Interview with Ljiljana Zurovac

Ljiljana Zurovac, Executive Director of the Press Council in Bosnia and Herzegovina. © UNESCO

Ljiljana Zurovac is the Executive Director of the Press Council in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In an interview with UNESCO she explains how her press council has addressed the issue of hate speech with a campaign called “You Are Not Invisible” focusing on hate speech in anonymous comments on web portals. She also shares some of the challenges they encountered in the new digital environment.

How can media promote a culture of tolerance and peace?

Media coverage of human diversity is definitely a key in the promotion of tolerance and peace. If journalists follow ethical guidelines, they will not perpetuate stereotypes and prejudices but rather counter the spread of ignorance, intolerance and hatred.

How is hate speech defined in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

The issue of hate speech is regulated by Article 145a of the Criminal Code of BiH according to which “whoever publicly incites or inflames hatred, discord or hostility among the constituent peoples and others who live in Bosnia and Herzegovina, shall be punished by imprisonment for a term between three months and three years”. Despite this seemingly clear wording vis-à-vis hate speech, I believe that this definition is not plain enough with regard to the international standards on freedom of expression. “Incitement” is an overly vague term that needs to be specified. To avoid the misuse of hate speech laws to suppress critical or opposing voices, states should establish specific limits that define hate speech, including the severity, intent, content, extent, likelihood or probability of harm occurring.

What is the added value of self-regulation when addressing hate speech?

Legal prohibition is just one element of a solution. Laws prohibiting hate speech are necessary but they will not erase hate and the use of hate speech in a society. Media self-regulation with journalistic code of ethics and press councils are part of the non-legal measures adding to the fight against discrimination and intolerance. In addition, media self-regulation is considered the most free-speech friendly form of media regulation as it helps preserve editorial freedom from State interference.

What has the Internet changed regarding the spread of hate speech in your country?

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, hate speech is mainly based on ethno-national identities and inter-ethnic relations. With the Internet, hate speech has not disappeared but only changed its form. While journalists used to impart hate speech, this type of speech is now rather emanating from civil society, in particular from Internet users. There are many things that people do not dare to say in real life yet they dare to do so in the Internet. It seems that people are not aware that rules and regulations also apply to digital communications and that they can be prosecuted for hate speech on the Internet.

How do you address the issue of hate speech spread by online media?

First of all, we improved our press code in order to ensure that journalists do not perform hate speech in their reports. We also adapted our press code to the digital era and included online media in titles and texts of the code.

In addition, our press council has adopted some recommendations concerning users’ comments. It has been agreed that editors of web portals wishing to be considered as media should not be responsible for comments posted on their platform at the moment of their posting. However, if the comment contains a defamatory statement, or worse, hate speech, the editor shall remove it from its portal. If this is not done, the editor may become responsible for that comment.

The main challenge has been that while most media are keen to provide readers with the possibility to react in order to attract more readerships, they have only a very small team to monitor user-generated content.

Did you develop some activities to tackle hate speech stemming from civil society?

People tend to confuse offensive speech and hate speech. Our press council has organized awareness-raising campaigns among civil society to explain the differences between hate speech and offensive speech. We also launched a campaign called “You are not invisible”, which creates a platform of cooperation between the press council, the police and the judiciary to prevent the spread of hate speech on web portals through user-generated content.

How do you deal with hate speech found in anonymous comments of Internet users?

Last year we received around 30 complaints on the alleged use of hate speech. There were physical threats found on some web portals, and some targeted persons contacted our press council asking for some protection. We reported these cases to the Police State Agency that got in touch with the editors of the website spreading online hate speech. In doing so, the IP-address of Internet users behind such speech can be discovered. Several cases are currently processed before the court. The police appreciated this strategy as they do not have capacities to monitor the online sphere. They are glad if the press council reports the most serious threats. We also organized seminars gathering judges and representatives of the police to enhance the cooperation between them and the press council.

A remaining issue is that not all websites are registered, preventing the identities of authors and commentators on unregistered portals from being exposed. Citizens can’t complain about these portals because there is no contact information. 

Should press councils deal with all kind of expression online?

There are concerns on how to deal best with the Internet. Since journalists are now online, people tend to think that press councils should deal with all kinds of expression online, but I disagree with this. Facebook and social networks are not under the jurisdiction of the Press Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and neither are blogs or discussion forums. Our press council only deals with journalistic content. We can only accept a complaint about a media that claims to be a media outlet and aims at providing information to civil society.

I believe that press councils should be careful. If they start to work with all kinds of expression on the internet, there will be confusion. It is risky for a press council not to separate journalistic work from the expression of an opinion on a blog or a social network. An opinion does not have to be based on facts and on different sources of information. No one sharing an opinion online is obliged to follow a code of ethics or professional standards. However, the law should be respected. In that respect, no one is entitled to spread hate speech.

If people are dissatisfied with the work of a media outlet, they can contact us. If they are dissatisfied with someone’s opinion expressed on the Internet, they can always file a lawsuit.

How is UNESCO contributing to the success of your Press Council?

Through the project “Media Accountability in South East Europe”, UNESCO is contributing to a better dialogue and understanding between the media, the civil society and the legal sphere. This is achieved, among others, through awareness-raising campaigns all over the country to better inform the civil society about their rights to complain to the press council and through the funding of a weekly radio show called “Your Voice in the Media” dedicated to media freedom and media ethics issues.

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