, hate speech is regulated through four legal frameworks: Criminal Code of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Criminal Code of Republika Srpska, Criminal Code of the Federation of BiH, and Criminal Code of Brčko District. Although incitement to national, racial, and religious hatred is criminalized in all four codes, only the Criminal Code of Brčko District explicitly uses the term “hate speech”.

It is important to note that none of the four codes explicitly regulates online hate speech, where it has been the most prevalent in recent years.

According to the 2019 Sarajevo Open Center Report on Hate Speech and Hate Crimes in BiH, 59 cases of hate speech and incitement to violence and hatred were recorded in the period from June 2017 to June 2018.

“Of the total number of documented cases, the majority occurred in online media – portals, i.e., in the comment section for registered members. In most cases, the comments were imbued with hate speech directed at LGTBI people,” says the SOC report. 

Although hate speech is most often noted in the comments related to certain articles, some portals, such as Antimigrant.ba, are being used to openly instigate violence.

“Hundreds of Stašas, Sašas, Vanjas, Igors, Gorans, etc. are on an urban mission of bringing in migrant ISIL members to Bosniak-majority areas to complete the genocide against Bosniaks, which began in Srebrenica. Of all that money, they throw a bone or two to Muslim slumdogs who bring in migrant hordes to persuade Bosniaks that accepting “muhajirs” [immigrants] is their “religious obligation” because not that long ago they too were in their shoes,” states an article published on the antimigrant.ba portal. 

Similar rhetoric is published daily on those portals that spread hate towards migrants. Unfortunately, BiH does not have legislation that regulates hate speech in a uniform and comprehensive manner, let alone hate speech on the Internet.

In addition to being prohibited by regulations governing the work of the media and public information, hate speech is also touched upon by the Election Law and self-regulatory mechanisms of the Press Council of BiH. In 2019, the Press Council accepted three complaints filed by Mreža za izgradnju mira [the Peace-building Network] due to the content published on the portal antimigrant.ba.

“Such inflammatory rhetoric towards migrants falls under the jurisdiction of the competent institutions – the prosecutor’s office and the police – and entails criminal liability under the criminal codes applicable in BiH”, said the decision of the Complaints Commission of the Press Council.

The Complaints Commission also held that the very name of the portal is inflammatory, as it calls for intolerance and negative actions towards migrants, which is considered an offense under criminal codes in BiH. But other institutions have not dealt with it. The portal was suspended for a while due to technical reasons. Even though the Press Council established their criminal liability, the portal soon resumed its activity and is still operating without any hindrance.

Due to internal divisions in society, political instability and insufficiently strong institutions, hate speech has a dangerous potential in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Therefore, it would be of great importance to establish an effective system to combat and adequately sanction hate speech, both offline and online.

Author: Jasna Fetahović, Center for Investigative Journalism Bosnia and Herzegovina

Photo credit: Bartolomiej Pietrzyk/Shutterstock