WASHINGTON — Attacks against independent newspapers and journalists have been increasing over the past few years in Montenegro, but two recent incidents are raising concerns and condemnation from human rights groups, free press advocates and U.S. officials.
An attack against Lidija Nikcevic of the newspaper Dan, which led to her hospitalization in early January, and the detonation of an explosive device outside the offices of the Vijesti daily in late December have led to calls for Montenegro’s government to investigate and prosecute those responsible.
Delphine Halgand, director of the Washington, D.C. office for Reporters Without Borders, says impunity is unacceptable for a country aspiring to become a member of the European Union and should not be the rule in Montenegro. She notes that journalists working for independent media such as Vijesti, Dan and Monitor magazine have been regularly attacked or threatened since the murder of Dan editor Dusko Jovanovic in 2004.
“We don’t see any kind of willingness on the part of the government to resolve those attacks,” said Halgand. “What’s worse than that, we observe that no one responsible for these attacks has been brought to justice. That is why we are calling authorities, especially the prime minister, to condemn the violence and to do whatever it takes to stop these attacks, beginning with bringing to justice persons responsible.”
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Hoyt Yee also strongly condemned the attacks on the office of Vijesti and against journalist Nikcevic, saying “We are concerned about what appears to be an emerging pattern of violence and intimidation in Montenegro, against journalists, against media outlets. We…strongly call on [the] government of Montenegro to investigate these incidents and to bring to justice those responsible…”
Robert Hand, a policy advisor to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, says Montenegro is a close friend and a possible future ally of Washington, but it has to be held to the same standards as other OSCE members.
“When something like this happens, we need to respond to it,” Hand said. “And in addition, we may have some higher expectations of Montenegro because it has accomplished so much in recent years and aspires to join the European Union, possibly NATO, things like that, and therefore we have these higher expectations, so for those reasons, when we hear about the incidents that are occurring, they are of great concern.”
Karin Karlekar from the independent watchdog organization Freedom House says Montenegro currently ranks 74th out of 197 countries in terms of press freedom, putting it in the category of “partly free.”
“Basically this has led to a climate of impunity because very few of the attacks have been investigated properly or prosecuted, so it is definitely an issue of concern because we’ve seen in a number of other media environments around the world that this level of attacks against journalists can really lead to restrictions on media freedom because it can lead to a climate of fear and self-censorship,” she said.
Freedom House and the Helsinki Commission also emphasize that journalists have to be protected, crimes investigated and those responsible brought to justice. Hand says until that happens, concern remains warranted.
“It is not just enough to express outrage about these actions and condemn them, but there needs to be follow-up so that the message is sent to whoever is doing it, that it is not going to be tolerated.”
He adds that such attacks can also affect prospects for Montenegro joining the EU, since Brussels has already expressed some concern about the media in Montenegro.
“I don’t want to overblow it and say that the situation is so severe that there are going to be problems," he said. “But certainly it is something that Montenegro, the Montenegrin government and Montenegrin authorities need to be aware and they need to pursue. The country needs to have a free media; it needs to have journalists who are allowed to criticize.”