The European Commission's annual enlargement report on October 12 cleared the road for opening accession talks with Montenegro. Judicial reform and media freedom were singled out as areas where significant progress had been made, strengthening the country’s bid for EU membership.
However, Montenegro looks better from Brussels than up close. The European taskmasters might have been too generous in awarding such high marks to one of their prospective pupils.
That’s how it must appear to RFE/RL freelancer Petar Komnenic, who is currently awaiting a higher court decision in the nation’s capital, Podgorica, over his appeal against a prison sentence in a libel case.
Just a few days prior to Montenegro’s favorable report card from the European Commission, a Podgorica court informed Komnenic that, as a result of his failure to pay a fine of 3,000 euros within the statutory period, he is to be imprisoned for four months.
At issue is an article Komnenic published in May 2007 in the Podgorica-based weekly "Monitor," which revealed that a number of High Court judges were kept under secret government surveillance. Although he amply documented his story with copies of exchanged e-mails, and he presented the court with all of his sources, including testimony from one of the judges involved, the file on this case mysteriously disappeared, and the court decided in February 2011 that Komnenic was guilty of defamation.
In the meantime, as part of cleaning up its act in the hope of eventual EU membership, Montenegro has decriminalized libel, although that has yet to have any effect on the drawn-out case of the RFE/RL journalist in Podgorica.
“I will not recognize this court’s decision, and I will not allow the system to humiliate me in an attempt to hide a case that I brought into the public eye," Komnenic says. "I appealed this decision, and if they want to arrest me, let them.”
Komnenic says he is proud of his article, which was an exemplary piece of investigative journalism that brought to light a major case of systematic abuse of power in Montenegro.
“I hope it’s not going to sound biased, but I simply have to state that my allegations have been confirmed by many sources, including Radovan Mandic, a former High Court judge," Komnenic says. "They are also confirmed by correspondence which proves that this case disappeared from the archives of the High Court and the Prosecutor's Office in Podgorica.”
A number of NGOs and public figures have appealed to the Montenegrin authorities to clear Komnenic of any wrongdoing, demanding that the charges against him be dropped.
In a public statement, the well-known Montenegrin writer Andrej Nikolaidis said no journalist should go to prison for publishing the results of his investigative efforts.
"This confirms, among other things, why the decriminalization of libel was a necessary step -- precisely to avoid similar situations," Nikolaidis says. "The imprisonment of journalists over published articles must be consigned to the past as soon as possible. After all, freedom of thought and speech is the foundation of all other freedoms."
The Komnenic case should be seen as a major test for Montenegro. The country’s authorities must show a genuine commitment to freedom of the press and demonstrate that they had not merely flattered to deceive, despite apparently impressing Brussels.
The road to EU membership is a long one, and even the currently positive scorecard may have to be revised. The European Commission will surely not be duped again.
-- Gordana Knezevic