Media Freedom in Montenegro

Montenegro is one of the most hostile environments for investigative reporting and the number of serious crimes against journalists has been criticised by international observers, including media watchdog organisation Reporters Without Borders (RWB), the European Union (EU) and the OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović. Not only their occurrence, but also the indifference authorities have shown in regard to their investigation has posed a serious obstacle for media freedom. At the same time the country is eager to join the EU as soon as possible.

Montenegro currently ranks 106th out of 180 countries in RWB’s World Press Freedom Index (2017). Freedom House scores Montenegro as "partly free". The Media Sustainability Index of the Washington-based NGO IREX, measuring overall sustainability of the media system, including professionalism, legal norms and business environment, gives Montenegro an average rating for the Balkan region. The IREX Sustainability Report 2017 points out that "journalism remains a battleground, with deep divisions rooted in commercial and political problems. Few of Montenegro’s 73 media outlets distance themselves from political polarization."

Crimes against journalists really have been more common than in other South East European countries – and more serious. RWB notes that Montenegro has a more developed culture of investigative reporting than other countries in the region. In addition, the Balkan country is known as a hotbed for organised crime, corruption and power abuse – a potentially fatal combination for independent journalists. Jean-Paul Marthoz of the Committee to Protect Journalists has gone as far as calling Montenegro the "Wild West for the press." In summer 2013 a bomb exploded outside the home of investigative reporter Tufik Softic. Burning cars, assaults of and death threats against journalists and their families are no isolated incidents anymore. They serve to silence those who dare to investigate sensitive issues, criticise the government or other powerful interest groups, effectively fostering self-censorship.

What makes these crimes especially dangerous is that they are not properly investigated. On the contrary, usually the interest groups concerned, be they political or economic, cover up what really happened and why. That is why a majority of cases never gets solved. The South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) for instance criticizes, that the murder's accomplices of Dusko Jovanovic, editor-in-chief of the daily Dan, still has not been identified since the killing of 2004. Journalists and human right activists have criticized that the police progress was too slow and that only one suspect has been identified and charged for the crime. When cases do make it to the courts, sentences rarely reflect the severity of the crime committed. The threats are, however, not only of physical nature. Reporters Without Borders point to the fact that rhetoric also marginalises professional and critical reporters. According to their recent report: "Journalists must censor themselves because they are often the targets of violent verbal and physical attacks, and the perpetrators enjoy systematic impunity."

What is more, critical outlets like Vijesti have been deprived of state advertising and private companies close to the political circles in Podgorica were also advised not to advertise in the paper, depriving them of their essential funds to operate. On the other hand, unprofitable and low circulation papers with government ties have been supported. In the oversaturated media market, competition for the small advertising pool has created another force of self-censorship that is hard to avoid when preferential treatment of media outlets by investors is the practice.

In spite of improving in terms of the amount of digital platforms, the Montegrin media is about to deteriorate. At least, that is what the 2017 IREX report states: "This past year, national public broadcaster Radio and Television of Montenegro (RTCG), was under immense political pressure. It resulted in the dismissal of both the television director and the general director." RWB points to the latest case of investigative journalist Jovo Martinovic who was arrested over drug-trafficking and spent about 15 months in jail. Although he was freed on bail, Martinovic is still waiting for his trial. Different media evaluate the trials as politically motivated. The journalist himself denies the charges and clarifies that the reason for contact with the traffickers was for a television documentary.

As in other countries in South East Europe the violations of media freedom are mostly not due to insufficient legal protection of freedom of speech and press. Enforcement of these rules, often well in line with European and international standards, is the main problem. Libel has been decriminalised and journalists can now only face fines under civil law for such offences. Court cases are, however, filed with worrying frequency and the fines imposed can be out of proportion. The right of access to information is even anchored in the constitution and supported by the freedom of information law since 2005. The regulations were further substantiated with rules that require the authorities to publish information proactively online. The need for this illustrates that a culture of secrecy and resistance to public requests for information are still partly in place. The law also provides for the editorial independence of the public media, but this is not respected, precluding balanced and unbiased reporting. In April 2016, a new Code of Ethics for journalist in Montenegro was launched. The launch of the new Code is a significant step in order to strengthen media self-regulation and to raise professional standards of the media in Montenegro, according to Dunja Mijatović, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

For Montenegro’s European aspirations to materialise, the rogue media environment thus poses a significant obstacle. The improvement of the media situation and fight against organised crime and corruption must go hand in hand, so that the exercise of the journalistic profession can again become a necessary contribution to democratic society, rather than a heroic act.

Lina Rusch, KAS Media Program South East Europe

2016 adjusted by Rebecca Kittel, KAS Media Program South East Europe

2017 adjusted by Lena von Holt, KAS Media Program South East Europe