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23 May 2013
Analysis

Information Law Changes Alarm Bosnian Journalists

Selma Učanbarlić BIRN BiH Sarajevo

Media groups say legal amendments aimed at protecting privacy will hinder investigations and pave the way to a new form of censorship.

Bosnian media organisations say planned amendments to the Law on Free Access to Information will limit access to information, prevent media investigations and effectively introduce a new form of censorship.

Bosnia’s Ministry of Justice of Bosnia and Herzegovina announced the Draft Law on Amendments to the Law on Free Access to Information in May.

Unlike the current law, which designates information a public good, the amended law appears to elevate protection of personal data above the right of access to information.

Under the new law, the public will be limited in obtaining information containing personal data with the aim of prioritising protection of privacy.

Therefore, critics say, all public institutions will be able to limit provision of information in order to protect personal data.

The new law “does not proceed from the fact that information is a public good that is at everyone’s disposal,” Jasminka Dzumhur, the Ombudsman for Human Rights in Bosnia, complains.

“It considers information containing personal data the property of the institution [in question],” she adds.
All information, as Dzumhur clarifies, are now public property. By the new law, information would become the property of the institution and could be banned just because it contains personal data.

“They are attempting to introduce a system in which information… is something hidden rather than a public good, as it should be,” Borka Rudic, Secretary General of the Association of Journalists, said.

Before the amendments of the law were proposed, the Bosnian judiciary had adopted a practice to protect personal data.

Bosnia’s State Court issued a decision last March to anonymize court documents, and audio and video materials are almost always provided for a period of ten minutes, although trials last for several hours.

The Prosecution of Bosnia and Herzegovina does not provide indictments at all. Such rules regarding the provision of information are also valid in some entity judicial institutions.

The “anonymization” of court documents came on the proposal of the Agency for Protection of Personal Data of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Although the media and NGO sector have condemned anonymization, which involves putting initials instead of full names and surnames on information, the Agency also initiated the amendments to the Law on Free Access to Information.

Mehmed Halilovic, an expert on media issues, says the proposed amendments will surely limit public access to information.

“The draft law will make non-disclosure of information the rule rather than the exception and this approach will no doubt pave the way for the authorities to abuse the law,” Halilovic said.

Petar Kovacevic, director of the Agency for Protection of Personal Data, says the proposed changes do not reverse the principle by which information held by the authorities is a public good that they should make available to the fullest extent.

The draft law also states that the authorities will not restrict access to information relating to use of public funds, or execution of public functions, as well as court decisions in cases of general importance.

However, many journalists still believe the adoption of the changes will give institutions the ability to manipulate or hide information.

“If we lose the ability to use provisions of the Law on Free Access to Information, we will lose a lot in terms of transparency in the work of certain institutions,” Rudic said.

Citing the fact that some documents of judicial institutions are already now inaccessible to the public, or “anonymized”, Rudic says the proposed amendments to the law must be prevented.

Privacy as Excuse

Halilovic says the amendments to the Law could jeopardize the basic democratic principles of “open government”, disable the fight against corruption and hinder investigative journalism to a great extent.

“It seems like this is the start of the introduction of censorship. Journalists will have reduced opportunities to verify information since much of it will be denied to them under the excuse of protecting privacy,” agrees Renata Radic-Dragic, a journalist from the Center for Investigative Reporting, CIN.

Vesna Alaburic, long-time lawyer and expert in media law, says it is unacceptable to curb the public right to information in order to protect personal data.

Regarding court documents, Alaburic says verdicts should be fully accessible to the public in accordance with the fundamental principle that all court hearings are public unless the public is prohibited from hearings by special decision.

Although the Agency for Protection of Personal Data says it pushed for the amendments to the law in order to be in line with international documents, Dzumhur maintains that the proposal is not in fact in accordance with international standards.

Draft amendments to the Law on Free Access to Information are published on the website of the Ministry of Justice and citizens have until the end of this month to comment on the proposed changes.

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