Transitional Justice Vital for Bosnia’s EU Path, Conference Says

Participants agree transitional judice is a priority for the EU and feelings of ‘fatigue’ must not get in the way.

A conference titled “Role of Transitional Justice in Bosnia’s European Path”, organised by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network of Bosnia and Herzegovina, BIRN BiH, with support of the Belgian embassy, on April 4, put a focus on one of the five key priorities of the European Union, which advocates promoting an environment conducive to reconciliation and overcoming the legacies of the war.

Denis Dzidic, executive director of BIRN BiH, said the fifth priority of the EU should be additionally defined, especially in light of widespread hate speech, revisionism and denial of genocide and other crimes.

“All these things continue to deepen the gap between people and it is simply impossible to talk about other aspects of the European Union accession without making this segment clearer and more precise,” he said.

“For that reason, we wanted to open a discussion with a broad spectrum of people. Today, we have representatives of victims’ associations, who are manifestly living with the consequences of all that, but also representatives of judicial institutions and the international community,” Dzidic added.

He noted that, unfortunately, government representatives did not accept an invitation.

Benjamin Sturtewagen, acting charge d’affaires of the Belgium embassy, said his country had tried to affirm this topic as a priority in the UN Security Council a few years ago.

“Transitional justice is one of the priorities of the EU and that is especially highlighted in a Council of Europe’s decision of two weeks ago. So, this remains one of the focus points of our efforts and our activities. Just like with any other topic that is talked about a lot, public fatigue happens. That has happened with transitional justice too. But given it is the priority of the UN, European Union, BiH and all us actors, we must not let it be forgotten and the fatigue happen,” Sturtewagen said.

Results of an analysis of almost 30 years of work on prosecution of war criminals in Bosnia were presented at the conference by Dzana Brkanic, BIRN BIH deputy editor, and by Emina Dizdarevic Tahmiscija, BIRN BiH journalist.

Speakers included state prosecutor Ivan Matesic, Murat Tahirovic, president of the Association of Victims and Witnesses of Genocide in BiH, Joeri Maas, from the EU Office in BiH, Irma Zulic, political and development advisor at the United Nations in BiH, Mirza Buljubasic, a professor of Criminalistics, Criminology and Security Studies and Agnes Picod, senior human rights advisor at the Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in BiH.

The participants concluded that civil society organisations, jointly with associations of victims and with support of the international community, must insist on this matter with the holders of authority.

Kerim Hodzic

Kerim joined Detektor (BIRN BiH) in 2023 as a Social Media Manager. He previously worked in Humanity in Action Bosnia and Herzegovina as a project officer.

His work is closely related to peacebuilding, non-formal education of youth and human rights of minorities in BiH. He was a member of BH Pride March, actively volunteers at ComPass071, a humanitarian organisation and daily centre for people on the move, and he takes part in Youth Movement Revolt as an alumni member. He expresses his creativity through street art murals and art-themed workshops that he does in local communities throughout the country.

Kerim is pursuing his Master’s degree in Marketing Management at the University of Sarajevo, School of Economics and Business, where he previously obtained his Bachelor’s degree. He speaks Bosnian, English, and German.

Handbook on Reporting on Missing Persons in Bosnia Introduced

The handbook ‘Media Reporting on Persons Missing Due to Conflicts in BiH 1992–1995’ was promoted at the Political Sciences Faculty of Sarajevo University.

Standards on reporting on missing persons, which have been established in Bosnia and Herzegovina, may be applied worldwide, said participants in the promotion of “Media Reporting on Persons Missing Due to Conflicts in BiH 1992–1995” Handbook held at the Faculty of Political Sciences of Sarajevo University.

The Handbook on reporting on persons who went missing during the 1992-5 war is a result of cooperation between the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, the Missing Persons Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina, INO BiH, the State Prosecution, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network of Bosnia and Herzegovina, BIRN BiH, as well as women and men journalists from all over the country.

The document, as said during its promotion, is intended to assist all journalists in their work: as an incentive for editors and directors of media outlets to bring these topics back to prime time; as a reminder for professors to offer their students practical examples in addition to theoretical lectures; and also for all students and future reporters and journalists.

It is also intended for victims’ families, so they would know what to expect and what obligations the media has, but also for all others willing to learn more about the missing and how the media covers this topic.

Elmir Camic, Head of the ICRC Delegation to Bosnia, said the Handbook was a very high-quality document, which had met a wide response among his colleagues in the Red Cross all over the world, because the question of the missing also concerns areas of the Middle East, Ukraine, Central Asia and South America.

“I am glad that in BiH we are creating new standards that will be applied worldwide in the process of tracing the missing persons,” Camic said.

He recalled that around 7,600 persons, who disappeared due to the conflict are still being searched for in Bosnia, and that the lack of new and credible information on locations of individual and mass graves poses the biggest obstacle to the search process.

“A very high degree of politicization of the issue contributes to that, setting aside the needs and rights of families of the missing persons and coming down to a cheap accumulation of political points at their expense,” said the Head of the ICRC Delegation to Bosnia.

BIRN BiH executive Director Denis Dzidic expressed satisfaction at the fact that his fellow workers, who had been reporting on the missing as one of the segments of transitional justice for years, had a chance to draw up the Handbook to serve as a road map not only to journalists in our country, but also worldwide.

“Last week, a Detektor and Balkan Investigative Reporting Network team went to Ukraine, where we trained a group of journalists on how to report on transitional justice processes and we had a chance to introduce this same Handbook to them. There is a huge interest because journalists around the world lack the experience which Bosnian journalists have in reporting on this topic,” Dzidic said.

INO BiH spokeswoman Emza Fazlic said the Handbook was a leap forward when it comes to reporting on missing persons due to the sensitivity of the topic and its importance in society.

“Regardless of the passage of time and the fact that the families are searching for their missing members for 30 years, many stories have already been told, but, unfortunately, many still remain to be told. Only by covering this topic in the media will the process be accelerated in a certain way,” Fazlic said.

She added that the issue of missing persons falls also within the 14 priorities set for Bosnia on its road to joining the European Union.

Lejla Turcilo, a professor at the Sarajevo Faculty of Political Sciences, also expressed satisfaction that such content could be included in faculty curricula, because it was important to develop responsibility and sensitivity for reporting at the Department of Communication Studies / Journalism, and for journalists to begin their journalistic practice as prepared as possible.

“The Faculty of Political Sciences of the Sarajevo University truly seeks to enrich with practical experience what we teach our students in theory, and this is a good opportunity for our male and female students to hear and get first-hand material from which they will learn on how to report on this important but also very sensitive topic,” Turcilo explained.

During the promotion of the Handbook, which she developed jointly with her fellow worker Lamija Grebo, BIRN BiH journalist Emina Dizdarevic Tahmiscija said the objectives were primarily to save stories from oblivion, but also to leave a trace so those who once lived and were now considered missing could be talked about.

“With this Handbook, we can significantly impact the conscience of people who potentially know the locations of mass graves, so they would reveal their whereabouts. Likewise, it will help journalists achieve communication with families of the missing,” Dizdarevic Tahmiscija said.

As part of the promotion, an expert panel was held on the importance of reporting on missing persons in Bosnia, at which participants presented information on problems and shortcomings facing INO BiH staff members, challenges facing journalists and the fact that a high percentage of families of the missing have expressed dissatisfaction with the reporting on these issues.

The Handbook is available here.

BIRN BiH Presents ‘Verdict against Stanisic and Simatovic’ Digital Narrative

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network of Bosnia and Herzegovina presented a multimedia research into Serbia’s role in the Bosnian war through international tribunal verdicts – with reference to the verdict against former Serbia State Security officials Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic.

BIRN BiH Deputy Editor Dzana Brkanic pointed out in her opening remarks, that, besides presenting a digital narrative, the conference held in Sarajevo also aimed to start a discussion on whether there were potential implications for Serbia in the verdict – such as the possibility of payment of compensation to victims, and how facts from the verdict could be used to face the past and future processes.

“The page we are presenting today will also remain as an excellent source of facts for future students and researchers but also as a tool for combatting crime denial and glorification of criminals,” Brkanic said, recalling the tough and long-term journalistic work on the character of the conflict in the country through international verdicts.

Journalist and author of the research on “Serbia’s Role in the War – A Jigsaw Puzzle Through Court Verdicts” Haris Rovcanin, said that the initial Hague verdicts had addressed the question of whether the war in Bosnia was a conflict of international or internal character, primarily due to the role of the Yugoslav National Army, JNA, and its participation in the war.

“Some chambers determined that the war was of international character up until mid-May 1992, but only in a certain area, while some determined that it was of international character throughout the period covered by a specific indictment, usually the entire 1992,” he noted.

All the chambers determined, and it was not disputed by parties to the proceedings, that an armed conflict existed and that the crimes committed were related to that conflict, Rovcanin said.

During the research, Rovcanin spoke to victims who expressed readiness to sue Serbia for reparations should an opportunity arise, for the sake of the truth and future generations, also saying that while no verdict or punishment can bring back their loved ones, this type of satisfaction would suffice.

Klaus Hoffmann, prosecutor in the Stanisic and Simatovic case, who only spoke in a private capacity at the conference, stated that the final verdict against the former leaders of Serbia’s State Security Service was of great importance, as the two men are the only Serbian state officials convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Bosnia and Croatia during the wars that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia.

Although dissatisfied with the level of the prison sentences, Hoffmann determining the role of Stanisic and Simatovic in crimes was of extreme importance.

As he explained, the State Security Service of Serbia, under the leadership of its former head, Stanisic, played a crucial role in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia.

He added that the State Security Service was directly or indirectly heavily involved in the formation of Serbian units in both countries, in the training and equipment of those units, as well as their financing and coordination.

“Evidence has shown that there was an overall plan and a system to set up training camps and to install Serbian units in the targeted areas to become part of Greater Serbia and to expel non-Serbs from these areas. These units were made up of local Serbs, but always trained, equipped and led by members of the Serbian State Security, or at least on its behalf,” said Hoffmann.

He recalled that this included special units such as the infamous Scorpions, the Red Berets and Arkan’s Tigers, as well as units directly led by Simatovic, so-called Frenki’s Men.

In Hoffmann’s opinion, much of the war and many of the crimes would have not been possible without the support and contribution of the State Security of Serbia. It all followed an overall plan to create a “Greater Serbia”, which was shared by the two accused and other key players in Serbia.

He also reflected on the definition of the conflict, pointing out that the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, ICTY, was not per se a truth commission, to present a full historical record. But he said it was important to understand that many of the early verdicts of the ICTY rendered findings on the existence of the armed conflict and its nature, as well as regarding general historical and political facts.

“In the present case, the evidence therefore did not focus on the nature of the armed conflict but rather on the personal role and contributions of the two accused with regard to the specific crimes as indicted. There was no dispute about the existence of an armed conflict as such. There was also no real dispute about some of the crimes committed in various locations in the two countries,” he said.

The core challenge for the Prosecution in this case, according to Hoffman, was to show that both accused were personally liable for those crimes, although no one ever alleged that either of the accused personally killed any of the civilian victims or committed any of the charged crimes on the ground.

“The fact that the Appeals Chamber after the retrial finally confirmed the charges and the personal responsibility of the two accused as perpetrators shows that the Prosecution team after all was successful in its work over many years,” he said.

As part of the conference, a panel discussion on “What next? – Potential implications of the verdict and impact on facing the past” was held.

This identified the fact that one of Serbian officials was convicted of participating in a joint criminal enterprise aimed at removing the non-Serb population from parts of Bosnia and Croatia as one of the most important facts of this verdict.

Nenad Golcevski, of the Serbian Fund for Humanitarian Law, said the verdict demonstrates the most direct possible connection of Serbia with the war, but also the social importance.

“The conclusion on the character was secondary for the Chamber, but for us it is equally important as the role of Serbia,” he said.

Golcevski pointed out that the facts about Serbia’s involvement in the wars can no longer be disputed, adding that silence had reigned in Serbia after this verdict.

“Not a single official from Serbia said a word about this verdict. That is Serbia’s reaction,” he said, adding that Serbia stopped for a moment only when a video of the Scorpios was published.

He also reflected on the possibility of reparation, stating that victims have the right to compensation because Serbian law recognizes the verdicts of international courts, but that such verdicts must also contain their names.

As he noted, the final verdict against Stanisic and Simatovic named one victim only.

“The Serbian prosecution should prosecute lower ranked perpetrators and then it will be possible to name victims and seek compensation,” he said. He added that this could be done either through criminal or civil proceedings. Civil proceedings are much more exhausting for victims, however, as they must go through traumas again.

Sarajevo-based attorney Sabina Mehic highlighted that the verdict was important both from the social and legal aspect, and that it could contribute to case law for using certain standards.

“It is significant from the aspect of involvement of officials from Serbia in a joint criminal enterprise and units that directly committed crimes,” she said.

She added that the Prosecution of Bosnia and Herzegovina should put more focus on compensation for non-material damage.

A video of Berizeta Pitarevic, sister of Sidik Salkic, one of the six men from Srebrenica killed in Godinjske Bare, was played at the panel discussion.

BIRN BiH has analyzed how verdicts delivered by the ITYCY and International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, as well as International Court of Justice, defined the character of the war in Bosnia with reference to the verdict against Stanisic and Simatovic.

Stanisic and Simatovic were found responsible for participating in a joint criminal enterprise and crimes committed in Bijeljina, Zvornik, Bosanski Samac, Doboj and Sanski Most, as well as murders of men from Srebrenica near Trnovo in BiH and on mount Dalj in Croatia.

The verdict also showed the role of Serbia in the war, which is of particular importance as different narratives about the war in Bosnia have co-existed for three decades.

The Global Initiative for Justice, Truth and Reconciliation supported this research and project.

You can find the multimedia page on this link.

BIRN BiH Presents Media Ownership Monitor Database

Findings reveal worryingly high level of concentration and a lack of transparency over who owns and controls what.

Out of 39 media outlets covered by the Media Ownership Monitor Database, nearly 40 per cent of the most prominent media outlets in Bosnia and Herzegovina do not offer full transparency, a conference to present the Database organised by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network of Bosnia and Herzegovina, BIRN BiH, heard.

Over the past few months, BIRN BiH, in collaboration with the Global Media Registry, GMR, collected data on publicly available information concerning ownership of the 39 most-watched, most-listened to and most-read media in BiH, including print, online, radio and TV stations, and tried to answer the question: who owns or controls these media?

According to the Database’s findings, the risk to media pluralism in Bosnia is high due to concentrations in television, print, online and media markets; the eight largest owners have a market share of over 70 per cent in different media sectors.

Of the 39 media outlets, women make up 37.6 per cent of the owners, but only in two is a woman the only owner. In all the others they share ownership with men, which also poses a risk for media pluralism.

Denis Dzidic, Executive Director of BIRN BiH, said the project was implemented according to GMR’s methodology and was a learning process for the newsroom, which focuses on topics like transitional justice and war crimes.

“In the next month, BIRN will publish such ownership databases in all countries in the region, so it will be interesting to compare the data,” Dzidic said.

Nafisa Hasanova and Lea Auffarth of GMR explained that the project has been implemented in more than 25 countries and that it was interesting to work simultaneously on databases in Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo. They began working on the project eight years ago, when media ownership was not such an important topic.

Following the presentation of the Database, a panel discussion on “Ownership and Transparency of Media Ownership in BiH” was held.

Mediacenter’s Executive Director, Maida Muminovic, said the Database demonstrates the importance of regulation in the field of transparency of media ownership, noting that regulation is not an easy task, which is perhaps why it is being delayed.

She said no solution currently requires active transparency of the media in Bosnia and that while many newsrooms have no problem in sharing data, the ones that do have a problem are under no obligation to do so.

She recalled the Draft Law on Transparency of Media Ownership and Advertising from 2018, which was prepared by the BH Journalists Association, Mediacentar, Press and Online Media Council, and JaBiHEU organization, mapping areas that need to be regulated, which can serve as a good foundation for regulation.

She explained that the Draft Law would limit the concentration of ownership, propose the establishment of media records, define conflicts of interest and require transparency, as well as data about advertisers and donors.

“We call for careful consideration of the Draft Law on Transparency. It is important that we all take part in the process, precisely because of these situations that are happening. I think some newsrooms stand on the sidelines and keep silent for a reason, because this type of transparency isn’t in their favour,” Muminovic said.

Aladin Abdagic, member of the Governing Board of the Press and Online Media Council in BiH and editor-in-chief of the Center for Investigative Journalism, stated the importance of regulation in media transparency, as its absence has led to the current anarchy in the media.

He said the CIN collaborated with individual media, but in many cases they did not even know who they were communicating with. He said media ownership was being hidden, leading to abuse, mostly by online portals. He also said that many journalists did not respect basic journalistic principles – and that the fact that the media community in Bosnia was very much divided represented a problem.

Political advisor to the Special Representative of the European Union in BiH Danijel Kovacevic reflected on the Database, saying the investigation had demonstrated that not all commercial media represented a problem, but online media exclusively.

“We have over 400 online media, as shown in research from 2019, and active transparency exits in only 18 per cent of them, if we only speak about the most-read ones. This is worrying and it also concerns the importance of the road to the EU, where legislation plays a great role,” he said. The Draft Law on Transparency of Media Ownership was important, not only because of Brussels, but primarily because of citizens, he added.

BIRN BiH Assistant Editor Wins Srdjan Aleksic Award

Haris Rovcanin won this year’s regional award in the ‘Contribution to the Community’ category for his work on the Database of Judicially Established Facts about the War in Bosnia.

The jury for the award found that Haris Rovcanin’s work “exceeds the usual scope of journalistic work”.

“He has made the Database of Judicially Established Facts about the War in BiH extremely educational, viewable and alive, adjusting it to the visual sensibility of young generations,” the jury wrote in its explanation.

It added  that, “in societies burdened with nationalism, his work represents a huge and permanent contribution to combating the manipulation of the war past”.

Rovcanin said he felt honoured that the five-member jury of this year’s Srdjan Aleksic Regional Award had selected him.

“The work on the Database of Judicially Established Facts represents a huge and permanent contribution to combating the manipulation of the war past,” he said.

“Among other things, the Database was created with an idea to finally put an end to manipulations of the war and court verdicts dealing with the subject, relativization of the past and using only the parts suitable at a certain moment, while denying the others,” he added.

“The award means a lot to me because a lot of effort has been invested in it, alongside months of work and, particularly, attempts to find ways to adjust it to young people, so they too find it useful,” Rovcanin continued.

He also said the award will be an additional incentive to his future work.

The Database of Judicially Determined Facts is a project of BIRN BiH supported by the United Nations Democracy Fund, aimed at creating fact-based sources of information, which can be used for educational and informational purposes, thus contributing to combating disinformation and to improving media literacy.

BIRN BiH previously donated the content of the Database to the Memorial Fund of Sarajevo Canton public institution, for educational and scientific-investigative purposes, as well as for the establishment of a museum of suffering, also signing a Memorandum of Cooperation with the Ministry of Education of Tuzla Canton, which covers use of the Database in the teaching process as material in history classes.

In October, Rovcanin and Melisa Foric-Plasto gave training to history teachers from Sarajevo on the use of the Database in classes, based on a cooperation agreement with the Institute for Development of Pre-University Education of Sarajevo Canton.

Rovcanin previously won second prize in the Fetisov International Award in 2021 in the “Outstanding Contribution to Peace” category for a series of four articles.

He was a part of BIRN BiH’s team, which in 2020 won a special European Press Prize for “effort and success in ensuring justice for war crimes victims”, for longstanding professional and continuous reporting on most sensitive topics.

Besides Rovcanin, this year’s award winners also include KRIK journalist from Belgrade Bojana Jovanovic in the category “For Courage”, and Portal Novosti in the category “For the Media”.

This year, the jury consisted of Ana Hegedis Lalic from Serbia, Slavica Lukic and Boris Pavelic from Croatia, Vladan Micunovic from Montenegro and Borislav Kontic from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The award is given for a professional and continuous reporting on marginalized and vulnerable groups in Bosnian society and for development of socially responsible journalism.

This year’s awards ceremony is organised by the Helsinki Parliament of Citizens Banja Luka, Peace Building Network, Independent Society of Journalists of Vojvodina, Media Institute of Montenegro and Association for Promotion of Medica Culture, Art and Tolerance – Lupiga – “the world seen through the common eyes”, from Croatia.

The award ceremony will take place in Banja Luka on the International Day of Human Rights, December 10, as part of the Days of Srdjan Aleksic events.

Aida Trepanic

Aida joined BIRN BiH in September 2020 as an intern and data journalist and has been working as a full-time journalist for Detektor (BIRN BiH) since July 2021.

She is focused on public procurements, war-crime trials, digital   rights and corruption and is the author of two investigations on the judiciary. Aida also participated in “The Lives Behind the Fields of Death”, a project by the Srebrenica Memorial Center and BIRN BiH, which filmed 100 testimonies from surviving witnesses of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide.

She is a co-writer of publications on cybersecurity and its correlation with human rights and gender and is also involved in a project of mapping digital rights violations in BiH. She participated in writing the digital rights violations annual report for 2023. In cooperation with Global Media Registry and BIRN BiH she worked on the Media Ownership Monitor database, which aims to shed light on the risks to media pluralism.

Meet the People Behind BIRN: Lamija Grebo

Each month, BIRN introduces you to a different member of its team. For October, meet Lamija Grebo, a BIRN BiH Journalist.

Lamija joined BIRN BiH in January 2014 as a web archive assistant and intern. She wanted to contribute to the betterment of society and to changes in the postwar country and was recently awarded by the EU. Let’s meet her!

  1. Why did you decide to become a journalist?

I became a journalist probably because I wanted somehow to contribute to the betterment of society and to the changes we faced as a postwar country. I guess that’s something that motivated most of my colleagues in those early days. Love for this job, even with all the difficulties, is something that still makes me want to do my job the best I can.

  1. What was the most challenging situation during your career so far?

I can’t think of a specific one, but I think it is normal that now and then, with the situation in the country, region, or even on a global level, you ask yourself, is it all in vain, is it worth it, if they come, then why are the changes so slow? The stories that we do are worth it. They matter and should be told. The people we talk about within our stories should have a way for their voices to be heard, and we can give them that space and tell their stories in the most professional way.

  1. What are the three words that should describe journalism?

Truth, freedom, professionalism.

  1. You recently won the EU Investigative Journalism Award for an investigation into court verdicts over the past ten years for hate crimes (but that’s not the only award you won). Can you tell us more about this and its importance?

This is my first individual award that I share with my deputy editor, Džana Brkanić. For its groundbreaking work in covering transitional justice topics, BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina was given the European Press Prize Special Award for 2020, so that is the one that I share with all my coworkers.

When it comes to the EU Investigative Journalism Award for 2023, Džana and I appreciate that the jury recognized the importance of our investigative story. Many hours of browsing through hundreds of court and prosecutorial decisions, numerous queries, and interviews with experts, but also with our fellow citizens who have still not seen justice after 20 years, stand behind this investigation. The value of the award is reflected in the additional visibility of investigative stories, which bring changes to society.

The awarded investigative story is a multimedia data research, which showed that hate crimes were mostly sanctioned with suspended sentences, with only one-quarter of those convicted being imprisoned, and investigations in some cases taking more than 20 years.

Suspended Sentences Do not Prevent the Spread of Hate” was based on verdicts passed down before all courts in Bosnia over ten years. It also revealed that there was no unified system for registering such crimes, which has made the monitoring and investigating of those cases more difficult.

  1. Do you have a story that you feel especially proud of, and what do you like most in your job?

Over the past almost ten years, there have been a lot of stories, and I take special pride in all of my stories. Most of my stories are about transitional justice, war crimes, and how the war affected and still affects people’s lives 30 years afterward. Every time I do a story and see that I have justified the trust that the people I’ve talked to gave me, I feel very proud. These are very delicate stories, and their importance for our society is enormous. After some of my stories were published, some indictments were filed for war crimes. A permanent exhibition is opened in Srebrenica Memorial Center as a part of the project I was involved in called “The lives behind the fields of death,” where we filmed testimonies of surviving witnesses of the 1995 genocide – a project BIRN BiH did with the Srebrenica Memorial Centre.

  1. What is your advice to someone who wants to work as an investigative journalist in our region?

Working on investigative stories is not an easy job, but with a lot of professionalism, courage, and knowledge, it is a rewarding one. Ask for help from your coworkers and editors, stick to our professional standards and ethics, tell those important stories, and try to make a tiny shift in our society.

Three-Day Training on Human Rights in Digital Space in Bosnia

BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina, BIRN BiH, in collaboration with local and foreign experts, held a three-day training in Bjelasnica on human rights and security in the digital space, online violence, content regulation and reporting on those topics. Over 20 journalists and representatives of nongovernmental organisations attended.

The training was held from September 29 to October 1, 2023. Over the three days, the participants became familiar with the operations of the Internet and its networks and learned from experts about the violations of rights in digital space and questionable policies.

Participants spoke with attorney Aleksandar Jokic about the legal framework for freedom of speech and legal reviews of digital surveillance.

Hvale vale, the Association for Progressive Communications, spoke about gender rights and sexuality in digital space, while the prosecutor of the Bosnian Federation entity’s Herzegovina-Neretva canton, Kemal Kasumovic, shared practical examples that can be used by citizens, journalists and activists.

The training focused on understanding human rights in the digital sphere, such as privacy, safety, violence against women and marginalized groups, content regulation, malign foreign influence through propaganda and manipulation, as well as other relevant topics.

The participants were presented with the Second Report on Cyber-Security Threats in BiH, covering the period of the first eight months of 2023, which showed that the country’s Cyber Security Excellence Centre recorded 15.4 million attacks in Bosnia over that timeframe.

Most of the attacks were directed against private telephone networks, which may incur high costs for private companies and slow down the work of state institutions. Institutional response to those attacks was minimal, the report said.

During a training on problems faced while doing investigations and ways for overcoming them, as well as on how to ultimately publish a multimedia story, journalists of BIRN BiH were among the speakers, sharing with the participants information on the use of open-source tools for searching social networks and methods for verifying and fact-checking of stories. The participants were also presented with ways to create multimedia content.

At the end of the training, the participants presented their ideas for stories and other content, which will be implemented with BIRN’s help, with mentor and financial support.

All the training participants were enabled to attend or follow the Internet Governance Forum, which was held in Bosnia following a several-year break.

Forum participants adopted numerous conclusions on internet governance and human rights, cyber-security and ways to counter genocide denial, glorification of war crimes and hate on the Internet. These will be presented at the Global Forum of Japan.

Internet Governance Forum Identifies Alarming Trends and Offers Recommendations to Improve Cyber Space in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) remains one of the least equipped countries in the Western Balkans to fight cyberattacks.

This was just one of the findings to emerge from the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which was held in Sarajevo recently after a five-year hiatus. During the event, numerous conclusions were reached regarding internet management and human rights, cyber security, and ways to combat genocide denial, the glorification of war crimes, and hatred on the internet. These conclusions will be presented at a global forum in Japan.

The IGF provided an international platform for discussions and collaboration on issues related to the development of information society, bringing together representatives of various governmental, non-governmental and international organizations and institutions in Sarajevo to brainstorm practical ideas for advancing cyber security in BiH.

Julian Reilly, the British ambassador to BiH, underscored the significance of the forum, which was supported by the British Embassy, emphasizing its focus on crucial societal challenges facing the country. He placed particular emphasis on the issue of cyber security, which affects not only the authorities but also businesses and the general public.

“One proof of this is the 15 million attempted cyberattacks that took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the last few months. The forum will identify potential solutions and opportunities to address these attacks,” stated Reilly. He also noted the special attention given to other critical topics at the IGF, including abuse, gender-based violence, historical revisionism, and genocide denial, all of which persist in the online sphere.

The resident coordinator of the United Nations in BiH, Ingrid Macdonald, expressed her organization’s satisfaction at being able to contribute to the forum and called on people around the world to unite to improve the internet.

“Our lives have been completely changed by the internet and what it represents in our lives. It’s very important that we recognize the opportunities and the risks, because despite it affecting our lives every day, cyberspace remains largely unregulated and that is problematic,” said Macdonald.

She pointed out that while the internet serves as a platform for public discussion and increased access to information, it is frequently misused to spread misinformation, discrimination, hate speech, revisionism, and various forms of violence. These narratives, she observed, are particularly pervasive in BiH, where hate speech encompasses the denial of war crimes and the Srebrenica genocide, necessitating a broader dialogue to on issues that divide people in the country and hinder reconciliation.

In a video message, Melissa Fleming, UN Under-Secretary for Global Communications, expressed concern about the alarming trends, especially in light of the rise of artificial intelligence, which is developing more rapidly than any previous technological innovation.

“This is just one of the reasons that the UN is now addressing the information crisis as a global priority, dramatically scaling up its response,” Fleming noted, adding that her team is developing a code of conduct for information integrity on digital platforms, with the goal of creating a global “gold standard.”

Denis Džidić, director of the Balkan Research Network of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIRN BiH), emphasized the importance of events like these is important because they expose the alarming trends that BiH has been facing over the past two years, especially those pertaining to cyber threats and the digital rights of citizens.

“The idea of this approach is to involve the entire community in resolving the issue of cyber threats, and violations of digital rights online, in order to come up with better solutions and exert pressures on government institutions to effectively tackle these issues,” explained Džidić.

In the course of several panel discussions on these topics, attendees had the opportunity to hear from domestic and foreign experts in information and telecommunication systems, representatives of the judiciary, journalists, and human rights activists, as well as representatives of the academic community and advocates for the protection of freedom of thought and expression.

During the plenary session, participants held an important discussion about the lack of a systemic approach to internet governance and human rights issues in BiH, a global challenge which is shared by other countries worldwide.

Arben Murtezić, director of the Center for the Education of Judges and Prosecutors of the Federation of BiH, argued that this country is likely the least equipped in the region to combat cyber-attacks, pointing to the absence of a number of strategic and legal documents necessary for this struggle. Speaking about practical attacks, such as the one on the Parliamentary Assembly, he noted that even larger and better prepared states struggle to find solutions. Murtezić suggested that embracing knowledge and experience from the private sector could provide viable solutions to these complex challenges.

“In today’s world, if you don’t have a CERT [Computer Incident Response Team], it’s like not having a State Department. That’s such an important point,” Murtezić added.

The importance of having such a body in BiH was also emphasized by Jurica Banić from the Cyber Security Excellence Center (CSEC), who believes that the complexity of state administration effectively hinders the establishment of such a team in the country.

“We have so many levels of government where everyone wants to grab their share of the pie. I’m not sure what pie, I think we all have the same interest – the protection of all, including the nation as a whole,” he remarked.

Sabina Baraković, an expert advisor in the Information and Telecommunications Systems Sector of the BiH Ministry of Security, pointed out that that efforts to establish CERT have been ongoing for years, but that several decisions stand between BiH and the finalization of this important body. She cited the major challenge of recruiting experts, given that the civil service isn’t attractive to IT experts, who find better conditions in the private sector.

The central focus of this session was on human rights issues in the online sphere. Lejla Huremović, an activist for the human rights of the LGBTIQ+ community, highlighted the numerous hateful narratives, usually with right-wing nationalism and religious undertones, are used to spread animosity.

“They’re part of the nationalist package that has been initiated and given a green light through the political narratives in our public space, emanating from those in power,” explained Huremović.

Sead Turčalo, the dean of Political Sciences at the University of Sarajevo, spoke about the connection between these attacks, their real sources, and their impacts. He said that the content altering our emotional relationship with reality has the greatest influence on various online incidents.

He described cyber security as collateral damage of the political dynamics in BiH and stressed the need to separate this issue from the narratives of everyday politics.

The conclusions drawn from the day’s forum on online challenges in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including those related to cyber incidents and human rights, will be presented at the global IGF in Kyoto, under the of the UN.

During the panel discussion on internet violence, participants emphasized the need to involve diverse stakeholders in prevention, protection, criminal sanctions, and policy coordination. They advocated for a firm judicial response that places the victims of violence at the center of all policies and approaches.

In the session on historical revisionism, genocide denial, and glorification of war criminals, the failure to prosecute these cases was attributed to political as well as judicial factors, including the tendency of prosecutors to yield under public pressure. The panelists expressed alarm at the normalization of these narratives, emphasizing the need for media regulation, timely convictions for the criminal offense of genocide denial, and a multi-perspective approach to educate citizens and rebuild trust in institutions.

The panel on cyber security in BiH stressed the urgency of forming a CERT and addressing the major dissonance between legislative and executive authorities.  The participants concluded that while BiH is facing intense and complex cyber-attacks, the country must contend with numerous limitations. Notably, the absence of systems for exchanging information and knowledge hinders the ability to learn from the attacks and incidents that have already occurred.

The organizing committee of the 2023 IGF Sarajevo comprises BIRN BiH, CSEC, BHNIX.ba, the Center for the Education of Judges and Prosecutors of the Federation, the Sarajevo University Faculty of Political Sciences, and Logosoft. The forum is supported by the Internet Society Foundation, the British Embassy in BiH, and the Hanns Seidel Foundation in Sarajevo.

Reports from individual panels will be available on the Forum website.