Public Interest Overcomes Private Interests

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The application of the existing Law on Free Access to Information of Bosnia and Herzegovina vary from one institution to another. One third of institutions respond to requests for access to information in accordance with the Law, while some do not respond at all.

When journalists request information, PR officers often ask them: “Why do you need it?; I do not understand what you want to receive from us; We have not received your request; I must ask my boss if I can give you an answer”.

After insisting on getting the information, which lasts for months in some cases, journalists manage to obtain the requested information from institutions, but it does not happen within the legally set deadline of 15 days.

These are some of the results of the application of the Law on Free Access to Information, which were presented at a conference organised by the Ombudsman of Bosnia and Herzegovina with support from the OSCE Mission in BiH.

Although their opinions are not harmonised, the Ombudsman noticed that the right to free access information was violated by the anonymisation of court decisions by the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As said by judge Hilmo Vucinic, the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina is exposed to criticism by the media, as well as experts and international officials, for implementing the anonymisation decision, which includes using initials instead of first and last names of indictees.  

Vucinic said that, for this reason the Court embarked on introducing revisions and amendments to its Rulebook on co-operation with the community.

“When the institution estimates that a court decision is of general interest for the public, it will allow its publishing. This means that verdicts of interest for the public and legal practice will be published. This certainly includes war crimes, organised crime, terrorism etc.,” judge Vucinic said.

Personal identification numbers, ID card numbers, drivers’ licence numbers and other documents’ numbers, as well as racial origin, political opinion, membership in a political party, sexual affiliation etc., contained in those verdicts, will not be published.

Vucinic said that the revisions to the Rulebook had still not been adopted, but the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina would do it in the upcoming period, because it had concluded that “public interest should overcome private interests”.

Anisa Suceska-Vekic, Director of BIRN in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said that verdicts had been anonymised for more than a year and that this had already had a harmful effect when it came to war crimes trials.

A provision, saying that court decisions in cases of general public interest, such as war crimes cases, organiaed crime cases and so on, which, according to an assessment by the relevant public body, were of general public interest, has become an integral part of the proposed revisions and amendments to the Law on Free Access to Information in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In terms of the proposed changes, a question arose as to whether the public bodies would be able to realistically assess what was of public interest and what was not.

Following a detailed discussion at the conference, it was concluded that it was necessary to strike a balance between the protection of privacy and public interests and the conduct training of information officers.  

“Nobody is against the improvement of the Law on Free Access to Information, if such a need exists. However, we call on the authorities to respect the international standards,” said Jasminka Dzumhur, Ombudsman in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The conference participants raised a question on publicity of trials for the media. According to the Criminal Code, all trials are public unless a decision is rendered to exclude the public due to protection of witnesses or similar measures.

Representatives of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina say that they issue ten-minute audio or video recordings to public in order to prevent witnesses from using statements contained in those recordings to prepare for their own testimonies.

Dzumhur pointed out that trials were public and that, in addition to testifying at trials, witnesses also gave statements during investigations. She said that trial chambers should determine whether a witness had changed his/her statement or not. 

The entire show is available to watch here:

The entire show is available to watch here:
The entire show is available to watch here: