A court in Montenegro has sentenced award-winning investigative journalist Jovo Martinovic to one year in prison for drug-trafficking. The ruling, following a retrial, was condemned by media watchdogs as an attack on press freedom. Montenegro has been under pressure to tackle organized crime and safeguard media freedom as the country hopes to join the EU by 2025. Along with this, the country’s public broadcaster has lashed out at members of their managing council and certain editors, accusing them of working for the new majority in parliament.
Martinovic has reported widely on organized crime with local and international outlets and has denied the accusations against him, as he believes the accusations were in retaliation for his reporting. He was arrested five years ago and spent 15 months in pretrial detention. In January 2019, the High Court of Montenegro sentenced him to 18 months in prison for marijuana trafficking and criminal association. This verdict was quashed by the Appeals Court in October 2019, and now during the retrial on October 8th Martinovic has been found guilty of mediation in drug trafficking. He was acquitted of organized crime activity. However, Martinovic will not return to prison as he already spent 15 months there in pre-trial detention.
“The court refused to take into account all the evidence in my favor during the entire procedure, and most importantly refused to acknowledge that I was on a journalistic assignment, which the witnesses confirmed,” Martinovic said. Several other press freedom organizations also condemned the decision. From the start of the trial, many media unions and rights groups agreed that the case and the verdicts put journalism and freedom of expression under pressure in Montenegro. They called for an acquittal of Martinovic, with eight NGO noting in a joint statement that “In the last decade, hardly any other journalist in an EU member state, candidate country, or potential candidate country — with the exception of Turkey — has spent so much time in prison merely for doing his job.”
Montenegro’s public broadcaster
Besides the Martinovic trial, Montenegro’s freedom of expression has been under fire at Montenegro’s public broadcaster, RTCG. This has long been seen as the mouthpiece of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), which was the ruling party in Montenegro for 30 years until last August. The management of the broadcaster accused members of the managing council and some editors of compromising editorial policy and working for the interests of the new majority parties. Several editors were fired after they accused RTCG management of exerting political pressure, unprofessionalism and religious intolerance.
The DPS lost elections in August to three opposition blocks, who gained a majority of 41 of the 81 seats in parliament. The opposition blocks, working together as the For the Future of Montenegro coalition, have pledged to continue Montenegro’s path to EU and NATO membership. Despite Montenegro’s ambitions, freedom of press is still under pressure in the country. The EU has expressed its “serious concern” about “continued political interference” with the work of the public broadcaster RTCG in its 2020 progress report on Montenegro. Earlier, Reporters Without Borders noted the replacement of several key managers at RTCG with supporters of the RTCG, showing the ties RTCG has with DPS.