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Mackler Award Recipient Martinović Victim of Catch-22 – Montenegro Style

By Richard Sisk

Jovo Martinović enters the High Court in Podgorica in January 2019. Photo : Vijesti/Savo Prelevic

Martinović enters the High Court in Podgorica in January 2019. Photo : Vijesti/Savo Prelevic

Investigative journalist and 2018 Mackler Award recipient Jovo Martinović maintains that he has fallen down the rabbit hole of what passes for justice in Montenegro – he has been labeled a criminal for reporting about crime.

“I’m not asking anything except justice and a fair trial based on evidence and regulations,” Martinović said in a phone interview, but he acknowledged there was little likelihood of that happening in a country notorious for official corruption that has been voluminously noted by the European Commission, the U.S. State Department, and countless independent news reports.

“I have no bloody idea” how the High Court in Podgorica could reach the verdict upholding his 18-month prison sentence based on the flimsy evidence against him and the testimony of a convicted drug trafficker who had been granted immunity, Martinović said.

In essence, “I am accused of being a journalist,” said Martinović, recipient of the 2018 Peter Mackler Award in an event last September at the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at City University of New York (CUNY), the new home of the award presentation.

Martinović was unable to attend the event, but said via video conference at the time that “I am deeply honored and grateful for being chosen as the Peter Mackler Award recipient for 2018. It’s a great encouragement to carry on in journalism despite all the obstacles that I and my colleagues face in Montenegro and other Balkan countries.”

The award is named for Peter Mackler, the veteran correspondent and editor for Agence France-Presse and United Press International who reported on conflicts worldwide, including the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

In citing Martinović, Camille Mackler, an immigration lawyer and the award’s project director at the Global Media Forum Training Group, said “The Balkans was a region that Peter Mackler, my father, covered extensively through several conflicts.”

“I can think of no greater tribute, on this 10th year of the award, than to recognize the achievements of a journalist who has courageously and at great personal cost devoted himself to reporting truth from that part of the world.”

The 45-year-old Martinović was free on appeal of the Jan. 15 verdict against him on charges of involvement in marijuana smuggling and consorting with traffickers, but said he would remain in Montenegro to fight the conviction, clear his name and make the case for press freedom.

“I’m not under house arrest. I’m free to travel, I can have my passport back,” he said. He could leave Montenegro to avoid more jail time on the verdict but “I want to fight that,” although “I guess it will be upheld,” he said. “The courts are not independent in this country, they are under the party rule. The party officials must decide in all sensitive cases.”

UN Cites Possible “Political Motivations” In Martinović Case

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was the latest official body to agree with his assessment.

Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for Michelle Bachelet Jeria, the High Commissioner and the former president of Chile, said on Jan. 18 that “there are concerns that his case might be politically motivated as credible evidence is yet to be brought in connection to his case.”

In a statement from Geneva, Shamdasani said “We urge state authorities to ensure that journalists are able to work in a free and enabling environment without fear of imprisonment or violence, including those involved in investigations of illicit trafficking and organized crime.”

“We reiterate our call to Montenegrin authorities to comply with their international obligations to protect the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and to ensure due process and judicial safeguards for all,” Shamdasani said.

Reporters Without Borders, the press freedom advocacy group that goes by the acronym RSF, said in a statement immediately after the Jan. 15 verdict that Martinović was being singled out “because of his journalistic investigations into arms trafficking,” and called on “international bodies not to tolerate this flagrant violation of the freedom to inform.”

“We condemn this iniquitous verdict and sentence and regret that, during the three years of proceedings against this journalist, the judges took no account of evidence and testimony demonstrating his innocence,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk.

“The extreme harshness of the sentence imposed on Martinović is yet another sign of the decline in respect for media freedom and the rule of law in a country that says it wants to join the European Union,” Adès-Mével said.

In its 2018 press freedom index report, RSF ranked Montenegro, a country of about 650,000 on the Adriatic, 103rd out of 180 countries. (The U.S. ranked 45th.)

Montenegro was accepted into NATO in 2017 and has been negotiating on entry into the European Union since 2012, but concerns about meeting the EU’s standards on press freedom, human rights and official corruption have held up the bid.

Martinović Case Could Affect Montenegro’s EU Bid

Shortly after the verdict against Martinović, European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijanic told reporters in Brussels that the case and other instances of Montenegro’s suppression of journalists could jeopardize the country’s entry into the EU.

“Freedom of expression is one of the fundamental values of the European Union and it’s also a key element of Montenegro’s EU accession process, and in this context journalists should be able to perform their duties professionally and without fear of repercussions,“ Kocijanic said.

In a 2018 report, the European Commission said Montenegro had taken some initial steps in curbing official corruption and organized crime, but “despite some progress, corruption is prevalent in many areas and remains an issue of concern.”

“In the fight against organized crime, there is an initial track record of prosecutions in the fight against smuggling of migrants and against drug trafficking,” the EU’s report said.

“However, further results are needed to produce a convincing track record, in particular in the fight against money laundering and trafficking in human beings,” the report said.

Montenegro’s Record On Corruption, Human Trafficking – U.S. State Department

In its 2017 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons put Montenegro on its Tier 2 Watchlist of countries not in compliance with the “minimum standards” of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.

In a 2018 report, the State Department said that “Montenegro is a transit source and destination country for men, women and girls who are subjected to trafficking in persons, specifically conditions of forced prostitution and forced labor.”

“Trafficking victims are mostly females from Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Montenegro,” the State Department said.

Montenegro “did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts or forced labor,” the report said, and “the government did not provide anti-trafficking training or guidance for its diplomatic personnel.”

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the case against Martinović fit a pattern of intimidation and harassment of independent journalists and news outlets in Montenegro.

“The jailing of an investigative journalist for his reporting on an important issue of public interest is a terrible injustice that will have chilling effects on press freedom in Montenegro,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Gulnoza Said. “We call on the authorities in Montenegro to not contest Jovo Martinović’s appeal and right this wrong.

Martinović Targeted Before by Montenegrin Authorities

Martinović, a free-lance investigative journalist, was arrested in October 2015 and held for nearly 15 months on charges of marijuana trafficking and participation in a criminal organization. He said he could face another three months in jail if he loses the appeal.

The arrest followed on his investigations into drug trafficking, weapons smuggling and other criminal activities.

At the time of his arrest, he was conducting research for French production company CAPA Presse for a documentary about weapons smuggling from the Balkans to Western Europe. The documentary subsequently aired on the French TV channel Canal Plus.

In his career, he has also worked for NPR, BBC, VICE, CBS, Canal Plus, The Economist, TIME, The Financial Times, Global Post and the Balkan Investigative Reporting network (BIRN).

The latest charges against him were not the first time he was targeted by authorities for reports on organized crime in Montenegro and possible connections to government officials, Martinović said.

“Back in 2004 I was arrested on charges” involving a story in the London Sunday Mirror on trafficking in Roma children, Martinović said.

“While I was being questioned, there was not a single question about that story,” he said. Instead, “they asked about who was facilitating German and Italian news reports about cigarette smuggling and other illegal activities of the government,” he said.

“They kept an eye on me for a long time. Year after year, they tried to approach me and they even issued threats, open threats, like ‘Sooner or later we will get you and you will be ruined,’” Martinović said.

In his investigative work on smuggling and organized crime, “I used contacts from that sphere of life, Martinović said, “but I used them as fixers and assistants to provide contacts and so on, which is legitimate journalistic work.”

In the current case, the lead defendant, who has been granted immunity, alleged that Martinović introduced the members of a marijuana smuggling ring “so that they could work pot together, he said.

“The guy said I organized everything, which is crazy,” Martinović said. “If you are followed by police and you are under surveillance all the time? Pot smuggling while I’m under surveillance? I mean, it’s just insane.”

“Those guys, they’re not my world and I had no other dealings. I mean, we’re just so different, but when it comes to work that’s what I do, I mean, I talk to low lifes” to gather information for legitimate reporting, Martinović said. “All my dealings with those guys were purely and exclusively journalistic.”

Once he receives a verdict on the appeal, Martinović said he will have about 15 days to file another appeal. He estimated that the second appeal will probably take another two or three months before they decide, maybe even more.”

Montenegro’s History of Tolerating Press Abuse

Martinović said he has not been subjected to violence, but he noted the dangers involved for independent reporters working in Montenegro.

In 2004, Dusko Jovanović, the editor-in-chief of the opposition daily Dan, was murdered as he left his office. In 2007, an independent journalist, Tufik Sofitc, was ambushed and beaten up with clubs. Soon afterward, the same happened to Zeljko Ivanovic, director of the independent daily Vijesti.

In 2013, the Vijesti office was bombed, and in May 2018, Olivera Lakić, an investigative journalist working for Vijesti, was shot and wounded outside her home. All of the cases are unsolved and there have been no prosecutions.

Through the twist and turns of his case, “I was careful not to write anything against the ruling family,” Martinović said in a reference to Milo Djukanovic, who has either been prime minister or president of Montenegro since 1990.

In April 2018, Djukanovic won the presidential election to “extend his dominance over the country’s politics” through his control of the Democratic Party of Socialists, Reuters reported.

In claiming victory, Djukanovic said he would press for European Union membership and would welcome improved relations with Russia.

Djukanovic “held an institutional advantage” in the election, Tana de Zulueta, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said at the time.

Opposition candidates “were not able to compete on a level playing field, as the frontrunner enjoyed the advantages that the ruling party has consolidated over 27 years in power,” de Zulueta said.

Allegations of corruption, connections to organized crime and suppression of press freedom have trailed Djukanovic through his long career as the main force in Montenegrin politics.

In 2015, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a consortium of investigative centers and journalists operating in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Central America, sarcastically named Djukanovic its “Person of the Year In Organized Crime.”

The OCCRP charged that Djukanovic, through his control of the party and the government, was running “one of the most dedicated kleptocracies and organized crime havens in the world.”

In 2010, the British newspaper The Independent ranked Djukanovic among the top 20 richest world leaders and said the source of his wealth was “mysterious.”

Mladen Bojanic, an economist and businessman who was runner up to Djukanovic in the presidential election, said in remarks reported by Radio Free Europe that Djukanovic was “now saying that that the state is stronger than the mafia. I agree, the state is stronger. I just have one problem — the answer to the question of which side Djukanovic is on — the side of the state or the mafia?”

(Editor’s Note: Richard Sisk is a contributor to the Mackler Award and a former reporter for the N.Y. Daily News and United Press International who now covers military and veterans’ issues for Military.com.)