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Bosnian Judiciary Restricts Information on War Crime Cases

8. November 2018.10:34
Bosnian courts and prosecution offices are restricting access to information on cases, making it harder for media to report on war crimes and corruption cases, although the law states that trials are open to the public.

This post is also available in: Bosnian (Bosnian)

Fifteen years after the judiciary was reformed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, courts and prosecutions do not apply uniform rules on transparency, so indictments at the state level cannot be accessed, audio and video recordings of hearings that are made available are only ten minutes long, and journalists still encounter delays and obstructions in getting responses to their inquiries.

Journalists and editors say that the judiciary is increasingly closed to the media, which makes it impossible to prepare high-quality reports on judicial processes involving war crimes, corruption and organised crime.

Mervan Mirascija of the Open Society Fund, which monitors the country’s judiciary, said that the transparency of the judiciary is “the key condition for the work of courts and prosecutions”.

“We live in a country that is still scarred, 25 years after the end of the war. We must have judicial truth in order to put this society at ease and be able to look into the future, but, unfortunately, the level of accessibility of information is decreasing each year. That is a worrying phenomenon,” Mirascija said.

Neither the Bosnian state prosecution and court, nor the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council, which oversees the country’s justice system, agreed to talk to BIRN about the transparency issue for this article.

Lack of indictments undermines coverage

Vildana Kurtic, a journalist with Federal TV, a Bosnian public broadcaster, said it is impossible for journalists working for the electronic media to report on proceedings without having access to indictments.

“When a journalist comes to a trial for the first time, it is almost impossible for him to do good coverage without having read the indictment,” Kurtic explained.

“Meanwhile if we do not have the indictment, we may not be able to comprehend what some situation described in the courtroom is about. If a defendant is entering his plea and says ‘I admit guilt on count three’, the term ‘count three’ means nothing to us if we do not have the indictment in front of us,” she added.

From the establishment of the state prosecution in 2003 to the spring of 2012, all indictments were uploaded to the internet and submitted to journalists, accompanied by a media announcement.

In the early years of the state prosecution, while foreign prosecutors still worked for it, it was so transparent that it provided a list of evidence alongside the indictment, as well as an annex entitled ‘The Results of the Investigation’, which contained an explanation of prosecutorial decisions.

But transparency decreased in 2012, when the state-level Agency for the Protection of Personal Data told the state court and prosecution that they could not publish all data automatically.

The state prosecution then removed all indictments from its website, while the court adopted revisions to the rules on access to information, which implied the use of initials instead of full names in court documents and the issuing of ten-minute audio and video recordings from trials rather than full versions of proceedings, which significantly reduced the material available to reporters.

In response to the change, BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina launched a campaign entitled ‘Stop Censorship’, which was supported by international organisations like the International Commission for Missing Persons, ICMP, and associations of Bosnian war victims, such as Women – Victims of War.

The ICMP coordinator for the Western Balkans, Matthew Holliday, said he supported the campaign because it was of crucial importance for the public to have accurate information on war-crime trials.

“The media plays a key role in communicating the actions undertaken to ensure justice for victims of war crimes or violations of human rights and informing the public about it,” Holliday said.

Associations representing war victims and other injured parties are most affected by the judiciary’s decision to restrict information to the media, said Bakira Hasecic, the president of Women – Victims of War.

“I think that both the court and prosecution are closed to the public, the non-governmental sector and ordinary citizens to a large extent. I think you should ask them why. They obviously do not want the public to be informed, knowing they did a lot to hide the identities of perpetrators of crimes and anonymise them,” Hasecic said.

As a result of public pressure, the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council formed a working group to analyse the outcome of the ‘Stop Censorship’ campaign and decided that anonymisation could not be applied in cases in which there was a justified public interest – in other words, in cases dealing with war crimes, terrorism and corruption.

The council also concluded that there were no obstacles to publishing confirmed indictments. Despite that, the state prosecution has never published a single indictment since then.

One of the working group members, Sabina Sarajlija, a prosecutor from Sarajevo, argued that judicial institutions should publish confirmed indictments.

“These are indictments have already been subject to judicial review. I believe that prosecution offices should assume the obligation to do it, at least in complex cases and in cases in which the public is interested,” Sarajlija said.

Although more than three years have passed since the issuance of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council’s recommendations, the prosecution declined to say whether it is planning to publish indictments any time soon.

Video restrictions hamper electronic media

The Bosnian state court returned verdicts to its website after the ‘Stop Censorship’ campaign, but continued the practice of giving only ten-minute extracts of audio and video recordings from courtrooms to the media.

Admir Arnautovic, spokesperson for the Tuzla Cantonal Prosecution, argued however that there is no reason for not giving entire recordings from hearings to the media, as happened prior to 2012.

“In certain situations, the media could even be allowed to bring in their equipment for making audio-visual, audio and video recordings,” Arnautovic suggested.

The video recordings currently being given to the media last for ten minutes at the maximum and, according to Kurtic, they are “unusable material”.

“It can happen that our journalists spend three or four hours in courtrooms and a cameraman even comes and waits in front of the courtroom in order to record at least one audio statement, but you just get a DVD containing ten minutes of a testimony which was maybe the least important on that day,” Kurtic said.

“Or you may get only one shot [from one single angle] depicting a witness testifying, which means you have around 20 seconds of material that can be used in the news,” she added.

Television editor Suzana Stambol pointed out that the regulations put electronic media at a disadvantage compared to text-based outlets.

“You can enter the courtroom, but you must not bring a voice recorder or phone. You can only take a pencil and paper,” Stambol said.

Meanwhile electronic media are only are supplied with “a DVD with pre-cut images which, in most cases, are not usable on TV”, she added.

Lawyer Nina Kisic suggested that the Bosnian state court should follow the example of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, which used to offer live coverage of hearings on its website with a half-hour delay and publish all court documents.

“In the last year and a half approximately, all trials have been published. So video recordings of all hearings have been uploaded to the website. There is also a court archive of all documents and all transcripts, which can be found on the ICTY website. I think the Bosnian state court should follow this good practice,” Kisic said.

No public oversight without media reporting

Journalists and editors claim that courts’ internal protocols on access to information for media have led to fewer reports about cases being published or broadcast.

They also raised concerns that the process of getting responses to their inquiries and arranging interviews with judicial officials has deteriorated.

Arnautovic claimed that some judicial officials were not properly trained to communicate with the media.

“They don’t know the structure of the media, the way it operates or how information should be released to the media. These people are often burdened with formal-legal language, so neither the media nor the public understand what they are talking about,” he said.

Stambol claimed that there are political motivations behind the unwillingness to make information about sensitive cases public.

“I think the non-transparency of the judiciary is a consequence of the role played by politics and of influence on the judiciary. It is actually in the interest of politicians to close the door for the media to courts and prosecutions, and to the judiciary as a whole, in order to prevent some important incidents or large-scale organised crimes in this country from being uncovered,” Stambol said.

Experts argued that if the country’s courts and prosecutor’s offices do not become more transparent about their work, it will not be possible for the media to fulfil its role as the only public outlet of information about judicial process.

“The media should contribute to the wider public’s monitoring of the work of the judiciary, it should be a corrective to our work, to point out the judiciary’s bad sides, but also make good outcomes popularly known. I believe that only media that do their job professionally, expertly and ethically can contribute to getting the right information based on verified facts to the general public,” Sarajlija said.

Mirascija argued that if information continues to be withheld, the public will remain uninformed about serious criminal cases.

He urged the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council to step in immediately and give all courts “an interpretation of its instructions on how to respect the principles of transparency”.

Emina Dizdarević

This post is also available in: Bosnian (Bosnian)