Measures to combat "fake news" used to silence journalists
At the end of 2019 and the start of 2020, several journalists were accused of spreading fake news. In early January 2020 police arrested and detained the editor-in-chief of FOS Media, Angela Djikanovic, on suspicion of causing panic and disorder for allegedly distributing fake news. The incident started after she published an article stating that the government may use security forces in neighbouring Kosovo to help quell Serbian Orthodox Church supporters’ protests. After her arrest and brief 72-hour detention, the journalist resigned from her position. Following her release, Djikanovic's lawyer stated that the arrest set a worrying precedent, especially considering that the published information was allegedly confirmed by a "credible source from diplomatic circles". In a statement, the Association of Professional Journalists in Montenegro also noted their concern by saying:
"Using a young journalist to intimidate other colleagues is a shameful message from the Government, which fails to seek urgent responses to beaten journalists and launches fake investigations into attacks, but demands that we be handcuffed because someone spoiled (or did not) the news."
A few days later, two other journalists, Gojko Raicevic, the editor of IN4S, and Drazen Zivkovic, the editor of Borba, were detained by police on suspicion of publishing fake news regarding a story which covered a reported incident at “Villa Gorica” in Podgorica. The article stated that the residence, used by Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic and the Government of Montenegro to receive guests and foreign delegations, had been rocked by an explosion. However, this was quickly refuted and police later stated that there was no explosion, but a minor electrical breakdown that was soon repaired. After their release, one of the journalists stated that he double-checked the information before it was published and that his arrest was really about intimidating journalists. Journalist unions as well as the Centre for Investigative Reporting stated that “the said arrests of journalists were designed to limit human rights and freedoms and create a sense of legal uncertainty.”
#SafeJournalists— Safe Journalists (@WBjournalists) January 14, 2020
❗️❗️During the last weekend, journalists Drazen Zivkovic and Gojko Raicevic were detained because they published the explosion at the official state-owned residential villa Gorica in #Podgorica.https://t.co/ZAXP1sgCS2
However, the government had hit back at claims that they had misused legislation designed to prevent the spread of fake news. Instead, Montenegro’s Ministry of Culture claimed that the country is being targeted by an organised disinformation campaign following the adoption of the controversial Freedom of Religion Law, which has angered members of the Serbian Orthodox faith. In an official statement, the Ministry commented on recent developments by saying:
“It is an organised and coordinated campaign to spread fake news by a number of media outlets in the country and the region which are calling for religious and national [ethnic] hatred and violence in Montenegro.”
According to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the arrests of the journalists is not against freedom of speech and Montenegro continues to be a free and democratic society in which different opinions can be expressed without restriction on many social issues and government policies. In fact, they simply state that journalists should double-check information before publishing. However, arguments have been viewed as flimsy excuses by media freedom watchdogs. For example, international freedom of expression group, Reporters without Borders stated that it is questionable if apprehending and detaining reporters who published fake news is the best method to combat false information.
In another incident, journalist Otasevic was attacked by a member of private security for a Montenegrin businessman, Becirovic. The journalist was attacked after he tried to photograph the businessman in the company of the state prosecutor. An investigation into the incident was opened by Montenegrin police.
This period was marked by protests related to the adoption of the Freedom of Religion Law, which introduced changes which obliged religious communities to provide evidence of land ownership in order to retain their property. As a reaction to these changes in late December 2019, members of the church as well as thousands of people have held numerous protests across the country and blocked some main roads in order to ask for the withdrawal of the aforementioned changes. While some of the gatherings were peaceful, however, there are some reports that the police used force on protesters and arrested dozens of them while using pepper spray. Namely, in the days after the adoption of the law, the police have filed 60 misdemeanor and criminal charges for violations of public order and peace, and clashes with police.