INTERVIEW Gojković-Arbutina: The non-governmental organizations in R. Srpska will be designated foreign agents by law

If you say to an average person that someone is an agent of foreign influence, then s/he will think that “the agent” is here to disrupt the institutions, do something bad against Republika Srpska, and it practically creates a stigma – as though all the non-governmental organizations have ganged up to destroy the state institutions, says Sandra Gojković-Arbutina, Editor-in-Chief of “Nezavisne Novine” in an interview for Meta.mk

Фото: Мета.мк

Criminalizing once again the insult and slander, designating all non-governmental organizations that receive foreign donations (including the organizations working in journalism) as “agents of foreign influence” and establishing a Media Register, where the state decides who may or may not perform a journalistic activity.

These are just some of the draft-law provisions that present a serious threat to media freedom in Republika Srpska, which is part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Media and civic associations are under enormous pressure, and some of them might close down completely.

Meta.mk spoke about these issues with Sandra Gojković-Arbutina, Editor-in-Chief of “Nezavisne Novine”. We mentioned the latest blow to the media in Macedonia – the verdict against IRL by the Basic Civil Court, which thereby decided that non-governmental organizations cannot perform journalistic activities and that, “the journalists of IRL were not journalists at all”. This did not surprise Arbutina much, because, as she puts it, this kind of pressure in Republika Srpska started suddenly and spread throughout the entire system of legal solutions, causing obstacles for the journalists to work freely.

All this, undoubtedly, mimics the expanded law on “foreign agents” in Russia. A few days ago, quoting Deputy Justice Minister Oleg Sviridenko, Radio Free Europe reported that sanctions of up to 500,000 Rubles (5,660 Dollars) will be imposed to third parties that “with or without intention” promote or disseminate materials produced by “foreign agent” subjects without proper attribution.

For TASS, Sviridenko stated that Russian Justice Minister, Konstantin Chuychenko will sign an appropriate order towards the end of the month, followed by a Government decree enabling Russian authorities to impose sanctions on “libraries, books, universities, televisions” as well as on “ordinary people”.

The current law enabled labeling media and individual journalists as “foreign agents”, including those who did not receive foreign funding but were “under foreign influence”, demanding they mark all their material as “produced by a foreign agent”. In the meantime, more than 30 staff members of Radio Free Europe have been denoted as “foreign agents” by the Russian Justice Ministry.

All this seems to be fast approaching Republika Srpska, as the Editor-in-Chief of “Nezavisne Novine” presented.

How advanced is the procedure of adopting the law according to which every citizen association’s project approved from abroad or funded with foreign money will have to be designated “an agent of foreign influence”?
Gojković-Arbutina: The Draft Law on the Special Register and Publicity of the Operations of Non-Governmental Organizations is in parliamentary procedure. A public debate will follow, after which the draft law will go to the vote in the Parliament. This will most probably take place at the end of December. The law follows the amending the Criminal Code that made slander a criminal offense, which is extremely indicative.

What is key in the law defining “agents of foreign influence”?
Gojković-Arbutina: The non-governmental organizations are already regulated by many laws. They must report their operations to all agencies – for the taxes, for their financing – in fact, they are subject to the same laws as any other company. That said, no donor wants to work with a civic organization that has not legally covered finances. The donors demand transparent financial management – where and how all the funds are spent. All the financial reports of the non-governmental organizations are publicly available on their websites.

In addition, most of the smaller news sites are registered as citizens’ associations, since the registration process is much easier and less documentation is required, although they pay all the contributions for their employees, including taxes, etc. However, there seems to be one big problem, which as I see it, is very discriminatory – the formulation “agent of foreign influence”.

If you are a non-governmental organization that has received a donation from Sweden, Norway, USA, Germany, Switzerland, etc., and, if for example, you work on environmental issues and you want to organize a river-cleaning initiative, you need to approach the Government and the Environment Ministry saying: ”The rivers must be cleaned up and that is your competence”, thereby exerting pressure. Now with this law, if you are dealing with environmental issues and you approach any governmental institution with a request for a river-cleaning action, that might be interpreted as political pressure. This law bans the political action of non-governmental organizations, thereby closing up both the field and purpose of their action, since even the appeal to the Ministry of Environment for cleaning the rivers can be understood as political action, as the Ministry is part of the Government.

The draft law defines the activities related to science, culture, social protection and healthcare, sport, consumer protection, national minority rights and rights of disabled persons, environmental protection, fight against corruption, philanthropy, volunteering, and informing as non-political activities.

Interestingly, the human rights or the rule of law, the areas of action of a significant number of the active civic organizations in Republika Srpska are not included in these exceptions.

What could the consequences be?
Gojković-Arbutina: This will practically legalize the current labels – “foreign mercenaries”, “traitors”, Sorosoids” etc. All this now will become part of one label – “agent of foreign influence”. An educated person might understand the situation, but if you tell the average person that someone is an agent of foreign influence, then s/he will believe that such a person or organization is here to destroy the institutions, act against Republika Srpska, thereby practically creating the stigma that all citizen’s associations are acting together to dismantle the state institutions.

What do you think is the motive for all this?
Gojković-Arbutina: As I already mentioned, slander is now a criminal act. We were first in the region to decriminalize slander. That happened in the 1990s, and we all celebrated it. After more than 20 years, we managed to make it a criminal act again, which is opposed to EU requirements – decriminalization of slander, because anything less than that is simply not civilized. This took us back 100 years.

And now there is an attack on the civic sector. That is a very hindering environment for their work and I think that after this, many of them will give up, and many will not be able to operate under such pressure. The Ministry of Justice will be competent for civil society organizations, and it may perform extraordinary inspections, inspect documentation without prior notice, ban their operation, etc. Now, if you have some kind of a flyer developed as part of a project – or whatever, any kind of document – you will need to clearly notify that you are an “agent of foreign influence”.

And the civic sector is now under attack. That is a very hindering environment for their work and I think that after this, many of them will give up / Photo: Meta.mk

Still, why would someone take such a step?
Gojković-Arbutina: It is considered there is large influx of foreign money. But that is why non-governmental organizations exist, since they are not funded by the budget.

I am not saying that some do not, maybe, have different aims – two or three aims – but we cannot treat all of them the same. You know, we are a small community of 200,000 people and such labeling can be difficult for those who are actually performing this activity, but also for their children and families.

Did you protest the draft law?
Gojković-Arbutina: It is difficult for me to lay down all of the responses. There are hundreds of them… as journalistic vocation, as journalists, as non-governmental organizations… we even engaged legal experts to avoid making layman claims. Paragraph by paragraph, they revealed the ethical and human rights violations. Nothing happened however.

The public debate was organized just for the sake of organizing it. The legal experts said that the law was so bad that it could not be improved at all, not even by submitting amendments.

Are online media regulated in your case?
Gojković-Arbutina: No. Portals are not regulated by any legal framework. The same package contains the Criminal Code, the Law on Foreign Agents and the Law on Media which will be passed after 27 years. The current law recognizes only televisions, newspapers or radios, and a part of the law says that the entire print-run can be confiscated if estimated necessary. We have been asking for a law for twenty years without getting it. And now, after these two, we are getting a new Media Law.

What does this law provide?
Gojković-Arbutina: There is an Advisory Group that will ask us what we want. But, after these two laws, I don’t believe in a good solution, because I see this as a package – the systemic package that concludes an entire story.

All of these laws are not in line with European legislation, but still they were adopted, and we acquired EU candidate-country status. The moment when we were fighting the most for these laws we acquired candidate-country status and now we are going backwards.

The new law will encompass the portals as well. We demand, however, transparent ownership. They didn’t like that, but we think that it is key to know who stands behind a given medium. On the other hand, they want to develop a Medium Register which is also a type of threat with elimination options. For example, if a medium cannot be established by a non-governmental organization, then that medium will not be able to be entered into the Register.

The Register is developed by the state; therefore, they will not be able to attend public events and press conferences of institutions, which is also dangerous.

We need a media law, but I am afraid that after these two laws, nothing good can be expected.

What is your motivation to work in the area of journalism now?
Gojković-Arbutina: This has been going on for a year now. We are quite exhausted of repeating how bad, dangerous, and undemocratic that is. When we talk about criminalization, we try to explain to people that such a thing affects everybody – all those who will write something on the social networks, and even if uttered in a café with two witnesses you might end up with a criminal offence for libel. The public thought that the media were just panicking, but no… that affects everybody. It applies to all people. The sanctions are not that high, but the fines in this case are not important.

In our case, the criminal procedure lasts 3-5 years, while the plaintiff is entitled to demand confiscation of equipment and ban operation… For example, you will not be able to win a tender since not having a criminal procedure is a requirement. Our medium survives thanks to announcements. Hence, that would practically paralyze us for several months, not to mention the small media outlets that live from advertisements.

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