Bosnian university professor has revealed the truth. Let's sue him!

BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA/2013-ongoing
Samir Lemes fights the air pollution in Zenica

At the beginning of all, there was a master thesis - a simple academic paper examining the air pollution in Zenica. Only some specific details make this thesis extraordinary. It was written by a significant Bosnian-Herzegovinian governmental official and it is full of misused data designated to protect one of the largest air polluters in the area, ArcelorMittal steelworks. At least according to Samir Lemes, the professor at the University of Zenica. For this statement, published in the national newspaper Oslobođenje, he got dragged through the courts.

Masked man fighting for the justice, academic values and non-lethal air

The Balkan country of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) officially consists of two entities - Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska. On top of that there is Brčko District, which belongs to both, but is governed by neither, and functions under a decentralized system of local government. That way the state institutions are often tripled which makes the transparency of particular cases even less possible.

This story consists of four parties linked through and through.

A paper of a questionable reliability

The master's thesis in question was written by the Head of Permitting department at the Ministry of the Environment and Tourism of Federation BiH Mirjana Kovac in 2013. Her main research goal was to estimate how much local ArcelorMittal steelworks contribute to sulfur dioxide (SO2) concentrations in the air in Zenica, 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 University of Sarajevo. Two of them were earlier professionally connected to ArcelorMittal when engaged in the company’s environmental permits drafting in 2009.

All in all, whereas back then Ms. Kovac evaluated their plan of activities for the environmental permit, four years later the very same professors assessed her thesis.

Poisonous air of Zenica

ArcelorMittal steelworks is the world's largest steel producer and one of biggest and most profitable corporations globally, yet at the same time the company has been labeled the largest air polluter in many countries by the NGO group analysis.

The factory in the capital of Zenica-Doboj Canton is not any different. The vast Zenica steelworks owned by Lakshmi Mittal operated without valid environmental permits and too often exceeding the emissions limits. In 2015, levels of SO2 exceeded EU safe limits 166 times. Locals have frequently protested 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 the Kovac’s thesis evaluating the sulfur dioxide concentration in air was finally published, the public was given a “reliable” scientific source saying that the ArcelorMittal steelworks were responsible for mere 10 - 15 % of total SO2 concentration in Zenica’s air. Little the knew the truth behind the paper.

Yet another professor of the Zenica University, Samir Lemes, has read the conclusion with rather surprise. Being also an environmental activist and former president of 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 using real emissions monitoring results, the amounts included in the plans for the environmental permit were used. The actual emissions were much higher than the planned and permitted, therefore the simulation results significantly underestimated the extent of air pollution directly attributable to ArcelorMittal.

But, when Lemes warned his colleagues about these flaws, underscoring the likely misuse of the results by ArcelorMittal as a "scientific proof" that they do not pollute all too much, he was ignored. Not even his official appeal with the Ethics Committee of the University of Zenica regarding the Ethical Code violation due to conflict of interest, counterfeiting and fabrication of results earned any kind of response.

As foreseen, ArcelorMittal did misuse the thesis results; in a TV coverage about air pollution broadcasted a few months later, the head of ArcelorMittal's environmental department quoted the 10 to 15 % air pollution contribution fact.

Defamation or whistleblowing?

A journalist from newspaper "Oslobođenje" interviewed professor Lemes in November 2013. Upon the publication of his answers, his colleagues pressed charges for defamation, asking 20,000 BAM (roughly € 10,000) in compensation "because they suffered emotionally, and they were falsely accused for corruption and for business relationships with ArcelorMittal".

The court case Zenica lasted almost threeyears, and the court decided in December 2016 that no defamation had taken place, and that prof. Lemes was not only allowed to expose this case to the public, but as a president of an environmental NGO and the member of academic community he was obliged to do it.

Later, the Cantonal court confirmed the verdict in March 2017, but at the same time ordered the whistleblower to pay court expenses. In May 2017, the claimants submitted an appeal for verdict revision to the Supreme court of the Federation BiH, and this case is still underway.

Samir Lemes’s case demonstrates that any attempt to expose environment-related fraud and cronyism in BiH can have consequences for whistleblowers. In this case, prof. Lemes was ordered to cover court expenses even if courts at the same time found his actions legal and legitimate.