(Berlin) – The Kosovo government should take urgent steps to address the threat to media freedom posed by provisions that, despite extensive protest, have survived in the new criminal code, Human Rights Watch said today.

On June 22, 2012, the Kosovo National Assembly failed for a second time to remove provisions from the new criminal code that criminalize defamation and force journalists to reveal their sources, despite calls to remove them by the government, president, and journalists. The current criminal code has similar provisions.

“The Assembly’s failure to address these problematic provisions means that journalists reporting on public figures or corruption continue to risk being treated as criminals,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should now step in to protect media freedom and independent journalism in Kosovo."

The Kosovo Assembly originally passed the disputed articles 37 and 38 of the Criminal Code on April 20. On May 8, after protests from journalists and media watchdogs, President Atifete Jahjaga sent the law back to Assembly for reconsideration.

Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, and the deputy prime minister and justice minister, Hajredin Kuqi, publicly supported removing the two provisions. But only 59 members voted to remove the contested articles, two short of a majority.

Immediately following the June 22 vote, Kuqi resigned in protest. According to a media report, Kuqi explained his decision by saying he did not “want to be someone who undermines media freedom.”

Media reports say that the president has said that the new code is unconstitutional. But the president has no authority to send the law back to the Assembly for a second time, and the government cannot make further amendments to the law until it comes into force on January 1, 2013.

The code could be challenged in the Constitutional Court. Article 113 of the Kosovo Constitution allows the president, the Assembly, the government, or the Ombudsperson to refer a question of constitutional compatibility of laws to the Constitutional Court.

“It’s up to the government to show its genuine commitment to ensuring media freedom by using the Constitutional Court procedure to address articles 37 and 38,” Gall said. “Unless it does, the restrictive provisions will continue to have a chilling effect on journalism in Kosovo.”

An opposition party, Vetevendosije (Self-Determination), has offered draft proposals in the Assembly for a separate law to protect journalists’ sources. These merit consideration by the government, Human Rights Watch said. But such proposals are not a substitute for removing the problematic provisions in the Criminal Code itself.