Political pressure stifles NGOs and hampers investigative journalism
According to the Center for Development of NGOs (CRNVO), the past two years have been characterised by increasing pressure on civil society's work. In a statement on 12th April 2019, the organisation highlighted the political pressure faced by NGOs in Montenegro and drew attention to the government's informal policy of selectively excluding critical CSOs from domestic policy making fora. In fact, local groups claim that critical civil society representatives have been purposefully removed from advisory and regulatory bodies e.g. the Council of the Public Broadcaster, the Anti-Corruption Agency Council and the Electronic Media Council. The organisation concluded that this was part of a campaign by authorities in Montenegro to force civil society away from contentious issues. In a statement, the Executive Director of CRNVO, Ana Novakovic commented on the situation. She said:
“All these developments, which have rightly been echoed by the international community, unfortunately send only one message - the only criterion for you to be elected in these bodies is that you are liked by the government or you do not bother their work."
The statement comes at a time when public officials in Montenegro have been open in their criticism of civil society. For example, on 22nd July 2019, the MP Nebojša Medojević publicly attacked the work of the NGO Juventus during a speech in parliament. During his intervention, Medojević highlighted that NGOs should avoid interfering directly in the work of the Montenegrin assembly and politicians should be wary of CSOs transforming into political parties.
In a separate event, on 30th July 2019, the NGO Institute for Social and Educational Policy filed a petition through the ePetition portal to amend the NGO Law to speed up decisions for state financing of NGO projects. The amendment would oblige the government to make decisions on financing NGO projects within a reasonable timeframe. NGOs in Montenegro have previously criticised the government's current approach, where the long wait for public funding calls reduces their planning time and threatens their financial sustainability.
As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, there has been an ongoing debate around the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Montenegro since April 2018. The debate started after the Ministry of Human and Minority rights drafted a controversial bill. According to LGBTI groups, while the draft acknowledged same-sex marriage, it didn't go far enough to protect LGBTI rights in Montenegro. The draft text was later amended in June after consultation with members of the LGBTI community to improve the provisions. Despite a sustained campaign by civil society in support of the amended draft, in July 2019 the bill was rejected by the Montenegrin Parliament. In a statement, a spokesperson for the NGO LGBTI Forum Progress commented on the disappointment felt by the community and civil society. They said:
"I feel defeated. I hoped today that I would be able to stand before the LGBTIQ community and share the joy that this law was passed. This outcome of the vote is not only a defeat for civil society, but also for democracy and the democratic process in Montenegro. It is obvious that Montenegro is not ready to join the developed, democratic countries of Europe, and to prefer the path of discrimination and prejudice, which leads to hatred and intolerance."
Despite the setback, the group vowed to continue to fight for the rights of LGBTI people in Montenegro.
Unfortunately, the Law on life partnership of the persons of same sex was not adopted today in the Parliament of #Montenegro. #ERA expresses solidarity with #LGBTI communities and our members and partners in the country. We will not surrender until equality is achieved! 💪🏻🏳️🌈— ERA - Equal Rights Association (@lgbtiera) July 31, 2019
As previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor, 2018 saw a spate of attacks against Montenegrin journalists which prompted international outrage. More recently, the issue of corruption emerged as a key driver of state harassment against investigative media outlets. On 19th April 2019, the President of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, filed a lawsuit against the newspaper Vijesti after the outlet printed an exposé implicating the president in a corruption scandal. In response, Djukanovic refuted the claims and accused the media outlet of being “unprofessional and out to deceive the public”. The editor-in-chief of Vijesti insisted that the outlet had complied with journalistic standards and that publishing the article was in the public interest. This is not the first time Djukanovic has taken Vijesti to court. In 2007, he also sued the paper’s director, Zeljko Ivanovic, over claims that the then-PM was responsible for orchestrating an assault on him.
According to the Center of Civic Education (CGO), Montenegro has witnessed a continuous decline in media freedom in recent years. The organisation highlighted censorship and self-censorship, coupled with strong political pressures and interference in the work of independent media outlets as key obstacles driving this downward trend. CGO held up the the politicised takeover of public broadcaster RTCG by the ruling party in 2017 as emblematic of the growing state control over the media's independence.
Most worryingly, the CGO stressed that unpunished physical attacks on journalists has engendered a dangerous environment where self-censorship is rife. The 27th May 2019 marked the fifteenth anniversary of the murder of Dusko Jovanovic, the director and editor-in-chief of the daily "Dan" whose case is yet to be brought to justice. A more recent example is the attack on anti-corruption journalist, Olivera Lakic who was shot and wounded outside her home in May 2018. While an investigation into the case is ongoing, it is yet to be brought to a close. Since Jovanovic's death in 2004, there have been 85 recorded attacks on journalists in Montenegro. Many of these are unresolved with the perpetrators yet to be brought to justice. According to media freedom groups the culture of impunity for violence against journalists has had a chilling effect on plurality of opinion in Montenegro.
On this day 15 years ago, Dusko Jovanovic, editor-in-chief and owner of the Montenegrin newspaper Dan, well known for his opposition to the government, was shot dead on leaving his office in Podgorica.— BIRN (@BIRN_Network) May 27, 2019
His murder still remains unresolved.https://t.co/kcbsbtk89I pic.twitter.com/9P0djQW7YZ
As reported in the CIVICUS Monitor's last update on Montenegro, the draft Law on Classified Information was withdrawn by the government in March 2019 after civil society fought back against the proposals. In particular, freedom of expression groups criticised provisions in the draft which allowed data to be hidden from the public for vague reasons. On 23rd June 2019, the government organised a public debate on the draft, which consisted of a roundtable meeting with civil society. During the meeting it quickly became apparent that the government were proposing civil society's endorsement of an identical bill to the draft circulated in March 2019. Participant NGOs and the media community again called for a withdrawal of the identical proposal, claiming that the new law will prevent them from monitoring the work of state authorities, uncovering corruption and violations of human rights, and monitoring the implementation of government policies and obligations from the European integration process. In a win for civil society, on 9th July 2019 the government announced that it would heed civil society's pleas and delete the problematic provisions from the law.
Access to information is a consistent issue which hampers investigative journalism in Montenegro. The think tank Institut Alternativa further highlighted that the introduction of an "abuse of the right to free access to information" in the Law on Free Access to Information grants the authorities broad powers to assess the applicant's motives for accessing government information. To counteract the new restrictions, the CSO offered 23 recommendations to Montenegrin authorities to enhance transparency of the law.
To further highlight why access to information is such a key issue in Montenegro, in mid-June 2019, ten NGOs jointly submitted an e-petition for the Government to publish information on the spending from the budgetary reserve and the distribution of dwellings to officials. The Ministry of Public Administration failed to approve the petition and effectively ignored civil society's requests. The NGOs noted that this exemplifies a recurrent trend where authorities favour private financial interests at the expense of public interests.
As Montenegro backpedals on access-to-information, journalists are calling attention to what they see as bigger barriers to scrutiny.— Balkan Insight (@BalkanInsight) April 8, 2019
Delivering another blow to independent media in a country whose EU aspirations have been stifled.#BFJE2018https://t.co/VZS0VctVAG
As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, The #OdupriSe protests movement that started in February 2019, continued weekly demonstrations throughout April and May 2019. The protests spoke to numerous instances of government corruption, smuggling, organised criminal activities and war crimes which have gone unpunished due to weak public institutions and high-level corruption.
In April 2019, a protest caravan was organised to visit more than 10 cities in the country, in a show of resistance. The protests have been generally peaceful, but some activists claimed they have faced state pressure through the levelling of public order offences against protest organisers. While the movement's demands have been increasing, from resignations of key political figures to the creation of a transitional Government to lead the country into free and fair elections, some onlookers claim that the movement has lost momentum. For example, citizen participation in the protest is reported to have decreased over time, with a break in June 2019 that lasted over 20 days. After months of enthusiasm with thousands of citizens on the streets, the protest has proved largely ineffective with none of the movement's demands being met.
Several environmental protection initiatives took place in July 2019, such as a protest against the construction of hydropower plants in Podgorica and the 22nd July 2019 protest at the river Tara under the slogan “Don’t kill Tara”. The NGO Green Home submitted a petition of over 6,400 signatories calling on the government to protect the environment in May 2019, but did not receive a reply from the relevant authorities. In Bar, on 27th July 2019, a protest against the exploration of oil and gas in the ocean took place, with the citizens' initiative “SOS for Montenegro” demanding protection of the Adriatic Sea. There are no reports of any of these protests being unwarrantedly disrupted or restricted in any way.
As reported the previous CIVICUS Monitor update, the “cypress-ers” in the city of Bar stopped a construction project in February 2019 in a decades old cypress tree plantation. In January 2019, eighty cypress trees were cut down and an amphitheater was demolished in the yard of the city high school to build a kindergarten causing a backlash from locals. On 25th April 2019, “cypress-ers” met in front of the construction site displaying a huge photo of the site as it was before, to remind the local government of its promise to replace the trees, and messages saying “Cypress-ers are waiting…. Until when?". The protesters demanded that the plantation be restored to its previous condition. The protest took place peacefully.