In recent days, authorities in the Republika Srpska have announced plans for two pieces of repressive, anti-democratic legislation that, if implemented, would drastically impinge on the rights and freedoms of the people living in the Republika Srpska. This legislation would benefit only the ruling coalition in its effort to consolidate power. It will hurt everyone else.
The United States has always supported the right of people around the world to exercise their fundamental freedoms. This includes the rights of the residents of Republika Srpska to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and association, and freedom of the press. The proposed laws would stigmatize and silence the independent voices in the Republika Srpska seeking to build a democratic and prosperous future for its residents. The proposed laws would make it harder for citizens to hold the Republika Srpska government accountable and make it easier for corruption to flourish unchecked. The proposed laws’ attacks on fundamental freedoms would discourage legitimate businesses from investing in the Republika Srpska. In short, the proposed laws would be bad for the democracy and prosperity the residents of the Republika Srpska want and deserve.
On March 8, Republika Srpska President Dodik announced that he will introduce a so-called “foreign agent” law to regulate the activities of non-profit organizations operating in the Republika Srpska. He claimed that this legislation would mirror U.S. legislation. We have seen this movie before, and we know how it ends. When Russia expanded its foreign agent legislation in 2020, it too claimed that it was merely copying the U.S. model. Nothing could have been further from the truth, and we have seen the results. Russian authorities have used their repressive legislation to suppress dissent, eviscerate civil society, and eradicate free media. An entity or individual designated as a “foreign agent” by the Russian government is subject to burdensome reporting and labeling requirements, arbitrary police raids and inspections, and exorbitant fines for failing to self-identify. Individual journalists even face imprisonment for running afoul of Russia’s “foreign agent” laws.
The U.S. model of registration of foreign agents is diametrically opposed to this approach, and one we would encourage governments anywhere in the world to follow in the interest of transparency. Under the United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA), an individual or organization that engages in advocacy or lobbying on behalf of a foreign principal is required to register with the Department of Justice and declare their relationship, activities, and financial compensation. These registrations are made public. FARA does not ban or restrict any activities, and it does not apply to independent media or civil society organizations. It allows the public to be informed about the activities of foreign agents in the United States without limiting freedom of speech or association in any way.
This move to introduce the Russian model of foreign agent legislation is part of an alarming pattern, coming on the heels of Republika Srpska authorities’ March 2 announcement that they will introduce amendments to the criminal code criminalizing defamation and insults and imposing jail sentences for the publication of video, photos, or documents without consent. By criminalizing actions that are usually handled as civil matters, this legislation would threaten freedom of expression as a fundamental human right and have a direct effect on journalists’ ability to report the truth. Yesterday’s attacks on RS journalists’ property, and the government’s dismissive response, underscore how precarious the situation of independent media in the Republika Srpska already is. This legislation, which the Republika Srpska National Assembly will consider on March 14, would make the situation drastically worse and threaten the existence of a free and independent press that is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy.