Protests over Serbian Orthodox bishops’ detention; worst rating for press freedom in Western Balkans

Association

In the latest "States in Transition" report prepared by Freedom House that deals with human rights and the promotion of democracy in the world, Montenegro has lost its position as a "partially consolidated democracy". Instead the country has taken a step backwards and is now in the group of transitional or "hybrid regimes". This term implies that in Montenegro the democratic institutions are fragile and that there are also significant challenges in defending political rights and civil liberties.

In the wake of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, it is important to note that there was no coordination between CSOs and the government, which is reflected in the fact that CSO representatives were not included in any of the established crisis bodies. For instance, the National Coordination Body disregarded all suggestions from CSOs for dealing with the crisis. Furthermore, CSOs were not included in the economic incentives that the government made available to businesses during the pandemic. Due to this, many CSOs are dealing with high uncertainty and there is a possibility that they will not be able to continue conducting their activities due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Peaceful Assembly

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the authorities in Montenegro have prohibited all public ceremonies and events in order to curb the spread of the virus.

During this time, the police detained a priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church for holding a prayer gathering in a monastery and thus defying the ban on social gatherings. Later during the reporting period, a Serbian Orthodox bishop and several priests were detained for conducting an illegal street procession in defiance of government COVID-19 regulations.

In reaction to the arrest of the Serbian Orthodox bishop, several hundred citizens held protests in several Montenegrin towns. The protests became violent, with police using tear gas and shock bombs to disperse the crowds. The media accused the police of using excessive force on protesters, however the police directorate claimed that some of the protesters were violent and had thrown stones, thus wounding 22 policemen. Some of the protesters were detained.

Expression

According to the Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Montenegro press freedom is in decline as it is the worst rated county in the Western Balkan region. One of the reasons for this decline is the number of unresolved cases of attacks on journalists in Montenegro. Furthermore, the research states that the authorities favour pro-government outlets while exercising pressure against other media outlets and journalists.

An opposition activist from the Democratic Front, Radovan Rakocevic was arrested for causing panic by posting news that the President of Montenegro is infected with COVID-19. Civil society groups have responded with criticism of this action, stating that ‘fake news cannot be fought with arrests’. They further stated that the authorities should be more transparent and inform the public about everything related to COVID-19 in order to avoid any false information reaching the public.

In a separate case, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir condemned the detention of Serbian Večernje Novosti correspondent Veliša Kadić during coverage of the protests against the arrest of the Serbian Orthodox Church Bishop (see above) on 13th May 2020. Media reports alleged that police pepper sprayed Kadić's eyes and deleted footage from his phone.

Désir called on authorities to investigate the matter:

“I am concerned by the brief detention of journalist Veliša Kadić while covering a protest in Nikšić. Journalists must be able to report freely and unhindered on demonstrations. There must be no restriction or obstruction on the work of the media reporting on events of public interest.”