Mihailo Jovović - Foto OBCT

Mihailo Jovović - Foto OBCT

After the dissolution of Yugoslavia and a transition period, in Montenegro - now a candidate country for EU membership - the evolution of the media landscape continued in parallel with the attempts to accelerate democratic developments. Interview with Mihailo Jovović, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Vijesti

10/07/2024 -  Sava Mirković Podgorica

According to the latest ranking by Reporters Without Borders on press freedom in the world, Montenegro occupies the 40th place (out of a total of 180 countries taken into consideration), therefore it is positioned quite high compared to the other countries of the post-Yugoslav area. However, the situation is not rosy.

External interference, mainly from Serbia, through media ownership structures, and the pervasiveness of propaganda are just some of the problems plaguing the media sector in Montenegro. While on the one hand the European Commission, in its latest report on Montenegro, considers the level of pluralism of the Montenegrin media landscape to be satisfactory, the Media Ownership Monitor  operated by the Global Media Registry highlights some critical issues. Specifically, a high degree of cross-media ownership concentration and a significant risk of political interference in editorial decisions.

The first problem arises from the fact that eight main media companies control 89.5% of the Montenegrin media market (TV, print media, radio, and web portals). The second problematic aspect is linked to a strong polarization of the media, with a clear tendency to align with certain political positions.

The public broadcaster (Radio Television of Montenegro, RTCG) is the main source of information for Montenegrin citizens. The RTCG is currently led by Boris Raonić, appointed for the first time in 2021 with the aim of changing the management framework of the public service, until then allegedly controlled by the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). In 2023 Raonić was reconfirmed as head of the RTCG, despite the decision of the High Court which deemed Raonić's appointment illegitimate due to a conflict of interest.

The new law on public service, approved by the Podgorica parliament on 19 June, addresses the issue of the procedures for appointing the director of the RTCG and has become the bone of contention between the political forces precisely because of Raonić's re-election.

Also worth highlighting is the issue of safety of journalists which, in Montenegro, is linked first and foremost to the inability (or lack of will) of the competent authorities to conduct adequate investigations and resolve cases of attacks on journalists. The unsolved murder of Duško Jovanović, owner and editor of the newspaper Dan, is one of the main indicators of the impotence of state institutions which, twenty years later, have still not managed to clarify what happened. Cases like this raise concern among citizens, fuel distrust in the judiciary and police forces, and contribute to the creation of a dangerous environment for journalists.

We spoke about this, and much more, with Mihailo Jovović, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Vijesti and president of the Commission for monitoring the work of the authorities responsible for investigating attacks on journalists.

How do you comment on the situation regarding media ownership in Montenegro? There is a high degree of media concentration, and a lack of pluralism. In your opinion, is this a structural problem, linked to an extremely small market, or should the causes be looked for elsewhere?

I believe that the issue is partly linked to the market dynamics on which the media of the entire post-Yugoslav linguistic space, especially the Serbian ones, have a strong impact. There are no language barriers, so even some unprofessional media, which do nothing but propaganda, manage to exert considerable influence on the Montenegrin market.

These dynamics are not necessarily tied to media ownership. In Montenegro there are some "national" owned media, whose owners however have money of dubious origin, some have been arrested, others are on trial. They say that the majority owners of all Montenegrin television stations (except one) come from Serbia. I think it's a wrong perception, what matters is professionalism and editorial independence.

Personally, I would prefer to work for a media with a foreign owner, capable of respecting an independent editorial line and the presence of a morally upright editor-in-chief, rather than for a media controlled by a Montenegrin citizen who is unable to guarantee independence and professionalism.

What do you think of the media law currently in force in Montenegro? Is there room for improvement?

The current media law introduced some improvements if compared to the previous legislation, especially regarding the protection of sources, i.e. the right of journalists to protect their sources. In the past, in some cases, at the request of the prosecutor's office, journalists had to reveal the identity of their sources, otherwise they risked a sanction. Now, it is the court that decides whether or not a journalist must reveal the source. Although this is a step forward compared to the previous law, the current legislation is still far from that of 2002, according to which journalists were under no circumstances obliged to reveal the identity of their sources.

Some improvements can also be seen in the work of the public broadcaster after the change of power in August 2020. In recent weeks there has been a lot of talk about the public service law, which has become a victim of the difficult coexistence between the president and the prime minister. I am referring in particular to President Jakov Milatović's decision to send the legislative text back to parliament for further examination. A few days ago the law was finally adopted. In your opinion, is it a good law?

I believe that the new law on public service is basically good, even if the current director of the RTCG, together with the prime minister, influenced some amendments. I think the change according to which the length of previous experience required for the appointment of the director of the public service has been reduced from ten to five years is very bad. Another negative provision is the one that allows advertising spots to be published in prime time, i.e. between 8pm and 9pm.

It was evidently an exchange of favors where the prime minister complied with the requests of the director of the public broadcaster in exchange for obedience and dissemination of government propaganda.

However, an important difference should be underlined compared to the period in which the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) was in government. Until 2020, at the RTCG there was only space for DPS exponents, who spoke about what they wanted. Now there is space for everyone but they continue to talk about what they want. There is a lack of professionalism and journalists avoid asking uncomfortable questions to their guests. Therefore, we do not talk about issues that concern citizens. The fact that there is space for everyone is a positive thing, because the public service must serve the interests of the citizens who finance it. However, investigative journalism is missing.

Let's focus on the issue of the safety of journalists. You lead the Commission for monitoring the work of the authorities responsible for investigating attacks on journalists. Are there any positive developments regarding the safety of journalists in Montenegro, considering that we have witnessed several cases of assault on journalists in the past? Do you see impunity being the main issue as some of the most famous cases have still not been resolved?

Some old cases are still at a standstill, including the murder of Duško Jovanović in 2004, the beating of Tufik Softić, the attack on Olivera Lakić. In these cases no progress has been made. I understand that some cases are difficult to resolve, but the reports of the Commission that I chair clearly demonstrate that the investigations were not conducted adequately. It was decided not to conduct them adequately. The current stalemate, in my opinion, is linked to the fact that those dealing with the old cases of attacks on journalists are more or less the same people who worked in the prosecutor's office during the preliminary investigations. Recent cases, however, are dealt with more promptly.

Let's go back to the case of Duško Jovanović, killed twenty years ago. How would you summarize the attitude of the political leadership towards this case? Is there political will to solve it?

There is a declaratory political will which is reflected in the tendency to put pressure on the prosecutor's office and the police to solve the murder of Jovanović. It is certainly not up to politicians to conduct the investigations, but public support, absent in the period before 2020, means a lot. In the last two reports, the Commission led by me has made concrete proposals on what should be done and which witnesses to listen to. A reward should also be offered to encourage people who know something to reveal the information they have.

Have you received any feedback on the proposals made?

The government has adopted our report. However, there is another problem. The Commission was established by the government, which has no power to control the prosecutor's office. We investigate the investigators, that is, the work of the prosecutor's office and the police, and we can only make recommendations. We present our reports with recommendations to the government, which then forwards them to the prosecutor's office and the police. So, we have very limited room for manoeuver.

Lately, however, there have been some positive developments. For example, the Attorney General asked all public prosecutor's offices to provide him not only with clarifications on the reasons why some investigations went on for so long – a very important aspect for establishing responsibility – but also with concrete proposals to strengthen cooperation with the Commission, including the need to regularly inform the Commission of developments relating to investigations.

 

This article was produced by OBC Transeuropa as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors, and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries.

Consorzio MFRR

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