a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. Unsolved attacks against journalists, political interference with the public broadcaster, smear campaigns carried out by progovernment tabloids, and unfair treatment and economic pressure from government ministries and agencies against independent and pro-opposition media remained a significant problem.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media generally expressed a wide variety of political and social views, including through articles and programs critical of the authorities. The NGO Center for Civic Education warned in each of its annual reports since 2012, however, that selective and nontransparent public funding through the purchase of advertising continued to exert undue influence on the media market. According to the NGO, such funding was provided to reward media outlets favorable to the government and withheld from media that questioned official policies or practices.
The independent television station and newspaper Vijesti continued to attribute its difficulties making regular tax payments to unfair media conditions, economic pressure from the government, and selective prosecution. It complained of large government subsidies to the national public broadcaster, favoring progovernment media when distributing public funds through advertising and project tenders, and a favorable disposition towards foreign-based media compared with local outlets; it also alleged the judiciary practiced selective efficiency and application of defamation laws when independent media are involved. On April 17, an appellate court overturned a 2018 Commercial Court ruling that rejected a 2014 lawsuit brought by Vijesti’s parent company, Daily Press, against the progovernment tabloid Pink M Television for allegedly defaming and discrediting Vijesti. The appellate court returned the case to the Commercial Court for a readjudication, which continued at year’s end.
Violence and Harassment: Unsolved attacks from previous years and an atmosphere of intimidation against media critical of the government continued to be a serious problem.
On February 19, police announced that the May 2018 shooting of Vijesti reporter Olivera Lakic in front of her home in Podgorica had been solved and named a known criminal and his gang as the perpetrators. Police arrested nine individuals for the attack on Lakic, but independent media questioned police findings because prosecutors had not yet brought formal indictments against the suspects. Lakic, whose investigative reporting covered crime and corruption in the country, was previously attacked in 2012. Government officials, political parties, and international and multilateral organizations condemned the 2018 attack.
On October 14, the High Court of Bijelo Polje fined Nova M, the company that acquired Pink M in 2018, 2,000 euros ($2,200) for defaming Vijesti’s owners Zeljko Ivanovic and Miodrag Perovic. The basic court had originally ordered a fine of 5,000 euros ($5,500). Ivanovic and Perovic sued Pink M for its misleading reporting connecting them to a former Vijesti journalist suspected of collecting and distributing child pornography on the internet. Separately, 20 journalists from Vijesti individually sued Pink M for similarly attacking their reputations by misleadingly linking them to the accused. As of November, first instance courts had ruled in favor of 19 of the journalists, ordering Nova M to pay fines ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 euros ($1,100 to $5,500), with higher courts subsequently lowering the fines to 800 to 2,000 euros ($880 to $2,200). Vijesti welcomed the court decisions but criticized state institutions for being inefficient in preventing progovernment tabloids from waging smear campaigns against independent media.
On December 3, journalist Vladimir Otasevic, who worked for the independent daily newspaper Dan, was assaulted while photographing controversial Montenegrin businessman Zoran Becirovic, whom the special prosecutor had previously brought in for questioning regarding an alleged attempt to intimidate a witness in the company of high state prosecutor Milos Soskic, in a shopping mall in Podgorica. According to media reports, Becirovic’s bodyguard Mladen Mijatovic grabbed Otasevic by the back of the neck, used his shoulder to hit him, and verbally threatened him. The assault reportedly occurred in the presence of Soskic, who according to media reports “remained silent” and did nothing to stop the incident. The incident received additional attention as Mijatovic is employed by the Ministry of Interior and did not have permission to work as a private bodyguard. The Ombudsman’s Office, media outlets, NGOs, and opposition political parties condemned the attack and urged the authorities to investigate the role of the state prosecutor and the Interior Ministry’s employee in this incident.
Media outlets reported that more than two-thirds of the 85 attacks on journalists since 2004 remained unsolved or did not result in sentences. Observers also noted that the vast majority of the attacks targeted independent or pro-opposition journalists and media professionals.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent and pro-opposition media complained about unfair treatment and economic pressure from government ministries and agencies. The Center for Civic Education claimed that selective and nontransparent distribution of public funds to media outlets created an unfair media environment and constituted “soft censorship.”
On December 4, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court in Podgorica’s June 1 ruling making it final that the managing council of the public broadcaster Radio and Television Montenegro (RTCG) illegally dismissed RTCG’s director general, Andrijana Kadija, in 2018. Of the nine-member council, six representatives affiliated with the ruling DPS voted for Kadija’s dismissal. Kadija maintained she was dismissed because of her professional and politically unbiased managing of RTCG. The EU and the OSCE sharply criticized the dismissal.
Independent journalists, civil society activists, and opposition politicians asserted that Kadija’s dismissal was the final step in DPS’s campaign to regain control of the public broadcaster. That campaign, they claimed, began late in 2017 when parliament dismissed two RTCG council members, film director Nikola Vukcevic and NGO activist Goran Djurovic, allegedly over conflicts of interest. On February 28 and in December 2018, in separate rulings, the basic courts in Podgorica and Niksic, respectively, ruled that parliament’s dismissals of Djurovic and Vukcevic were illegal and annulled the parliament’s decisions on the dismissals. Parliament contested the court’s ability to adjudicate parliamentary decisions on appointments and dismissals and order reinstatement, and it did not comply with the decision. On June 27, the Supreme Court issued a nonbinding but advisory general legal opinion stating that courts cannot challenge parliamentary decisions on elections, appointments, and dismissals of public officials and force reappointments via injunctive relief.
On October 25, in a retrial, the basic court in Podgorica reversed its February ruling and dismissed Djurovic’s lawsuit against the parliament. The NGO Human Rights Action warned that the reversal, influenced by the Supreme Court’s earlier opinion, showed there is no effective legal protection against the parliamentary majority’s illegal decisions. Nonetheless, actions for monetary damages for illegal dismissals remained available.
On September 24, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court in Podgorica’s February 7 ruling that RTCG director general Bozidar Sundic, who replaced Kadija, illegally dismissed Kadija’s first associate, RTCG’s Television Section director Vladan Micunovic. Commenting on the verdict, Micunovic described the decision on his replacement, as well as the replacements of Kadija, Vukcevic, and Djurovic as a “totalitarian purge and a mockery of the law, profession, and common sense.”
On September 24, the High Court in Podgorica ordered the state government and the former editor-in-chief of the daily Pobjeda, Srdjan Kusovac, to pay a total of 10,000 euros ($12,000) to journalists of the independent weekly newspaper Monitor, Milka Tadic Mijovic and Milena Perovic, for damaging their “reputation and honor.” Kusovac, the incumbent head of the Montenegrin government’s public relations bureau, and the state government were also ordered to pay an additional fine of nearly 4,000 euros ($4,400) for court expenses. The formerly state-owned daily Pobjeda, under Kusovac’s leadership, published a series of articles in 2011-2012 attempting to discredit the two independent journalists and strong government critics.
In its 2019 Report on Montenegro, published on May 29, the European Commission (EC) noted the country made no progress in advancing freedom of expression since April 2018. The EC specifically warned that “recent political interference in the national public broadcaster council and the Agency for Electronic Media are a matter of serious concern.”
Some media outlets continued to demonstrate a willingness to criticize the government. A lack of training and unprofessional journalistic behavior, combined with low salaries and political pressure, contributed to self-censorship and what could be deemed biased coverage.
Libel/Slander Laws: There is no criminal libel law, but media outlets faced libel charges in civil proceedings.
According to a February report of the NGO Center for Civic Education, more than 60 percent of all complaints filed with the Agency for Electronic Media (AEM) in 2015-18 were against Pink M, usually related to unprofessional and unethical reporting aimed at discrediting media and civil society figures critical of the government. In 39 of the cases, the AEM found that Pink M had violated the agency’s program principles and standards. The AEM took no disciplinary actions against Pink M during the year since the broadcaster sold its national frequency and moved to cable transmission in the second half of 2018, significantly reducing its reach and Montenegro-related content.
On July 18, the Constitutional Court overturned the 2015 Podgorica Supreme Court and the High Court decisions to fine independent weekly newspaper Monitor 5,000 euros ($5,500) for the alleged defamation of President Milo Djukanovic’s sister, Ana Kolarevic, in the weekly’s 2012 reports about Kolarevic’s alleged role in the controversial privatization of the national telecommunication company, Telekom Crna Gora. The Constitutional Court found that the lower instance courts had violated Monitor’s constitutional right to freedom of expression and returned the case for a retrial.
On September 12, an appellate court overturned, the High Court of Podgorica’s January 15 ruling to sentence investigative journalist Jovo Martinovic to 18 months in prison for allegedly being part of an international drug smuggling chain. Martinovic denies the charges of drug trafficking and criminal association, claiming that his contact with convicted criminals was solely in the context of his work as a journalist. The appellate decision sent the case back to the High Court for a retrial.
e. Internally Displaced Persons
Ministry of Interior statistics indicated that 15,226 displaced persons (DPs) had applied to resolve their residency status as of September. Of these, 12,342 had received permanent or temporary resident status and 207 applications were still pending. Individuals with temporary residence still need support to acquire permanent residence because they still need to acquire identity documents, such as birth and citizenship certificates, to get their passports.
Persons whose applications for “foreigner with permanent residence” status were pending with the Ministry of Interior continued to hold the legal status of DPs or IDPs. Some persons who were entitled to apply faced difficulties in obtaining the required documentation, particularly in regularizing previously unregistered births or paying the fees required to procure documents.
With support of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the government, together with the government of Kosovo, continued to assist displaced Roma and Balkan-Egyptians in obtaining personal identification documents under a Montenegro-Kosovo agreement on late registration of births of persons born outside the hospital system. A mobile team from Kosovo’s Interior Ministry visited Montenegro in July and provided support to 33 DPs in need of Kosovo documents. Approximately 70 persons remained in need of Kosovo documents to be able to acquire permanent residence status in Montenegro. The process, supported by UNHCR and the OSCE, facilitated the registration of births of persons born in Montenegro or Kosovo, especially Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian children.
Conditions for IDPs and DPs from the Yugoslav wars varied. Access to employment, health care, and social services was sometimes limited due to language barriers, insufficient integration programs, lack of documentation, or unclear or inconsistent administrative procedures. According to UNHCR’s livelihood study launched in 2018, many remained vulnerable and in need of support to became self-reliant, and continued to live below the poverty line.
Together with Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country was a party to the Regional Housing Program, facilitated by international donors, to provide durable solutions for up to 6,000 DPs and IDPs in the country. In March, 94 residential units were completed at the Rudes refugee camp in Berane, addressing the permanent housing needs of many IDPs who had been living in temporary structures since their arrival in the country in the 1990s.
A number of DPs and IDPs continued to live in substandard dwellings, struggled to pay rent for private accommodation, or feared eviction from illegally occupied facilities known as informal collective centers, mostly in the coastal municipalities. Construction of apartments under the Regional Housing Program led to the closure of the settlement in Berane and a container camp in Podgorica. While construction of multiple apartment buildings under the Regional Housing Program continued across the country, the beneficiaries continued to face challenges relating to sustainable livelihoods.
To assist both DPs from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and IDPs from Kosovo, the government continued to implement its 2017-19 national strategy for finding durable solutions for DPs and IDPs during the year.
Restricted access to employment pushed many DPs into gray-market activities. Poor economic prospects particularly affected Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptians from Kosovo as well as the aging Kosovo-Serb population in the Berane area, who continued to form a large segment of the marginalized and vulnerable DP population by virtue of their size, time in country, and access to resources. Romani IDPs, mostly in urban areas, were the most vulnerable and marginalized displaced population in the country due to their low social status and level of integration, high levels of unemployment, and low levels of schooling and literacy.
Although the law gives foreigners with permanent residence the full scope of rights as citizens, with the exception of the right to vote, DPs and IDPs from the former Yugoslavia sometimes had limited access to employment, education, property ownership, and specialized medical care due to the difficulty of obtaining official documents. IDPs could find opportunities if they showed flexibility in accepting jobs, not necessarily reflecting their education or experience, or not insisting on a labor contract.
The government continued to encourage IDPs and DPs to return to their places of origin, but repatriation was essentially nonexistent due to the preference of many IDPs and DPs to remain in the country due to fear of reprisals in their countries of origin or a lack of resources or the lost bond with their country or place of origin.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of refugee or subsidiary protection status, and the government established a system for providing protection to refugees. Authorities did not employ methods for managing mixed migration movements effectively, such as prioritization or accelerated procedures. Observers noted that attention and readiness to address the increased mixed flow of migrants remained focused on border control aspects, as evidenced by the sharp rise in the number of migrants pushed back from the Montenegro border during the year.
Access to Basic Services: Once the asylum procedure is initiated, asylum seekers are granted access to free health care and education for minor applicants in line with international standards, although barriers to access, including language and cultural differences, sometimes limited practical access. For example, M.F. from Iran was not able to find a job because of poor command of the local language although he is officially registered with Employment Agency. F.K. from Ghana was not able to find a job because of language requirements. Many IDPs have difficulties obtaining documents, and thus accessing services such as healthcare, due to language barriers.
Durable Solutions: A path to citizenship is available but requires evidence that the applicant had renounced citizenship in his or her country of origin. The government provided support for the voluntary return or reintegration of DPs from countries of the former Yugoslavia. Those who chose the option of integration rather than return to their country of origin enjoyed access to the same rights as citizens, including access to basic services and naturalization in the country, but they did not have the right to vote.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided subsidiary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees and provided it to approximately five persons. By law persons granted subsidiary protection are entitled to a facilitated integration plan for three years after receiving status. The integration plan is tailored to the individual’s particular needs and includes support in accessing education, Montenegrin language classes, seeking employment, and the provision of accommodation for up to two years. Beneficiaries of refugee or subsidiary protection status may appeal a decision relating to their entitlements before the Administrative Court.