Attacks on journalists on the rise as religious groups clash with police

Expression

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, there have been persistent concerns over media freedom in Montenegro. On 23rd January 2020 on Journalist's Day, Montenegrin media workers reminded authorities that there are still many unresolved cases of violence against journalists. In addition to attacks, media freedom watchdogs also drew attention to the environment for critical outlets by highlighting that independent media houses are often subjected to political or financial pressure. According to local documentation, since 2004 there have been at least 85 recorded attacks on journalists with 11 taking place in 2019. These include serious incidents, as in May 2018 when Olivera Lakic, a journalist covering organised crime and corruption for Vijesti newspaper, was shot in the leg in a targeted attack in the capital Podgorica. In a statement, the Centre for Investigative Journalism in Montenegro noted the alarming trend over recent years by saying

“Attacks on journalists are getting worse by the year...All media that is not controlled by the government is facing serious pressure due to physical and verbal attacks.”

In light of this worrying situation, the chairman of the Investigative Reporting Commission stressed that too many incidents have gone unpunished with no prosecutions against the perpetrators. Despite this, State prosecution officials in Montenegro responded by claiming that investigations into cases of attacks against journalists are a priority.

In a separate incident, on 30th January 2020 the journalist Jovo Martinovic who was previously convicted for drug trafficking began his retrial. The retrial was ordered after the Appeal Court overturned the previous conviction and ordered a retrial after claims that the prosecution pressured another suspect to implicate Martinovic. The journalist was convicted on suspicion of drug trafficking and of membership of a criminal organisation. He was arrested in October 2015 while researching arms trafficking in the Balkans and spent nearly 15 months in prison until finally being released pending the outcome of his trial and then his appeal. Many media groups have viewed the allegations as fabricated in an attempt to silence the journalist. In a statement, Martinovic said he can only hope it will be “a fair trial this time”. Numerous domestic and international groups have called for Martinovic’s acquittal.

In relation to the protests regarding the recently adopted Law on Freedom of Religion, Montenegro’s state prosecution ordered for that the civic activist Vesko Pejak to be held in custody for 72 hours after a Facebook post predicting “war in Montenegro”. The law has angered the largest faith group in the country, the Serbian Orthodox Church, by driving suspicion that the new law was a ploy to strip the church of its property and land. While the government strongly refuted these allegations, tensions have been running high during protests. The police justified the brief detention after stating that Pejak had caused panic and disorder in the post by referring to clashes between protesters and the police. The Centre for Investigative Reporting in Montenegro stated that the police's actions were unjustified and threaten freedom of thought and expression, which is the cornerstone of democracy.

Fake news has been a cause for concern in Montenegro once again. Namely, an analysis of media reporting on the Law on Freedom of Religion showed that coverage was rife with disinformation and media manipulation. While many of these fake news stories are allegedly produced outside the country, in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Russia, some were found to have originated in Montenegro. Furthermore, misinformation has been spreading regarding the COVID-19 situation in the country, for which one person was brought to the Attorney General's Office for spreading panic on Facebook.

Peaceful Assembly

This period was marked by protests over the “Church-state confrontation” where supporters of the Serbian Orthodox Church continued protesting against the controversial new Law on Freedom of Religion. The law came into force on 8th January 2020 and has stoked ethnic and religious tensions. The law now obliges religious communities in Montenegro to prove property ownership before 1918, failing which the property will automatically belong to the state of Montenegro. That means that the Serbian Orthodox Church must prove ownership of medieval monasteries and churches or any other building built before 1st December 1918, when Montenegro became a part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Yugoslavia).

On 28th January 2020 tensions reached boiling point. Protesters in Podgorica who mobilised against the law clashed with the police, as security forces used tear gas and excessive force to disperse members of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Eleven people were arrested for refusing to allow the police to remove a mural with a red, blue and white tricolour, the colours of the flag of Serbia and the pre-independence flag of Montenegro. In response to the growing unrest, the president of Montenegro stated that if the members of the Democratic Party of Socialists join the protests, they risk being expelled from the party. Similarly, military officers and soldiers who joined the protest were said to have been forced out. An example of this is an army officer who was suspended from his job for demanding the law’s abolition.

In a separate incident, protesters gathered to celebrate Women’s Day, this year in a peaceful march through Podgorica. Protesters hoped to send a message against fascism, nationalism and any form of inequality. The participants further stated that many improvements needed to be made in Montenegrin society to improve women's position.