by Milka Tadić-Mijović
PODGORICA – As Western Balkan countries progress toward European Union membership, media freedoms are weakening while attacks on journalists are ever more violent and overt. In its freedom index, Reporters Without Borders ranks Montenegro – an EU candidate that is expected to join NATO next year – in a catastrophic 106th place out of 180 countries.
Macedonia, another would-be EU member, is even worse in 118th place. In Serbia nearly all critical journalists, even those who have heroically resisted the wars and nationalism, have been banned from major media outlets in recent years.
These countries have become a real battlefield in which the authoritarian governments and criminal groups dispense with reporters who they cannot muscle into silence. Journalists and media organizations face many pressures and threats: financial exhaustion of independent media, physical assaults, court trials, large fines for defamation, bombs in front of editorial offices, imprisonment and even assassination.
Twelve years have passed since the murder of Dusko Jovanovic, editor-in-chief of the opposition daily Dan, and the investigation of the case has not made much progress. Neither the perpetrators nor those who ordered the murder have been identified – much less charged, convicted and sentenced.
As in the grim Soviet times, independent journalists are called traitors, enemies of the state and mercenaries of foreign countries. They are accused of crime and depicted as media mafia.
Dozens of journalists have been physically beaten, and most of the attackers remain unpunished. Three years ago a bomb exploded in front of the newsroom of the daily Vijesti, and their offices have been stoned several times.
Investigative journalist Jovo Martinovic has been in prison since last winter under a suspicious indictment that he is part of a criminal organization that was preparing a documentary film about the gang’s chief. Martinovic has cooperated with the most prestigious international media, producing edgy stories about the mafia, well-known Montenegrin jewel thieves and arms smuggling.
Djukanović’s War on the Media
The oppression and abuse of free-minded journalists who expose the misuse of power has lead to an erosion of freedoms, as well as censorship and self-censorship.
The fear is growing not only because of fines, physical violence and financial destruction of media that are not under the control of powerful structures, but also because of unseemly verbal violence that can quickly ruin one’s life, destroy families and make children the targets of abuse from peers, which in small authoritarian systems can be especially cruel.
For years now, Montenegrin civil society activists and independent journalists have been subjected to endless negative campaigns orchestrated by authorities, criminals and media under their control. As in the grim Soviet times, independent journalists are called traitors, enemies of the state and mercenaries of foreign countries. They are accused of crime and depicted as media mafia.
These campaigns are encouraged by top officials. Prime Minister Milo Djukanović has openly called for the arrest of Professor Miodrag Perovic, a well-known intellectual, anti-war activist, founder of the first independent media Monitor and Vijesti, and resistor of Slobodan Milosevic’s nationalist regime during the 1990s.
Djukanović did not stop there. He has depicted the press and owners of independent media outlets as “mice that should be deratized.”
Alternating between prime minister and president for the past 25 years, Djukanović has governed the country oppressively while being wreathed by allegations of corruption and links to crime. The Organized Crime and Coruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) proclaimed him “Man of the Year in Organized Crime in 2015.” The year before, this title was awarded to Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, who is Djukanovic’s strategic partner in real estate development projects.
A particular target in this hate campaign are women, who serve critical roles as journalists and activists. In a small country with only 620,000 people, where the macho culture celebrates the birth of a boy while the arrival of girls in the world is bemoaned, women tend to be excommunicated, embarrassed and isolated.
Activist Vanja Ćalović, head of the NGO MANS, has been a victim of the pro-government tabloid Informer. For 16 days in a row, the newspaper published doctored, perverted photos on its front page of Ćalović having sex with her dogs. The photos were hung in tobacco shops, which are highly visible places in Montenegro, even though distributing adult content in public is prohibited.
One of Djukanović’s promoters publicly stated he personally sent around a forged video compromising Ćalović even before Informer published the photos. The prime minister later claimed the material was not forged and that the tabloid’s claims were correct. He never answered the obvious question – how could he know that?
The attacks on Ćalović came after she repeatedly warned the public about troubling connections between Djukanović and Stanko Cane Subotić, a controversial Serbian businessman who for many years was on Interpol’s list of organized cigarette smugglers. Both men were named on an indictment put forth by Italian prosecutors. After many years the indictment against Djukanović was withdrawn due to his immunity as a statesman. The process against Subotić was also suspended due to a lack of evidence.
Murder and Character Assassination
On October 23, 2008 a bomb planted on a motorcycle exploded and killed corruption-fighting journalist Ivo Pukanić, editor-in-chief of the weekly Nacional, and his colleague Niko Franjić. The assassination in downtown Zagreb was carried out by members of Croatian and Serbian organized crime groups. Pukanić was murdered after writing a series of articles about the tobacco mafia and cigarette smuggling, which marked as its main protagonists Djukanović and Subotić. Before the murder of Dusko Jovanovic, his daily Dan regularly re-published Nacional‘s articles about tobacco smuggling.
I myself have been the target of a brutal campaign carried out by pro-government media and operatives. This came after publishing in Monitor, along with colleague Milena Perovic Korac, several investigative articles on Subotić’s suspicious transactions in Montenegro and his connections with the political and business elite. Subotić filed a civil lawsuit against us, and the process in which we lost the case has not yet been concluded.
At the same time, Montenegrin state daily Pobjeda published a series of articles accusing journalists of independent media of terrible crimes. Korac and I were called “scums,” “whores in pants,” “courtesans” and “yummy mummies.” The series with such language lasted several years. They wrote about our alleged lovers, that my husband was on heroin, and that I danced on a table in front of Prime Minister Djukanović. There were even direct calls for violence – that we “deserved a beating” and will get a “foot in the back.”
We sued the state, because Pobjeda was state-owned until it was privatized last year. Our fight in the courts is continuing.
The state machinery does not cease squeezing independent journalists. The pressures and campaigns are only changing forms. And everything is designed to silence those who write about the shady dealings of Balkan political and criminal elites who are so tightly intertwined.
Milka Tadić-Mijović is one of Montenegro’s most prominent journalists and media figures. She is a co-founder of the weekly Monitor, president of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Montenegro, and a founding member of the Southeast Europe Coalition on Whistleblower Protection. She was named to Reporters without Borders’ first-ever list of “100 Information Heroes.” Read about her legal battles against media attacks here, and about her report on captured media outlets in the Western Balkans here.