BANJA LUKA, Bosnia (Reuters) - Bosnian Serb lawmakers voted on Thursday to criminalize social media posts deemed offensive or disruptive despite warnings from watchdogs and embassies that the move would further harm freedom of speech in the region.
The legislation introduces fines of up to 800 marka ($474) for social media posts deemed to disturb public order or contain offensive or insulting content, and comes almost a year to the day since a wave of unrest in Bosnia organized in part through Facebook.
Facing a storm of criticism, the government removed measures introducing prison terms and said the bill did not apply to criticism of the government.
But it was still condemned by watchdogs already worried over the state of civic freedoms in Bosnia and the autonomous Serb Republic in particular. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) called it "devastating".
"By including social media in the law, there is a danger that officials could interpret ill-defined terms to sanction and limit the free flow of information and free expression online," said OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic.
Critics say much of the electronic and print media in the Serb Republic are already under the control of the ruling SNSD party of Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik, who has sought to nurture ties with Russia.
"Nobody aims to ban with this law the expression of anyone's opinion," said Interior Minister Dragan Lukac. "Our primary intention is to protect the citizens."
The government cited a similar law in Montenegro, a country run by the same party since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. No other country in the region is known to provide such sanction for social media posts.
Bosnia's Serb Republic largely escaped the wave of unrest in February last year over unemployment, corruption and political and economic stagnation.
But officials frequently cited threats to public order by opponents of the government, and briefly detained a man last year after he called on Facebook for protests against Dodik.
Concerns over media freedom deepened in December when Bosnian Serb police led a raid on the Sarajevo offices of an independent web portal, Klix, after it published an audio recording that it said contained the voice of Serb Republic Prime Minister Zeljka Cvijanovic discussing buying MPs in the regional parliament.
Cvijanovic said the tape was fabricated.
Opposition deputies boycotted the debate on the law on Tuesday. Opposition MP Nenad Stevandic said: "Such a bad and ugly law cannot be made pretty by any amendments."
Writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Matt Robinson and Andrew Heavens