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Preliminary observations by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. Frank La Rue at the end to his visit to Montenegro

Podgorica, 17 June 2013

Members of the Press, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to start by expressing my gratitude to the Government of Montenegro for their invitation to visit, and for the support provided to me throughout my stay. The openness to dialogue of all representatives of the government I met with must be recognized and commended. The willingness to address violations of human rights is an important step to a better society.

I must also thank the United Nations Country team, in particular the Office of the Resident Coordinator, for their assistance before and during the visit.

During my visit, I met with a number of government officials, including the Prime Minister, Mr. Milo Đukanović, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration, Mr. Igor Lukšić, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Information Society and Telecommunications; the Minister of Internal Affairs, Mr. Raško Konjević; the Minister of Human and Minority Rights, Mr. Suad Numanović; and the Deputy Minister of Culture, Mr. Željko Rutović.

I also had the pleasure to speak with the acting director of Police, the Deputy Chief State Prosecutor, the President of the Supreme Court of Montenegro, the President of the Constitutional Court, the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights and Freedoms; and the Director of the Agency for Electronic Media, and the Ombudsman's Office.

Finally, I would also like to thank the various representatives of civil society, including the academic community, media groups and journalists who took the time meet with me.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Throughout my visit to Montenegro, officials repeatedly stated their commitment to protect the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Laws and policies continue to be refined in order to ensure the realization of this fundamental right in the country. I was very pleased to learn about the multiple efforts to reform legislation in connection with freedom of expression, including those related to the EU accession process. As the country takes so many important steps, it is vital to ensure a permanent space for dialogue among government authorities, representatives of the media, journalists and civil society in general.

Protection of journalists
A free and independent press plays a key role in democratic societies. A critical media which is free to investigate and denounce abuses and corruption is essential for the defense of human rights, the promotion of transparency, and for facilitating the participation of citizens in public life.

Concerns with the safety of journalists are not new in Montenegro. The impunity of well-known cases of violence against journalists and media property is unacceptable. In every case of violence or intimidation, there must be a full and complete investigation, and those responsible must be sanctioned according to the law. The current atmosphere of impunity is in fact an invitation to further violence.

During this visit, a number of cases of violence have been brought to my attention. These include attacks against journalists, editors, or media property. Of particular concern is the violence against journalists who are investigating allegations of corruption or organized crime, and equally concerning are allegations of State involvement in attacks against journalists. I would like to recall the vital importance that investigative journalism plays in the promotion of government transparency.

The very well known unresolved cases include the 2004 murder of the editor of the daily Dan, Duško Jovanović, where despite the trial of one accomplice, the murderer has never been brought to justice; and the murder of Srđan Vojičić, the bodyguard of the writer Jevrem Brković. The case of Mihailo Jovović raises troubling doubts about the commitment of authorities to vigorously investigate and prosecute cases involving public figures, despite the successful prosecution of Mr. Miljan Mugoša. It is also worrying that attacks against journalists Mr. Tufik Softić, and Mr. Mladen Stojović were never clarified and punished.

I was also informed about the case of Ms. Olivera Lakić. She was conducting investigative reporting into tobacco trafficking, and was threatened and violently assaulted. She has since received police protection, and one perpetrator was sentenced. A police officer had been accused by the state prosecutor for threats against Lakić and her family. I trust that this case will continue to receive the highest attention from the State Prosecutor, and that those responsible will be brought to justice. It is not until these cases, and all other unresolved cases of violence against journalists are fully resolved, that confidence can be re-established between the media and the State.

Based on my experience studying efforts to protect journalists around the world, I would like to recommend that a coordination mechanism be established for the protection of journalists and human rights defenders in Montenegro. This task force would jointly decide on the measures which need to be taken to protect journalists and to ensure the effective investigation and prosecution of cases of violence against journalists. Its composition could include representatives of the Ministry of Interior, the Police Directorate, the Prosecutor General, the justice system, as well as representatives of the press and civil society.

Independence of the media
I welcome the recent reforms to the Electronic Media law and the Law on Public Broadcasting, bringing both further into accordance with European standards.

For society to be fully informed, and to exercise the right to freedom of thought and opinion, it is crucial to uphold the principle of diversity in media, and the plurality of ideas. For that purpose, the essential element is the independence with which media operates, including public broadcasting. The media must be free from any interference from the government, which can be exerted directly through censorship, or indirectly through financial dependence. Public broadcasting is a vital service of the State. I am aware of past efforts in restructuring the Council. However, I recommend further review of the representation in the Council in consultation with civil society to ensure that it performs its tasks, and is seen to be performing it tasks, fully independent from government influence.

Furthermore, regarding the independence of the media, I find no reasons for the State to own the daily newspaper Pobjeda. I understand that there is legislation mandating the transfer of this traditional newspaper to private ownership, and I re-emphasize the importance of doing so at the earliest possible opportunity. As a private paper, its editorial policy would no longer be a matter of public concern.

We must be clear here: while the State is responsible for protecting the freedom of the press and the independence of the media, the media is responsible for maintaining high professional and ethical standards through voluntary self-regulation.

In this regard, I was surprised by the extreme polarization and personal hostility shown among some representatives of the media in Montenegro. I am concerned that this hostility harms journalism in Montenegro in many ways, including by impairing the creation of broad, effective journalist associations to fight for the rights and protection of journalists.

At present, there is only one functioning self-regulatory body, which does not include all members of the media. Unfortunately, this body appears to primarily report on alleged violations by non-members. I urge all media to engage in dialogue in order to either strengthen the existing self-regulating body, or at minimum, rapidly establishing a functioning self-regulating mechanism of their individual choice. No media should operate without a voluntary code of ethics, or effective self-regulation. Self-evaluation and criticism are essential components of professionalism for any form of media.

I am concerned about reports that some media in Montenegro have occasionally resorted to sensationalism, at times violating the privacy and protection of children, the presumption of innocence, and even publishing text that could be considered hate speech. I was also alarmed to hear that the media at times refuses to acknowledge and publicly correct serious mistakes when those mistakes become apparent.

Finally, to prevent indirect government interference in editorial policies, all public spending and support to the media must be transparent and comply with the law. In particular, the allocation of public advertising in the media must be equitable and fair, with full transparency, and monitored by the media itself.

Access to information
I also welcome the recent reforms to the Freedom of Information law. I encourage the state to continue its efforts to implement the law, and to respect the time limits provided for in the law, particularly when the requests relate to potential human rights violations.

All State institutions, including the judiciary, must guarantee timely access to information. Except as provided for by the law, such as during the investigative periods, or for the protection of victims’ privacy, courts must make every effort to provide full and timely access to all indictments, proceedings and judgments.

Peaceful demonstrations
Freedom of expression includes all forms that persons can chose to express their views and opinions. This includes the right to peaceful assembly and demonstration. In Montenegro, this is a constitutional right, which only requires prior notification to the national police. I am concerned by reports from civil society that suggest that this notification process has become in reality a process of authorization, through the arbitrary denial of peaceful protests by the police, at times under the argument that they would impede traffic. In others cases, permits were granted, but were relocated to distant parts of the city. I urge the police to make greater efforts to manage traffic around demonstrations, and address any other security concerns that may exist, in order to minimize restrictions of this constitutional right.

The wealth of Montenegro lies in its diversity
I would also like to recognize the importance given towards the promotion of diversity in the media, including the financial support provided by the Ministry of Culture for the production of media content related to minorities and vulnerable groups. However, I recommend that State funding for any media or content production be independently administered.

Given that Montenegro is a culturally, ethnically, and religiously diverse society, it is critical to guarantee that the expression of cultural and religious diversity be protected and encouraged.

I would like to thank again the extensive collaboration of government officials, and their readiness for dialogue. The commitment to change is palpable, and the ongoing efforts to implement reforms to bring national laws in line with international standards are very encouraging. As this process evolves, attention must be paid to the implementation of new laws into practice. I look forward to continuing my dialogue with Montenegro, and stand ready to provide any technical cooperation that may be requested.