A court in Montenegro has sentenced award-winning investigative journalist Jovo Martinovic to one year in prison following a retrial on drug-trafficking charges -- a ruling condemned by media watchdogs as an attack on press freedom in the Balkan country.
The High Court of Montenegro on October 8 found Martinovic, who has reported widely on organized crime and war crimes for both local and foreign media outlets, guilty of mediation in drug trafficking, and sentenced him to one year in prison.
Martinovic, 48, labelled his new verdict "political and shameful" and said he would appeal it. He has said he believes the trials were in retaliation for his reporting.
Martinovic was acquitted on charges of membership in a criminal organization and will not be imprisoned since he had already been detained for nearly 15 months -- longer than his new sentence -- while awaiting his first trial.
The reporter was sentenced in 2019 by the same tribunal to 18 months in prison in the same case.
He has rejected the accusations, arguing that his contacts with criminal circles were strictly professional in the context of reporting, and appealed the verdict, prompting an appeals tribunal to order the retrial, citing a lack of evidence.
"Witnesses' testimonies were in my favor. All the evidence was in my favor. The court did not want to accept the evidence I proposed, which shows that I was on a reporting mission," Martinovic told reporters after the new verdict.
"The judgement was written a long time ago," he added.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it was a "black day" for media freedom in Europe.
Separately, the Paris-based watchdog and eight other nongovernmental organizations condemned the ruling in a joint statement, calling it "an attack on investigative journalism and a damning indictment on media freedom in Montenegro.”
"Martinovic’s conviction is a gross injustice, following almost five years of judicial persecution merely for doing his job," the statement reads, adding that his prosecution and conviction "raise serious concerns about the effectiveness of the rule of law in the country, a key condition for accession to the European Union."
The New York-based Committee to Protest Journalists (CPJ) condemned the ruling as "a missed opportunity to bring justice" to Martinovic, saying the journalist has been "persecuted for his investigative reporting."
“The ruling sends a wrong message to journalists in Montenegro and will have a chilling effect on the country’s media,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Gulnoza Said.
Before his arrest Martinovic had reported on the notorious "Pink Panther" gang, an international group of jewel thieves made up of members mainly from the former Yugoslavia.
Gang member Dusko Martinovic was sentenced to six years and three months in the trial. Six others were also convicted.
Martinovic has worked for major international media including the BBC and Financial Times.
He won the 2018 Peter Mackler Award for his investigative reporting, which included work exposing war crimes during and after Serbia's conflict with Kosovo in the 1990s.
Montenegro, home to 650,000 people, hopes to join the EU by 2025 and is under growing pressure to tackle organized crime and safeguard media freedom.
The country is ranked 105th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.