Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. However, unsolved attacks against journalists, political interference with the public broadcaster, smear campaigns carried out by progovernment tabloids, and unfair treatment and economic pressure from government ministries and agencies against independent and pro-opposition media remained a significant problem.
Freedom of Speech: Amid the subsequent tensions and protest walks (litije) of Serbian Orthodox Church followers following the adoption of the contentious Law on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Legal Status of Religious Communities (religious freedom law) authorities arrested, detained, and fined a number of journalists, political activists, and private citizens for posting disinformation, “fake news,” or insulting comments against government officials on social media.
On January 5, police detained journalist Andjela Djikanovic from the online portal FOS Media and charged her with causing panic and disorder after publishing a false report claiming that 250 members of Kosovo’s ROSU Special Forces Unit would be deployed in Montenegro (under the command of Montenegrin authorities) to help provide security during the Orthodox Christmas Eve on January 6. The government denied the veracity of the report and called on prosecutors to react promptly. Both national and international organizations called for Djikanovic’s release; she was held in detention overnight and released January 6. The case was pending as of mid-November.
One week later, on January 12, police detained the editors in chief of the Montenegro-based pro-Serbian and pro-Russian online portals IN4S and Borba, Gojko Raicevic and Drazen Zivkovic, and charged them with causing panic and disorder by falsely reporting that an explosion took place at a government building in Podgorica used to hold ceremonial events. After questioning in the basic prosecutor’s office, Raicevic and Zivkovic were released from detention on January 13. Their cases were pending as of mid-November.
The European Commission and Reporters without Borders expressed concern over the arrests of journalists for spreading disinformation. Journalist associations, NGOs, and opposition political parties accused the authorities of introducing a dangerous precedent that could easily lead to a practice of censoring media by arbitrarily deciding what constitutes “fake news.” The Ombudsman’s Office warned that detaining journalists must be a measure of last resort, and that, if detention is used, it must be done in only extremely justified situations and in line with international practices. Other government officials contended the arrests were necessary to counteract internal and external actors attempting to destabilize the state.
On February 10, the Agency for Electronic Media (AEM) decided to ban temporarily for three months the rebroadcasting of segments of certain programs of Serbia-based television stations Happy and Pink M for “promoting hatred, intolerance, and discrimination towards the members of the Montenegrin ethnicity.” The AEM’s managing council found that TV Happy’s Good Morning Serbia, Cyrillic, and After Lunch programs as well as TV Pink M’s New Morning program were used as vehicles for an “unprecedented hate speech campaign” by Serbian media against Montenegro over the Montenegrin religious freedom law.
The Atlantic Council of Montenegro’s Digital Forensic Center warned on January 28 that “a well coordinated and planned disinformation campaign aimed at spreading confusion and havoc” was occurring following the passage of the religious freedom law. Similarly, on February 20, the European External Action Service noted that most of the false news in the country was originating from media based in Serbia, including state-owned outlets, as well as the Serbian-language publications of Russia-owned Sputnik and several pro-Serb portals in the country.
On January 23, the Misdemeanor Court of Niksic fined Milija Goranovic 500 euros ($600) for posting an allegedly insulting comment on Facebook about the national police chief. According to reports, Goranovic posted a comment below a statement of the police director on Facebook telling the police chief “not to talk rubbish.” Police arrested Goranovic and brought him to the prosecutor, who charged him with violating the Law on Public Peace and Order. The law prescribes a fine ranging from 250 to 1,000 euros ($300 to $1,200) for “anyone who severely insults another person in the public place or otherwise behaves in an impudent, shameless, or abusive manner.”
On January 28, police detained Vesko Pejak, the coordinator of the small political party Alternativa Crna Gora, on suspicion of causing panic and disorder by commenting via Facebook that the ruling party and the president intended to drag the country into war. Pejak was released from detention the following day. The Montenegrin Center for Investigative Journalism called Pejak’s detention a violation of his rights. The HRA also described the authorities’ actions as a “coordinated suppression of the freedom of expression,” contrary to international standards. The HRA also announced that it had challenged the constitutionality of Article 398 of the criminal code, which was the basis for the controversial detentions and fines. That article allows up to a three-year prison term for persons who disclose or spread false news or allegations via the media that cause panic or seriously disrupts public peace and order. According to the HRA, the law was improperly being used by the government as a substitute for the criminal offense of defamation and insult, which was abolished in 2011.
At the beginning of May, Velimir Cabarkapa, a 29-year-old man employed by the public waterworks company in the city of Pljevlja, was arrested and detained for 72 hours for publishing a satirical version of the national anthem on Facebook. Cabarkapa made several allusions to drug trafficking, including substituting the lyrics, “We are sons of your cocaine and keepers of your heroin” for the original lyrics, “We are sons of your rocks and keepers of your honesty.” The parody followed the seizure by German police of 500 kilograms of cocaine in Hamburg on a vessel of the government-owned Barska Plovidba shipping firm a few days earlier. Prosecutors in Pljevlja charged Cabarkapa with violating the law that prohibits public mockery of the state, its flag, coat of arms, or national anthem and allows for a penalty of up to one year in prison. The law also prohibits changing the national anthem and performing it in a manner that impugns the state’s reputation and dignity and provides that violators may be fined up to 20,000 euros ($24,000). Several NGOs and journalists from the media outlets Dan and Vijesti shared the offending posts on social media, protesting the arrest and claiming that it impermissibly restricted freedom of opinion and expression provided by the constitution. In July, Cabarkapa was sentenced to two months in prison for defamation of the state and its symbols. The judgment was under appeal at year’s end.
Over the first eight months of the year, media outlets reported that police and prosecutors sanctioned at least a dozen persons on suspicion of causing panic or disrupting public peace and order through posts online. Separately, police and prosecutors temporarily detained several individuals in March and April on suspicion of causing panic by posting false information inflating the numbers of persons said to be infected with or died from COVID-19 and accusing authorities of hiding real data.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and generally expressed a wide variety of political and social views, including through articles and programs critical of the authorities. The NGO Center for Civic Education warned in each of its annual reports since 2012, however, that selective and nontransparent public funding through the purchase of advertising continued to exert undue influence on the media market. According to the NGO, such funding was provided to reward media outlets favorable to the government and withheld from media that questioned official policies or practices.
The independent television station and newspaper Vijesti continued to attribute its difficulties making regular tax payments to unfair media conditions, economic pressure from the government, and selective prosecution. It complained of large government subsidies to the national public broadcaster, favoritism towards progovernment media when distributing public funds through advertising and project tenders, and a favorable disposition towards foreign-based media compared with local outlets. On November 19, the Commercial Court rejected for the second time the 2014 lawsuit brought by Vijesti’s parent company, Daily Press, against the progovernment tabloid Pink M television for Pink M allegedly violating legal provisions on loyal competition by defaming and discrediting Vijesti in a series of reports in 2013-14. Vijesti announced it would appeal the Commercial Court’s decision to the Appellate Court, which in 2018 annulled the same Commercial Court’s ruling and returned the case for a retrial. Vijesti also alleged that the judiciary selectively applied defamation laws when independent media are involved.
Violence and Harassment: Unsolved attacks from previous years and an atmosphere of intimidation against media critical of the government continued to be a serious problem.
There was no progress in solving the 2018 shooting of Vijesti investigative reporter Olivera Lakic in front of her home in Podgorica. In February 2019, police announced that they had solved the case, identifying a criminal ringleader and eight members of his gang, which had also been accused of other serious criminal offenses. While initially police qualified the attack on Lakic as attempted murder, when the police announcement was made, the offense was reduced to criminal association with the goal of inflicting severe injuries. Only one of the nine individuals was imprisoned for other crimes. Formal charges in the Lakic case have still not been brought.
On April 8, police reported they had solved a nine-year-old case and arrested two persons suspected of setting fire to five Vijesti vehicles in three separate attacks in 2011 and 2014. A prosecutor from the Basic Prosecution Office in Podgorica pressed charges against a local criminal who had allegedly hired the two perpetrators to destroy the newspaper’s vehicles. On June 10, the Basic Court in Podgorica dropped charges against the alleged mastermind of the attacks because prosecutors did not provide enough evidence to corroborate the charges.
In October 2019, the High Court of Bijelo Polje fined Nova M, the company that acquired Pink M in 2018, for defaming Vijesti’s owners, Zeljko Ivanovic and Miodrag Perovic. Ivanovic and Perovic sued Pink M for its misleading reporting connecting them to a former Vijesti journalist suspected of collecting and distributing child pornography. Separately, 20 journalists from Vijesti individually sued Pink M for similarly attacking their reputations by misleadingly linking them to the accused. On January 28, the court ordered Nova M to pay a fine to one of the Vijesti journalists. An additional 19 cases were adjudicated in favor of the journalists but were still before either the basic or high courts. Vijesti criticized state institutions for alleged inefficiency in preventing progovernment tabloids from smearing independent media.
In December 2019 journalist Vladimir Otasevic, who worked for the independent daily newspaper Dan, was assaulted photographing controversial businessman Zoran Becirovic in the company of High State Prosecutor Milos Soskic in a shopping mall in Podgorica. Becirovic had previously been questioned by the State Special Prosecutor’s Office over alleged witness intimidation. According to media reports, Becirovic’s bodyguard, Mladen Mijatovic, grabbed Otasevic by the neck, hit him with his shoulder, and verbally threatened him. The assault reportedly occurred in the presence of Soskic, who according to media reports “remained silent” and did nothing to stop the incident. The incident received additional attention as Mijatovic was employed by the Ministry of Interior and did not have permission to work as a private bodyguard. The Ombudsman’s Office, media outlets, NGOs, and opposition political parties condemned the attack and urged authorities to investigate the role of the state prosecutor and the Interior Ministry’s employee in the incident. The Basic Prosecutor’s Office in Podgorica refused a request for Mijatovic to be criminally processed and launched a misdemeanor procedure against Mijatovic on January 30, which was pending at year’s end.
Media outlets reported that more than two-thirds of the 85 attacks on journalists since 2004 remained unsolved or did not result in sentences. Observers also noted that most of the attacks targeted independent or pro-opposition journalists and media professionals.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent and pro-opposition media complained about unfair treatment and economic pressure from government ministries and agencies. The Center for Civic Education claimed that selective and nontransparent distribution of public funds to media outlets created an unfair media environment and constituted “soft censorship.”
On July 10, the Basic Court of Niksic confirmed in a retrial its previous ruling, that parliament dismissed RTCG council member Nikola Vukcevic illegally, and ordered the state or parliament to pay court expenses to Vukcevic. In late 2017, parliament dismissed Vukcevic and NGO activist Goran Djurovic from the RTCG council allegedly over conflicts of interest. The case has gone through several court appeals since 2017, with the Supreme Court issuing a nonbinding advisory opinion in 2019 declaring that courts lacked the authority to adjudicate cases challenging the right of parliament to dismiss disobedient independent individuals and could not force reappointments as specific performance. While the Niksic Basic Court’s ruling was not yet final, legal analysts did not believe either Vukcevic or Djurovic would be reinstated to their positions, as those positions were filled by other individuals. Instead, they may only be entitled to compensation in civil proceedings for the damage they suffered. NGOs and opposition politicians asserted that the dismissals, which were followed by the replacement of the RTCG’s director general, Andrijana Kadija, and the director of the broadcaster’s television section ,Vladan Micunovic, were part of a coordinated campaign by former ruling party DPS to regain control of the RTCG.
In its October country report on the country, the European Commission (EC) noted that Montenegro made no progress on freedom of expression during the reporting period. The report highlighted the arrests and proceedings against editors of online portals and citizens for content they posted or shared online, the unresolved attacks on journalists, and the issue of the national public broadcaster RTCG’s editorial independence and professional standards as points of concern. The report also stated, “The growing volume of regionwide disinformation further polarized the society in the aftermath of the adoption of the law on freedom of religion and during the electoral campaign.”
In the Freedom House Nations in Transit report released on May 6, the country was downgraded from a semiconsolidated democracy to a transitional/hybrid regime. Freedom House noted that the overall media environment remained fractious and the development and sustainability of professional commercial media remained uncertain.
Some media outlets continued to demonstrate a willingness to criticize the government. A lack of training and unprofessional journalistic behavior, combined with low salaries and political pressure, contributed to self-censorship and biased coverage of events.
Libel/Slander Laws: There is no criminal libel law, but media outlets faced libel charges in civil proceedings. The government increasingly employed existing insult laws throughout the year against persons posting comments critical of the state or state officials on social media (see Freedom of Speech).
In a new trial on April 23, the Supreme Court repeated its 2015 decision to fine the independent weekly newspaper Monitor for defaming President Milo Djukanovic’s sister, Ana Kolarevic. Kolarevic sued the weekly for its 2012 reports on her alleged role in the controversial privatization of the national telecommunication company, Telekom Crna Gora. The case was returned to the Supreme Court for retrial after the Constitutional Court in July 2019 overturned the 2015 Supreme Court decision for violating Monitor’s constitutional right to freedom of expression.
On October 8, the High Court of Podgorica found investigative journalist Jovo Martinovic guilty in a retrial and sentenced him to one year in prison for drug trafficking, according to news reports. The court acquitted him of charges of criminal organization. Martinovic, an investigative freelance journalist who covered organized crime, spent 14 months in pretrial detention from 2015 to 2017 and therefore will not serve additional time according to the same reports. In 2019 the High Court sentenced Martinovic to 18 months in prison for being part of an international drug smuggling network, but an appellate court overturned the verdict in September and sent the case back for retrial. Martinovic claimed his contact with convicted criminals was solely in the context of his work reporting on organized crime. Martinovic stated he would appeal the decision, calling the decision a “political decision of the court.” The Committee to Protect Journalists called the ruling a “missed opportunity to bring justice” to Martinovic and stated “the ruling sends a wrong message to journalists…and will have a chilling effect on the country’s media.”
Actions to Expand Freedom of Expression, Including for Media: On July 27, parliament adopted two new media laws, a general law on media and a law on the RTCG.
The law on media introduced a number of new measures, including providing for the establishment of a fund to support media pluralism and diversity by providing financial assistance to commercial media; providing for greater transparency in media ownership by requiring outlets to make public information about shareholders who own more than 5 percent of a media company; requiring ministries and other public institutions to report the funds they have provided to media through both advertising and other means; and establishing a regulatory system for online media. Civil society and independent media criticized some of the law’s provisions, particularly one that obliges journalists to disclose their sources if a prosecutor deems it necessary to protect national security, territorial integrity, or public health. The NGO Center for Investigative Journalism stated that the restrictions imposed on journalists could damage investigative journalism and discourage potential journalistic sources from speaking to the media.
The new law on the RTCG introduced, inter alia, measures to increase the RTCG’s transparency, including requiring the managing council to inform the public in a more regular and comprehensive manner about its activities. The law also establishes an ombudsman position in the RTCG to make it more responsive to citizens’ complaints and demands; issues defined criteria for the selection of RTCG managing council members to prevent the selection of party officials; and abolishes a requirement that the RTCG conclude an agreement with the government as a precondition for receiving public funds, which was perceived as a way the government could influence the RTCG’s independence. The NGO Media Center claimed that, despite the government’s declared intention to decrease political influence over the public broadcaster, the way the law defines the parliament’s role in the appointment and dismissal process of the RTCG managing council, including allowing members of parliament to vote on the NGO-proposed candidates, shows that it wanted to retain control over the RTCG.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no official reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.