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Rising Above the Headlines: Protecting Press Freedom and Strengthening the Judiciary in the Western Balkans

22 February 2024

media freedom western balkans

Towards the end of 2023, the Netherlands Helsinki Committee (NHC) together with Free Press Unlimited (FPU) organised a second regional conference in Jahorina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which brought together more than 80 journalists and members of the judiciary from the Western Balkans, for a dialogue on “Strengthening Media Freedom in Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Serbia”.

Participants included high representatives from the judiciary, such as Sanela Gorusanovic-Butigan, the Vice-Chair of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Sabina Sarajlija, Chief Prosecutor of the Sarajevo Canton. We were also joined by active partners from the Bosnia and Herzegovina Journalists Association, the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia, the Centre for Judicial and Prosecutorial Training of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Centre for Judicial and Prosecutorial Training of the Republika Srpska, the Academy for Judges and Public Prosecutors of the Republic of North Macedonia and the Judicial Academy of the Republic of Serbia. The result was two productive days of dialogue on judicial transparency and responsible journalism in the region, and the need for the two communities to work together towards safeguarding media freedom in the region.

The opening keynote from Guy Berger, former UNESCO Director for Freedom of Expression, addressed both the judiciary and media being indispensable pillars for a society based upon the rule of law. It was followed by an in-depth presentation by Natalija Bratuljević, an independent consultant from Serbia who recognized the fact that there is dialogue today.

“Even when we disagree, we have the opportunity to sit down at the same table.”

The open and engaging keynotes set the tone for the rest of the conference, where participants reflected on why police, prosecutors and judges should recognize journalism as a public good and journalists’ safety as a prerogative for freedom of expression and access to information. Participants also discussed how to run an effective investigation of crimes committed against journalists and to prove an intention to murder a journalist beyond reasonable doubt. Finally, they looked at what it takes to create a culture of safety at the newsroom and within the journalists’ community and what can only be addressed through national safety mechanisms. Special concern was voiced regarding the use of Strategic Litigations of Public Participation (SLAPPs) to silence critical voices.

As one of the participants noted:

“The conferences, meetings and trainings we have together with journalists, such as this one, are invaluable to us. We listen to each other; get to know more about the (communications) problems the other faces. Working on strengthening the contacts between journalists and judiciary as everything we do is in the interest of the wider public – and that becomes clear through these types of shared exchanges.”

The NHC and FPU look forward to the third regional conference in North Macedonia in September 2024; continuing in the spirit of open communication across the respective professions, and are inspired by the commitment to human rights and freedom of expression as voiced by so many participants in Jahorina.

For more information, see the Outcome Statement of the meeting for our vision on the way forward.

More information on our initiative

Freedom of the media is one of the cornerstones to a well-functioning democracy, and journalists are vital watchdogs who make sure governments answer responsibly to the needs of citizens. Unfortunately, the media sector in Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Serbia is not always able to function safely and journalists have been harassed, attacked and killed for simply doing their job.

Our initiative “Strengthening Media Freedom in Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Serbia” combines training, advocacy and capacity strengthening of the judiciary and media to improve the capacity of the judicial sector to respond adequately to the threats journalists face, whilst at the same time improving the conditions under which the media operates. The Netherlands Helsinki Committee and Free Press Unlimited recognize the wide variety and diversity present in each of the participating countries, which calls for country-specific approaches. We work together with journalist associations – BH Journalists Association (BH Novinari), Association of Journalists of Macedonia (ЗНМ), Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS) and the Judicial Trainings Centres – Centre for Judicial and Prosecutorial Training of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (CEST BiH), Academy for Judges and Public Prosecutors of the Republic North Macedonia, Judicial Academy of the Republic of Serbia (Pravosudna Akademija). This initiative is funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands. As Henk van den Dool, the Ambassador of the Netherlands to Bosnia and Herzegovina, noted, “rule of law cannot exist without confidence in the judiciary and journalists are essential in breeding that trust.” To achieve our aims, the Netherlands Helsinki Committee and Free Press Unlimited work together with a number of Dutch institutional experts in this field, namely the Training and Study Centre for the Judiciary (Studiecentrum Rechtspleging), and the Netherlands Association of Journalists (Nederlandse Vereniging van Journalisten).