Masked man fighting for justice, academic values, and non-lethal air
The Balkan country of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) officially consists of two entities – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska. On top of that there is the Brčko District, which belongs to both, but is governed by neither, and functions under a decentralized system of local government. In that way the state institutions are often tripled, which makes the transparency of particular cases even less possible.
This story consists of four parties that are linked through and through.
A paper of a questionable reliability
The master’s thesis in question was written by the Head of the Permission Department at the Ministry of the Environment and Tourism of the Federation of BiH, Mirjana Kovac, in 2013. Her main research goal was to estimate how much the local ArcelorMittal steelworks contribute to sulphur dioxide (SO2) concentrations in the air in Zenica, which is heavily polluted and the country’s third largest city, using computer simulation. The thesis was evaluated as satisfactory by Professors Šefket Goletić and Jusuf Duraković from the University of Zenica and Azrudin Husika from the University of Sarajevo. Two of them were earlier professionally connected to ArcelorMittal when engaged in the drafting of the company’s environmental permits in 2009.
All in all, back then Ms. Kovac evaluated their plan of activities for the environmental permit, and four years later the very same professors assessed her thesis.
Poisonous air of Zenica
ArcelorMittal is the world’s largest steel producer and one of the biggest and most profitable corporations globally, and yet at the same time the company has been labelled the largest air polluter in many countries by NGO group analysis.
The factory in Zenica, the capital of the Zenica-Doboj Canton, is not any different. The vast Zenica steelworks owned by Lakshmi Mittal operates without valid environmental permits and too often exceeds the emissions limits. In 2015, levels of SO2 exceeded EU safe limits 166 times. Locals have frequently protested against ArcelorMittal’s failure to introduce environmental improvements that were pledged when the steel giant bought the plant over a decade ago.
Bafflement over the misused data
When Kovac’s thesis evaluating the sulphur dioxide concentration in the air was finally published, the public was given a “reliable” scientific source stating that the ArcelorMittal steelworks was responsible for a mere 10-15% of the total SO2 concentration in Zenica’s air. Little did they know the truth behind the paper.
Yet another professor at Zenica University, Samir Lemeš, read the conclusion with considerable surprise. Being both an environmental activist and the former president of the local NGO Eko-forum Zenica, he soon questioned the results, figuring out that wrong numbers were used as input data for the simulation; instead of the real results of the monitoring of emissions being used, the amounts included in the plans for the environmental permit were used. The actual emissions were much higher than those that were planned and permitted, and therefore the simulation results significantly underestimated the extent of the air pollution directly attributable to ArcelorMittal.
But, when Lemeš warned his colleagues about these flaws, underscoring the likely misuse of the results by ArcelorMittal as “scientific proof” that they do not pollute too much, he was ignored. Not even his official appeal to the Ethics Committee of the University of Zenica regarding the violation of the Ethical Code as a result of a conflict of interests, counterfeiting, and fabrication of results earned any kind of response.
As foreseen, ArcelorMittal did misuse the thesis results; in a TV programme about air pollution broadcast a few months later, the head of ArcelorMittal’s environmental department quoted the 10-15% air pollution contribution as a fact.
Defamation or whistleblowing?
A journalist from the newspaper “Oslobođenje” interviewed Lemeš in November 2013. Upon the publication of his answers, his colleagues pressed charges for defamation, asking for 20,000 BAM (roughly €10,000) in compensation “because they suffered emotionally, and they were falsely accused of corruption and business relationships with ArcelorMittal”.
The Zenica court case lasted almost three years, and the court decided in December 2016 that no defamation had taken place, and that. Lemeš was not only allowed to expose this case to the public, but as the president of an environmental NGO and a member of the academic community he was obliged to do so.
Later, the Cantonal Court confirmed the verdict in March 2017, but at the same time ordered the whistleblower to pay the costs of the case. In May 2017, the claimants submitted an appeal for a revision of the verdict to the Supreme Court of the Federation of BiH, and this case is still under way.
Samir Lemeš’s case demonstrates that any attempt to expose environment-related fraud and cronyism in BiH can have consequences for the whistleblowers. In this case, Lemeš was ordered to cover the costs of the case even if at the same time the court found his actions legal and legitimate.