Die Verurteilung des bekannten, investigativen Journalisten Jovo Martinovic wegen angeblichen “Drogenhandels” zeigt, dass Montenegros Engagement für Rechtsstaatlichkeit und Medienfreiheit ein “Lippenbekenntnis” ist. – Ein Gastbeitrag von Marija Ristic, der Leiterin des Investigativ-Netzwerkes BIRN und Preisträgerin des von “Reporter ohne Grenzen (RSF) Österreich” vergebenen Press Freedom Awards.
I met Jovo Martinovic some four years ago for a training session that the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, organised in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica. At first he seemed a shy person, but after few coffees you quickly became aware of his sharp mind and brilliant journalistic skills.
Although this was our first encounter, I knew who he was from some of my colleagues; Martinovic had reported for years on war crimes, organised crime and corruption, for the local media but also for such prestigious international outlets such as The Economist and The Financial Times and the BBC. At BIRN, we were proud that he was one of our grantees in Montenegro.
Journalists’ meetings in the Balkans usually mean drinks, laughs and gossip – but this one was different, for a reason. Martinovic had been temporarily released after spending almost 15 months in pre-trial detention on charges of drug-trafficking. The Special Public Prosecutor’s Office said it suspected
Martinovic of “helping to form a drugs smuggling ring”.
This month, the High Court in Podgorica, in its second-instance ruling, found Martinovic guilty of drug trafficking and sentenced him to one year in prison, though he will not have to serve it on account of the time he spent behind bars already.
Many international organisations, including Reporters Without Borders, RSF, called the ruling of the Montenegrin court a black day for press freedom in Europe.
This troubled process before the Podgorica courts shows two disturbing trends at work in Montenegro: first, that any journalists are at risk of being jailed for their journalistic work if the prosecution deems so; and second, that the Montenegrin government’s stated commitment to the rule of law and press freedom is only verbal. In reality, the authorities often curb freedom of expression, right to a fair trial and media freedoms for political purposes.
During his arrest, Martinovic was on a journalistic assignment, which witnesses confirmed. He was meeting gang members as part of his work on an international documentary about crime. His meetings were a regular matter for any journalist investigating organised crime, corruption or war crimes. Working on such investigative stories usually requires meeting dubious sources, people on the other side of law and even witnessing illegal actions. If other courts elsewhere followed the logic of the Montenegrin judicial system, every second investigative journalist could end up in prison.
The process in his case was flawed from the beginning. For more than a year, the prosecutor ignored calls from press freedom and human rights groups to free him on bail pending his trial.
Denied the right to due process, he spent 15 months in pre-trial detention before the High Court of Montenegro sentenced him to an 18-month prison term for marijuana trafficking and criminal association in January 2019.
Suspicions of political pressure hung over this verdict, which the Appeal Court of Montenegro quashed in October 2019. This concluded that the first-instance court had failed to explain the facts and produce the evidence justifying the conviction of the journalist.
But the High Court conducting the retrial suddenly cut short the hearings, effectively denying Martinovic the chance to present new evidence of his innocence. Martinovic has now announced he will appeal the latest decision.
The process against Martinovic shows that Montenegro, which aspires to join the European Union, remains contemptuous of its obligations to respect media freedom, and disregards European standards on freedom of expression in order to silence critical journalists.