Thursday

5th Aug 2021

Opinion

A forgotten crime: Montenegro’s double-dealing on the media

Montenegro is first in line after Croatia to enter the EU, according to some European politicians and parliamentarians.

It’s a leader in the Balkan region. But the country’s press is under attack, with Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic leading the line in cracking down on critical media. The state media stir the campaign against independent outlets, portraying their founders as criminals and its female journalists as prostitutes.

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  • As usual in cases of attacks against media, the police have been unable to identify the perpetrators (Photo: g.rohs)

At a recent exhibition funded by the government, the front pages of critically-oriented media were displayed and outlets depicted as enemies of the state that manufacture news. The prime minister showed his support for this vilification of critical media by appearing in person. A little earlier, he colorfully described these media as vermin that should be “de-rat-ised”.

On the TV stations under his control, programmes are interrupted every hour to transmit news about the "criminals" who run the daily Vijesti, the weekly Monitor and the various NGOs that dare to criticise endemic corruption and the links of senior officials to organised crime.

In such a hostile atmosphere, it was little surprise that a few days before the New Year a bomb exploded outside the office of Vijesti’s editor-in-chief. Only a few weeks earlier the building had been stoned.

Three days after the New Year, a female journalist working for the other independent daily, Dan, was severely beaten about the head by someone armed with a baseball bat.

It remains unclear who is responsible. As usual in cases of attacks against media, the police have been unable to identify the perpetrators.

In the latest Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, Montenegro placed 113th out of 179 countries – a ranking that has deteriorated year on year. Slovenia, a neighbor and EU member, is ranked 35th, and Serbia and Croatia are also far ahead. Even Bosnia and Herzegovina, which by many other parameters unfortunately lags well behind the rest of the Balkans, rates well ahead of Montenegro at 68th.

This situation is easily explained.

Last man standing

Only in Montenegro has rule barely changed since 1945. Milo Djukanovic overturned the previous Communist government 25 years ago by means of an internal putsch.

Since this time, he has been the undisputed leader of this small country overburdened by problems of crime and corruption. A former close ally of Slobodan Milosevic, he is the last man standing from the generation of ex-Yugoslavian war leaders, the only one still active in politics. As in the Communist system he used to embrace, he perceives the media as the greatest threat to his absolute rule.

In the past decade, the founder and editor of a daily newspaper has been killed, editors and journalists have been physically attacked, cars belonging to media companies have been set on fire, and defamation cases seeking hundreds of thousands of Euros (and even millions in some cases) have been brought against critics.

In the past six years alone, our daily Vijesti has been subjected to 14 attacks: our journalists, editors, owners and a photographer have been beaten, and our property has been bombed and burned. That this is a warning to our colleagues not to report what they see is obvious.

Not only have none of the criminal acts been properly investigated, but the authorities and their institutions have done everything in their power to render the investigations meaningless and to ensure that the real culprits are not touched.

This has increased self-censorship among journalists; many of them are very concerned by the fact that those who commission the attacks seem untouchable, hidden at the very top the government and the mafia circles close to it.

Journalism should be a simple and responsible profession that protects the public interest and defends society from abuse by the powerful and privileged. But in light of the state of media freedom in Montenegro, practicing journalism has been described by representatives from the Council of Europe as ‘a heroic feat’.

Yet it’s also more nuanced. When journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006, a Russian journalist explained: "We do not have a suicidal impulse. On the contrary, we have the urge to live. We want to instigate change, so that our country is better and happier tomorrow than it is today.”

The growing sophistication of our prime minister in building his, let’s call it, “soft dictatorship” can be seen from his change in tactics. When physical assaults failed to deliver the expected results, the regime introduced financial ones.

He forbade the government, state institutions, municipalities and public companies from advertising in Vijesti. A number of private companies that are close to the prime minister, or whom he can intimidate through tax inspections, were “advised” to avoid us. This has caused millions of Euros worth of financial damage to the paper.

On the other hand, he has relentlessly poured state money into the low-circulation national newspaper Pobjeda, which would otherwise have gone bankrupt a long time ago. He has also launched a TV station with cheap programming in order to compromise the sustainability of the independent TV Vijesti.

Napoleon once remarked: “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” Though it may have some truth, it is a comment born through the paranoia of the powerful.

Our newspaper does not consider anyone to be its enemy. However, the all-powerful politicians whose irresponsibility and corruption we report on, perceive us as such.

A cynical trade-off

Europe has a pivotal role to play in this situation. For years, EU authorities have sought concrete support from Montenegro for a host of regional initiatives. Prime Minister Djukanovic has developed a system that is tantamount to a political trade-off.

He is completely cooperative and obedient to Brussels when it comes to regional issues, such as the recognition of Kosovo, support of the Bosnian state as envisioned in the Dayton Agreement, and cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

In exchange, the EU turns a blind eye while the government harasses civil society and independent media to the point of extinction.

It is time for an end to this cynical policy.

European officials, whether they are in Brussels or Paris, Berlin or London, should start taking stock of the real situation and status of democracy and human rights in Montenegro.

Otherwise, Djukanovic will succeed in what should be an impossible mission obtaining full EU membership for Montenegro, while simultaneously extinguishing the last critical voices.

The writer is co-founder and director of Vijesti daily

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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