As Press Freedom Declines, Montenegro Coasts toward EU Accession

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Prime Minister Milo Đukanović asserted late last year that Montenegro’s journalists enjoy “absolute freedom of expression.” Over the subsequent weeks, reporter Lidija Nikčević of the independent daily Dan was severely beaten with a bat, bombs struck the office (pictured) of another daily, Vijesti, as well as the home of one of its columnists, and arsonists torched one of the paper’s vehicles, marking the fifth such attack on Vijesti since 2011.

This is only a sample of the unchecked aggression faced by independent journalists in Montenegro. New incidents of violence are reported each year, and verbal threats, often by members of Đukanović’s ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) or allied businesspeople, are even more common. Perpetrators generally enjoy impunity—a problem that has drawn repeated criticism from the European Union (EU), to little effect.

Đukanović has served as Montenegro’s prime minister or president for most of the last two decades, and has been implicated along with DPS colleagues and his own family members in numerous corruption scandals, giving him little incentive to protect critical reporters. Instead, he seeks to portray the country’s independent journalists as members of a destructive “media mafia” that frightens off foreign investors and stands in the way of Montenegro’s EU accession.

Đukanović’s administration has also squeezed independent media outlets financially by denying them advertising revenue, while pouring funds into Pobjeda, an unprofitable, progovernment publication with low circulation. In addition, outlets that criticize the prime minister have faced costly civil defamation suits.

Montenegro’s score dropped significantly in the latest edition of Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press index. The change reflected increasing government hostility toward the independent media since Đukanović returned to power following snap elections in 2012. Under the previous administration headed by Igor Lukšić, also of the DPS, government pressure on independent journalists had decreased somewhat. “His government was very open towards the media, we had our questions answered, the documents provided, and so on,” said Vijesti editor in chief Mihailo Jovović, whose office was targeted in the December bombing. “Lukšić even had problems within his own party because of the openness and ‘cooperation’ with us and other independent media,” added Jovović. “In my opinion it was one of the reasons for his early demise.”

Despite the concerns raised by press freedom advocates, Montenegro and the EU are pressing ahead with accession talks, with many observers predicting that the country could be the next to join the bloc, outpacing neighbors including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Macedonia.

The EU must not give Montenegro a pass on free expression in the interest of hastening enlargement. European officials should outline tangible consequences for Đukanović’s refusal to guarantee an environment in which journalists can operate freely and safely.

Journalists Contend with Frequent Attacks

Attacks against journalists and their property occur with troubling frequency in Montenegro. The majority target Vijesti, Dan, and the weekly Monitor, all of which are known for criticizing Đukanović and his allies. In the aftermath of the series of attacks in late 2013 and early 2014, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) media freedom representative Dunja Mijatović said she was “extremely concerned about the safety of journalists in Montenegro,” while EU enlargement commissioner Štefan Füle declared weeks later that the violence was “unacceptable” and pressed authorities to prosecute assailants.

However, Jovović said that “investigations are a joke,” explaining, “Experience from previous investigations tells us that they never discover a suspect if the attacks were committed or ordered by somebody from the government or business or mafia circles.”

There have been arrests in connection with both the bombing of Vijesti’s offices—which Jovović blames on Montenegrin authorities—and the vicious attack on Nikčević, but evidence against the two men accused of detonating the explosives is scant, while the six men suspected of beating Nikčević “have no political or mafia connections,” said Jovović. He suggests that the bombing suspects were detained in March “after political pressure, in time for a local election.”

Frank La Rue, the UN special envoy on freedom of expression, echoed these concerns in April, saying that investigations into attacks on journalists “were conducted poorly and typically without result.” He also noted “the lack of identification of persons who had ordered the attacks.”

In one rare case where an assailant was actually convicted, the resulting fine has not been enforced. In 2012, Veselin Barović, a friend of Đukanović’s, assaulted investigative journalist Marko Milačić of Monitor in a restaurant. He was recently found guilty and ordered to pay a €1,000 fine, but he refuses to do so, saying the order was delivered to him only after a deadline for appeals. Therefore, Barović argues, the order is invalid.

In October 2013, the Interior Ministry announced that a commission to monitor efforts to prosecute attacks on journalists would be formed, and would include representatives from the government, the media, and NGOs. The commission was duly established in December; since then, the unsolved case of the 2004 murder of Dan owner and editor Dusko Jovanović has been reopened, and several people have been questioned in connection with the killing, including some senior members of the police force. However, it remains to be seen whether this signals a broader shift in the authorities’ handling of such cases.

Threats Encourage Culture of Impunity

In addition to actual attacks, Montenegrin journalists face a barrage of threats—either through anonymous e-mails and text messages, or quite publicly from government officials, allied business figures, and progovernment media outlets. Đukanović himself is among the more prolific offenders, having regularly called independent journalists monsters, rats, and enemies of the state. These statements, Jovović told Freedom House, are “why I consider the prime minister the most responsible person for creating an environment where it is okay to threaten, attack, or even kill journalists.”

Typical of these threats is the recent intimidation campaign against Nidzara Ahmetasević, a Bosnia-based freelance journalist and former editor at the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). In late 2013, Ahmetasević was invited, apparently by accident, to a so-called journalism conference in Podgorica that was organized by an NGO affiliated with Đukanović, and which Đukanović himself attended. “I thought the conference would be an opportunity to meet colleagues from the region, talk about the situation with the media and freedom of the press,” Ahmetasević later wrote. Instead, she found forums at which so-called media experts voiced opinions hostile to independent journalism, as well as an “art pavilion” in which newspapers critical of Đukanović’s administration were labeled as enemies of the state. The conference took place under heavy security, Ahmetasević said, and organizers blocked independent Montenegrin journalists from attending.

After she published a lengthy piece about the conference, Ahmetasević was threatened and smeared in progovernment media. The conference’s organizers also showed up at her former office to complain about her work. Finally, Ahmetasević said, a journalist threatened her back in Sarajevo, warning that she was alone with no one to protect her, after which the efforts to intimidate her abruptly stopped.

Government-Backed Economic Pressure Undermines Independent Media

Meanwhile, Đukanović’s government seeks to ensure that critical media outlets struggle financially. The heads of both Vijesti and Monitor say they currently receive no advertising revenue from the government, state institutions, municipalities, or public companies. In Monitor’s 24-year history it has only held advertising contracts with two public companies, according to executive director Milka Tadić Mijović, with the last contract terminated in 2013.

While depriving these publications of vital advertising revenue, the Đukanović administration has heavily subsidized the state-owned daily Pobjeda. In the last 10 years, Pobjeda has lost €26 million; the high prices it charges other government-run institutions for advertising has apparently failed to make up for the loss. But Pobjeda charges private companies very little for advertising space, further undermining independent outlets’ financial security.

Critical media are also threatened by the economic impact of civil defamation suits. Vijesti, Dan, and Monitor have collectively paid hundreds of thousands of euros in damages in recent years, following convictions for insulting Đukanović, his associates, and his family. There is a significant backlog of defamation cases in the courts, highlighting the frequency with which Montenegrin journalists in general face such suits.

The Need for EU Pressure

Đukanović’s government has clearly failed in its basic democratic responsibility to guarantee that journalists may operate freely and without fear of attack. The ongoing impunity for threats and assaults and the persistent verbal abuse by Đukanović and his allies send the message that aggression against independent journalists is acceptable in Montenegrin society. This government-approved hostility, coupled with deliberate economic pressure against independent outlets, is forcing many talented journalists in Montenegro to leave the profession.

Montenegrin journalists acknowledge the EU’s support for media reforms, but complain that its efforts are largely superficial. Vijesti cofounder Zeljko Ivanović has characterized the relationship between Montenegro and the EU as “a political trade-off” in which Đukanović’s government is “completely cooperative and obedient” on key regional issues that the EU considers important, such as recognition of Kosovo and cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. “In exchange,” Ivanović alleges, the EU—along with the United States—turns “a blind eye while the government harangues civil society and independent media.”

European officials must leverage Đukanović’s enthusiasm for EU membership to demand meaningful reforms that will safeguard press freedom. The topic should be addressed directly with Đukanović, and significant, tangible consequences should be identified and imposed for any failure to act. The brief statements of concern in EU progress reports and occasional verbal denunciations by European officials are demonstrably inadequate.

Shannon O’Toole is an editor and the Eastern Europe writer at Facts On File World News Digest, and a consultant analyst for Eastern Europe at Freedom House.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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