From as far back as when Montenegro gained independence in 2006, the country has had a reputation for being a place where family and other ties were stronger than the requirements of the law, and where nepotism and corruption were the natural state of affairs. Nevertheless, in the last couple of years, there have been some signs of improvement. The latest coming from an otherwise unimaginable direction – the courts made findings against the government, and in favor of an investigative journalist.
Situated in the already politically turbulent region of the Western Balkans, the country of Montenegro is the newest member of NATO and is intent on joining the European Union. However, similar to its neighbors, it continues to be plagued by corruption. A recently published analysis on Monitoring and Evaluation of the Rule of Law in Montenegro recognized that judicial reform is ongoing in the country, but problems such as accountability, independence, and impartiality remain a challenge.
This is particularly troubling when it comes to investigating and prosecuting attacks on journalists. The latest report by Amnesty International emphasized the fact that previous attacks on journalists and media workers remain unresolved. For instance, the 2004 murder of the editor-in-chief of the daily Dan (Dusko Jovanovic), who was known for his harsh criticism of the most powerful political figure in the country (Milo Djukanovic), remains insufficiently investigated to this day. The handling of this case has given rise to numerous setbacks, including that only one perpetrator has been brought to trail, no one has been identified as the individual who ordered the killing of the journalist, and the possible connections between the killer and government authorities has never been investigated.
According to the entry in the Media Sustainability Index 2017 for Montenegro, published by the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), experts say that the police and judiciary are still not efficient or competent enough to resolve cases of violence against journalists. The independent media analyst Dusko Vukovic is quoted in the report as saying that “[j]ournalists do not feel free to investigate cases of organized crime and corruption, especially those where there is a potential link between people in power and criminal groups.”
The recent expert report Prosecution of attacks on journalists in Montenegro 2014-2016 estimated that as many as two-thirds of cases of attacks on journalists remain unresolved to date, including cases of murder, physical violence, threats, attacks on property and incidents in which journalists were prevented or hindered in the performance of their duties. This situation is further complicated by the fact that the civil society members of a commission charged with monitoring investigations into violence against journalists continues to be denied security clearance to classified documents.
Over the past ten years, inaction on the part of the authorities was a reality for the investigative journalist Tufic Softić. His fate had many similarities with the experiences of other journalists who dared to report about the intersection of organized crime and the authorities. In early November 2007, Mr. Softić, who was at the time employed by Radio Berane and also worked as a correspondent for the daily newspaper Republika, was viciously beaten with baseball bats by two masked men. It is widely believed that the attack was in connection to his reporting on drug trafficking groups that were operating at the state level and beyond. Despite the grave nature of the attack, it was only after pressure was applied by local and international advocates that the case was reclassified from the criminal offence of grievous bodily injury to the offence of attempted murder. Still, over the next seven years, the authorities failed to conduct any meaningful investigation, kept the process in the pre-investigation stage, and did not charge any perpetrators.
In August 2013, Mr. Softić was exposing connections between criminals and the local authorities in in a series of articles for the daily Vijesti and the weekly Monitor when he was attacked again. This time, an explosive device was detonated in front of his home while he was inside with his family. After this second attack, in February 2014, Mr. Softić was assigned 24-hour police protection.
In 2014, seven years following the incident, a criminal investigation into the attack on Mr. Softić was opened against Ivan Asanović, Vladimir Labudović and Dragan Labudović, only to be closed a year and a half later. The High State Prosecutor’s Office in Bijelo Polje terminated the investigation for lack of evidence. According to Dalibor Tomovic, Mr. Softić’s attorney and a member of the commission responsible for monitoring the investigation of attacks on journalists and media property, the “termination of the investigation was a logical sequence of ineffective police and prosecutorial actions before the prosecutor’s office in Berane from November 1, 2007 to July 18, 2014, and later a yearlong investigation before the High Prosecutor’s Office in Bijelo Polje.”
With the assistance of Human Rights Action (HRA) and Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI), a national and an international organization respectively that defend journalists’ legal rights, and the attorney Dalibor Tomovic, Mr. Softić sued the State of Montenegro for compensation for the harm caused by the failure to investigate the attempts on his life. Mr. Softić alleged that his human rights had been violated by the authorities’ failure to conduct an adequate investigation into the two attacks, which he believed were aimed at silencing him. He also said that, following the attacks, he lived in a constant state of fear that the ineffective investigations would encourage the perpetrators.
In January 2016, he also filed a constitutional complaint to the Constitutional Court of Montenegro, stating that his human rights were violated by the authorities’ failure to take all necessary measures and actions in order to identify people who attempted to murder him.
Against all the odds, in December of 2017, the Basic Court in Podgorica concluded that the attempted murder of Mr. Softić was not investigated at the minimum level required under the right to life as guaranteed by Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, making it the first case in the history of Montenegro where the authorities had been held responsible for failing to investigate attacks on a journalist.
Around the same time, the Constitutional Court of Montenegro found that Mr. Softić’s right to life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been violated, and decided to award him just satisfaction of 7,000 Euros. For the first time ever, the Constitutional Court of Montenegro decided to award just compensation for a human rights violation, thus providing another forum for individuals to seek redress for violations of their human rights (including their right to freedom of expression).
“The judgments of both the Basic Court in Podgorica and Constitutional Court affirming that our colleague Tufik Softić had been denied effective investigation for the case of attempted murder is very encouraging” said Ms. Mila Radulovic from the Association of Professional Journalists in Montenegro, adding that “[t]he government is accepting accountability for the numerous attacks on journalists and one murder.”
The President of the Center for Investigative Journalism of Montenegro, Ms. Milka Tadic Mijovic, shares a similar view. As one of the founders of the independent weekly Monitor, and during her long media career, Ms. Tadic Mijovic herself had encounters with the courts in Montenegro with mixed results. “I am consciously optimistic,” said Ms. Tadic Mijovic, adding that the “[c]ourts in Montenegro were often used for penalizing dissenting voices, and too many times the perpetrators of the crimes committed against journalists were not brought to justice.”
Asked about the changes that could be brought about by the jurisprudence set by the two landmark cases, Ms. Tea Gorjanc Prelevic, Executive Director of HRA and one of the persons credited for the success of Mr. Softić’s cases, said that “Montenegro demonstrated a climate of tolerance toward the authorities’ lack of commitment to finding perpetrators of attacks on journalists,” adding that “[n]ow, for the first time, both the Constitutional Court and the regular court stood up to that, calling it unlawful.”
Ms. Gorjanc Prelevic said that she is aware of other similar cases in the region. “It is important to call out ineffectively-led investigations for what they really are – illegal performance by the state. It is not enough that the state authorities themselves do not kill or beat citizens, but they must also effectively pursue and punish anyone who does,” she said.
The first signs are indeed optimistic, at least when it comes to the number of similar cases that are now being filed with the courts. Following Mr. Softić’s cases, another judgment of the Constitutional Court in a lawsuit that was also filed by HRA found that there had been a lack of an effective investigation in three cases involving police torture. The organization is currently filing another case before the Constitutional Court involving police brutality against a journalist during political protests in 2015, alleging that there had been an ineffective investigation in that case too.
Building on the momentum that the cases have initiated, Ms. Gorjanc Prelevic is hoping that the next step would be the government’s support of the HRA’s proposal for introducing detailed guidelines for state prosecutors on how to lead an investigation in response to attacks on journalists. If that happens, Montenegro may become the example for the region, a clear sign of a society getting ready for maturing from family interests to the rule of law.