Controversial changes to Montenegrin media laws are due to take effect this weekend, two months before the smaller Yugoslav republic goes to the polls in early parliamentary elections.
Prague, 8 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Two international media watchdog groups, Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists, are the latest to join a chorus of criticism aimed at a package of media laws and amendments passed by Montenegro's hard-line-controlled parliament last month.
The 38 deputies from President Milo Djukanovic's pro-Western coalition were powerless to block passage of the media package and walked out of the 77-seat parliament. All 39 former communist, pro-Belgrade deputies approved the measures. The new laws set rules for the coverage of election campaigns and limit the number and length of reports a news outlet can publish or broadcast about political parties, politicians, and other government officials.
The package recommends that journalists consult political parties about content and even headlines. Moreover, it sets out stiff fines of up to 36,000 euros for violations of these new laws.
Private electronic media ceased broadcasting for 30 minutes on 1 August in protest, one day after Djukanovic signed the legislation into law. Some media chiefs, such as Slavoljub Scekic, the managing editor of Podgorica's private daily "Vijesti," say they intend to ignore the new legislation.
Ranko Vujevic is coordinator of Montenegro's Association of Independent Electronic Media. He said, "I don't think anyone can oblige us to back this party or that." Vujevic is threatening further labor actions with longer broadcast interruptions by private radio and TV employees, possibly on a daily basis.
Solidarity against the new legislation has even come from Belgrade. The Association of Independent Electronic Media in Serbia issued a statement saying, "The intention of those who proposed and adopted these laws is unequivocal -- stronger and greater influence on the media and journalists with the goal of controlling and judging their work."
In Paris yesterday, the secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, Robert Menard, published an open letter to Montenegrin government spokeswoman Vesna Perovic. In the letter, Menard says, "with this legislation, Montenegro has backed away from the commitments it undertook with a view to joining the Council of Europe at the end of the year."
Menard calls on the government to present laws to parliament that correspond to European standards. And he calls on parliament to approve these laws and repeal those that restrict freedom of information.
Reporters Without Borders notes that one of the laws requires the news media to take into account the views of the leaders of the ruling parties when deciding editorial policy. Another law limits news sources and the number of articles that can be published about a given party during the campaign.
The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) last week (2 August) accused Montenegrin politicians of trying to manipulate the media through the new law. However, in the words of IFJ General-Secretary Aidan White, "Politicians must not play political games with media."
The Council of Europe says the legislation is at variance with European norms and could hinder Yugoslavia's entry into the council. Council experts had helped the Montenegrin government coalition draw up a set of bills on media issues that was in line with European norms. But the opposition pushed through its own restrictive measures in the apparent hope of gaining a political edge in the 6 October elections.
The opposition -- the Together for Yugoslavia coalition and the Liberal Alliance -- currently has a one-seat majority in parliament and would like to increase that margin in October. Those elections could determine whether the Yugoslav Federation is transformed into a loose confederation known as Serbia-Montenegro, as has already been agreed, or whether Montenegro pulls out of the European Union-brokered deal and moves toward independence.
Sandra Basic-Hrvatin is a Council of Europe expert on media regulation based in Ljubljana who is advising Montenegrin authorities on media affairs. She gave a lengthy interview to RFE/RL's Montenegrin Unit this week (5 August) in which she said the new legislation raises four key problems.
Basic-Hrvatin spoke about one part of the new law, which limits membership in a media oversight commission only to politicians. In her words, this "will give the elections the appearance of a state of war." She criticized the introduction of harsh rules for private media as "something Europe doesn't do."
Basic-Hrvatin warns that the new legislation threatens to introduce "a kind of censorship" in Montenegro. "Journalists are to be required before publication to show their texts concerning the campaign and somehow consult with the politicians in such detail on what should be removed from each text. I think this issue infringes on journalistic freedom."
Similarly, she says enforcement of the new laws is bound to be unfair since the media oversight commission can't be everywhere at once. "Montenegro has 140 media [outlets]. Let's say they will follow 60 or 70 of them. And we are not even speaking of the media that the commission has no oversight over -- that's the media from other states, which certainly will have their own data on the elections. So I think implementation of these laws will be problematic. They are overly restrictive."
This is not the first time that Djukanovic has faced off against the media. On 13 June, a court ordered the Podgorica daily "Dan" to pay him 15,500 euros for causing him "moral anguish" by reprinting articles from the Croatian news weekly "Nacional" last year. The articles alleged that Djukanovic was involved in cigarette smuggling.
The "Nacional" story was subsequently picked up by the Italian media, and a magistrate in the southern Italian port city of Bari in May launched an investigation into the allegations.