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Montenegrin Journalist Jailed In 'Disturbing Setback' For Press Freedom

Montenegrin journalist Jovo Martinovic

A court in Montenegro has sentenced an investigative reporter to 1 1/2 years in prison in a ruling condemned by international media watchdogs as a “terrible injustice” and a “disturbing setback” for press freedom in the country.

The court in the capital, Podgorica, sentenced Jovo Martinovic on January 15 after convicting him on charges of drug trafficking and criminal association.

Martinovic, who has reported widely on crime with both local and foreign outlets, denied the accusations and said he believed they were in retaliation for his reporting.

In Paris, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) slammed the verdict as "a disturbing setback for press freedom in a country that says it wants to join the European Union," while the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called Martinovic’s jailing “a terrible injustice that will have chilling effects on press freedom in Montenegro."

Martinovic was doing a journalistic investigation on arms trafficking in the Balkans for a French TV production company when he was arrested in October 2015. He was then held in preventive detention for 15 months until granted a conditional release.

The journalist has denied the charges against him and said that his contacts with criminal circles were strictly professional in the context of his reporting.

"I have been convicted for being a journalist," Martinovic said after the court ruling, adding that he will appeal the verdict.

In its statement, RSF condemned “this iniquitous verdict,” saying Martinovic was convicted “despite the overwhelming evidence that his contacts with organized crime were solely the results of his investigative reporting.”

The group said the “extreme harshness” of the sentence imposed on Martinovic was “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.”

It also called on international organizations and Western governments “not to tolerate this flagrant violation of the freedom to inform.”

CPJ Europe and Central Asia program coordinator Gulnoza Said called on the Montenegrin authorities not to contest Martinovic's appeal and to “right this wrong."

OSCE Representative on Media Freedom Harlem Desir expressed concern over the court ruling, writing in a tweet: "Investigating a criminal organization shouldn’t lead to accusation of membership! Hope for his acquittal on appeal."

Montenegro, which hopes to join the EU by 2025, is under pressure to tackle organized crime and safeguard media freedom.

In May, the EU warned the Western Balkan country of 650,000 people that its efforts to join the bloc will suffer a setback unless it does more to protect journalists and media freedom.

The warning was issued after investigative journalist Olivera Lakic was shot and wounded in Podgorica by an unidentified assailant.

With reporting by AFP and Balkan Insight