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20.03.2019

EU warns Serbia and Montenegro are backsliding on rule of law as media freedom violations continue

by Jane Whyatt

MEPs have warned the so-called ’frontrunners’ for EU accession in the Western Balkans - Serbia and Montenegro - that the rule of law must be respected if they are ever to achieve membership of the European Union.

Justice 900X600 Law and justice. Photo: public domain

The warning comes from a committee meeting in the European Parliament regarding the Western Balkans, as press and media freedom violations continue in both the former Yugoslav states. 

"We keep witnessing backsliding, even in the so-called frontrunners [for EU membership in the region] Serbia and Montenegro," said Spanish MEP Javier Couso Permuy, Vice Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The two countries are known as the regional 'frontrunners' because their negotiations with the EU are at a more advanced stage than those of the other Balkan countries. 

Summing up the debate that brought together experts, monitors and civil society representatives, the veteran MEP Eduard Kukan, a former Foreign Minister of Slovakia, stressed: "Rule of law is the backbone of democracy. There will be no discounts or shortcuts. Governments should have the courage to tell their populations that they are not doing this for Brussels, but for a better life for all their people."

One example of the backsliding on the rule of law is state interference in the public service broadcaster, RTS. The ongoing 1 in 5 million opposition movement claims that the RTS networks are not independent, but propaganda channels for the government, with demonstrators having stormed the public broadcaster's studios.

Violence erupted on 17. March 2019 in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, as demonstrators from the movement clashed with police outside the Serbian Presidency. Serbia's President Aleksandar Vučić was holding a press conference in the building at the time, precisely to address the storming of RTS.

Serbian journalists under pressure as protests swell Thousands of Serbs are protesting against propaganda, pressure and attacks on independent journalists, and against President Vucic’s strongman style of government. Photo: Visekruna Djordje

Persecution against journalists has been rampant in these Western Balkan countries. In December 2018, reporter Milan Jovanovic and his wife narrowly escaped being burnt to death in an arson attack on their home in Serbia. And in Montenegro, a car bomb targeting reporter Sead Sakinović and the shooting of Vijesti TV’s Olivera Lakić are interpreted as warnings from powerful people trying to silence independent journalism.

Meanwhile, Montenegrin investigative reporter Jovo Martinović has been found guilty of downloading an encrypted messaging app and using it for drug deals. He was detained without trial or charges for 14 months, and has now been sentenced to 18 months in jail. - even though he was working undercover to expose the drug-smuggling gang and make a documentary for French TV network Canal+.

Martinović is currently out of jail as he awaits the appeal.  

“If those guys who are already in the EU can get away [with murder]...”

Martinović was awarded the Press Freedom Prize by Reporters Without Borders Austria at a ceremony in Vienna on 20. March. He gave an interview to ECPMF on the eve of the prize-giving ceremony. He said: "Olivera Lakić was shot in the leg – that was just a warning... They were delighted with what happened in Malta and Slovakia, they were thinking, 'if those guys who are already in the EU can get away with it, so can we!'"

In Malta, investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered by a car bomb; and in Slovakia, journalists Ján Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kušnírová were shot dead.

Jovo Martinović interview

Jovo Martinovic wide

 

Read here the ECPMF's interview with award-winning Montenegrin journalist Jovo Martinović.

Impunity is still an historic issue in both Montenegro and Serbia.

A response from Montenegro's government to an alert on the Council of Europe’s Safety of Journalists’ Platform was published on 20. March. It relates to the murder in 2004 of journalist Dusko Jovanovic, editor-in-chief of the Montenegrin opposition daily newspaper Dan. The state’s reply is that the investigators are waiting to receive forensic evidence from the Forensic Science Institute in Wiesbaden, Germany.

In Serbia, the long-running trial of four men accused of murdering opposition editor and publisher Slavko Curuvija 20 years ago in Belgrade - as he returned home from Easter lunch in April 1999 - continues. Now in its third year, the hearing has been characterised by delays and bureaucracy.