Media Freedom in Montenegro

Overview Alex Alishevskikh
Overview

Montenegro is one of the most hostile environments for investigative reporting among the Southeast European countries 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, Harlem Désir. Except for the public broadcaster RTCG, Montenegrin media outlets have a hard time making a profit which is one of the reasons why investigative journalism is rare to find, the IREX Sustainability 2019 Report on Montenegro states. The hostile attitude towards critical journalists is reflected in the country’s ranking in RWB’s annual Press Freedom Index: It has only slightly improved in recent years, from 114th out of 180 in 2014 to 105th in 2020, having never surpassed the 100 mark. From 2019 to 2020, it even slipped one position once again. In the region, only Bulgaria (111th) received a worse ranking in RWBs latest index. At the same time, Montenegro is eager to join the EU as soon as possible.

Relatively slow enhancement of media freedom compared to Balkan region average

The watchdog NGO Freedom House scores Montenegro as "partly free", more specifically, it ranks the country’s media freedom with two out of four possible point, citing self-censorship, political pressure and unsolved cases of attacks against journalists as the main issues. 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 a below-average rating for the Balkan region, noting its very slow, but steady improvement in sectors such as free speech, plurality of news sources and business management. The IREX Sustainability Report 2019 points out that "the influence of political and commercial interests is destroying the Montenegrin media sector by tainting journalistic ethics, lowering professional standards, compromising accountability, and requiring key media managers to constantly calibrate their political or propagandistic line."

Investigative journalists at high risk

Just like in many South East European countries, a growing figure of crimes against journalists can be noticed, marking an alarming development. What worsens the situation in Montenegro is the seriousness of reported cases. In May 2018, investigative journalist Olivera Lakić was shot in the leg near her home after researching corruption in Montenegro. In previous years, she and her family were threatened repeatedly. So far, the assailants have not yet been identified. The little attention given by the Government to media freedom and the protection of journalists combined with the alarmingly low detection rate of such cases could seriously slow down the country’s EU accession process. In addition, the Balkan country is known as a hotbed for organised crime, corruption and power abuse – a potentially fatal combination for independent journalists. In summer 2013, a bomb exploded outside the home of investigative reporter Tufik Softic. The same happened to investigative journalist Saed Sadikovic in April 2018. 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.

Longstanding culture of 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 criticises 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 criticised 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. The fact that rhetoric also marginalises professional and critical reporters has led to a situation in which journalists docilely adapt to self-censorship from the beginning of their career. According to the recent IREX report, “journalists in Montenegro, especially in public media, have long labored under the burden of self-censorship even though the country is a pluralistic democracy. Weak unions and meager bargaining power make the situation worse”. The main reasons for self-censorship are political pressure and financial difficulties, and “self-censorship is often neglected in discussions of the state of Montenegrin media”.

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.

Public broadcaster’s independence questioned

In spite of improving in terms of the amount of digital platforms, the Montegrin media is about to deteriorate. Despite gaining more independence in recent years and being – at least theoretically – protected by the Law on the National Public Broadcaster, the Government’s control over the public broadcaster RTCG is clearly visible. In 2018, the RTCG Council fired RCTG’s director Andrijana Kadija for allegedly acting against professional journalistic standards. The dismissal was condemned by international media and watchdog organisations and interpreted “as an attempt by the DPS party to reassert control over the broadcaster”, according to Freedom House. Following the replacement of Kadija, the OSCE Media Freedom Representative Harlem Désir stressed that “there should be no political interference in the public service broadcaster’s management” and announced planning on monitoring the further development of RTCG’s independence in Montenegro’s media sector.

Implementation of legal framework remains an issue

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 for many years 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.

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.

Sources: 

 

Lina Rusch, KAS Media Programme South East Europe


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

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

2020 adjusted by Luise Mosig, KAS Media Programme South East Europe