Serbia and Montenegro: Are judges protecting journalists or their aggressors?
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the judicial authorities in Serbia and Montenegro to combat impunity in two cases in Belgrade – the appeal by those convicted of murdering a journalist in 1999 and the trial of those accused of setting fire to a journalist’s home in 2018 – and to guarantee due process in the retrial of a journalist on absurd drug-trafficking charges in Podgorica.
A total of 21 years have passed since Slavko Ćuruvija, an investigative reporter and prominent critic of the dictator Slobodan Milosević, was murdered in Belgrade in 1999, but uncertainty still surrounds the conviction of the four former state security agents charged with his murder, with the Court of Appeals in Belgrade due to hear their appeal from 7 to 9 July. Their conviction in April 2019 by a special court, which gave them sentences ranging from 20 to 30 years in prison, was historic and unprecedented. But there is concern the Court of Appeals could overturn the verdict and order a retrial as a result not only of their appeal but also the prosecution’s appeal, which is hard to understand, given the severity of the sentences.Two of the defendants are under house arrest, not in prison, and it is feared that in a retrial they could, with the help of the intelligence services involved, succeed in casting doubt on all the hard evidence and testimony from around 100 witnesses that was gathered despite obstruction from previous governments and the passage of two decades.
The Serbian judicial system’s slowness and ineptitude in its handling of this case, one so emblematic for press freedom, undoubtedly encouraged those who set fire to Žig Info website reporter Milan Jovanović’s home in the Belgrade suburb of Grocka in December 2018. It cannot be ruled out that the trial will end up acquitting the accused when it resumes for its final phase from 24 to 27 August. In fact, the session was supposed to take place on 1 July, but had to be postponed due to the absence of the lawyers of the main suspect, Dragoljub Simonović, under the pretext of them being possibly contaminated by the coronavirus. The accused instigator is a former Grocka mayor and senior official in President Aleksandar Vučić’s SNS party, whose alleged corruption had been the subject of Jovanović’s reporting. The trial has already run into trouble, when two of the presumed perpetrators – a third is on the run – have changed their statements after Simonović was released from custody, and now claim that the police forced them to name him as the mastermind. In an ultimate gesture of cynicism, Simonović’s lawyers have forced Jovanović to undergo a humiliating interrogation in the court about his possessions damaged in the fire, in addition to the complaints filed against him with the aim to drain him financially.
The case of Montenegrin investigative reporter Jovo Martinović is another example of variable geometry in the region’s judicial systems. His right to due process was flagrantly denied when he spent 15 months in provisional detention from 2015 to 2017, reinforcing the impression that courts and prosecutors take their orders from politicians. His conviction on charges of marijuana smuggling and criminal association, for which he had been given an 18-month jail sentence in January 2019, was quashed last October and the Montenegro High Court will have an opportunity to acquit him when his retrial resumes on 6 July this year. But caution is advised. The original court convicted him despite overwhelming evidence that his organized crime contacts were simply a function of his investigative reporting.
“The court must take account of the evidence and testimony demonstrating Jovo Martinović’s innocence,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans Desk. “Convicting him again would be a clear sign that Montenegro is backsliding on press freedom and respect for the rule of law at a time when, along with Serbia, it is the frontrunner in the negotiations to join the EU.” "In Belgrade, the conviction of Slavko Ćuruvija’s murderers must be upheld, while the attack on Milan Jovanović’s home deserves a swift judicial decision with exemplary sentences to signal the beginning of the end for impunity for crimes of violence against journalists in Serbia.”
Serbia is ranked 93rd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index, while Montenegro is ranked 105th.