Montenegro: After a new acquittal, the hopes and projects of journalist Jovo Martinovic
After over seven years of judicial ordeal and after spending fifteen months in pre-trial detention on drug trafficking charges, investigative journalist Jovo Martinovic was acquitted for the second time by the Supreme Court on 17 January. We interviewed him while waiting for the final verdict.
Interview by Paola Rosà
One last step is still missing, but the trial of Jovo Martinovic, investigative journalist tried, convicted, acquitted, reconvicted, and acquitted again for criminal association and drug trafficking, seems over after almost eight years of authentic ordeal. Under the international spotlight since 2015, for over 15 months in pre-trial detention, the protagonist is now simply tired and eager to go back to doing his job in a country where journalism faces corruption and threats, and where reports of violence are ignored and even cases of murder often go unpunished.
A few days ago the second acquittal arrived in a process that the Supreme Court has asked to be redone twice. In all there were two convictions and two acquittals, with almost 15 months in pre-trial detention. How do you feel about this last decision?
The sentence is not final, it must be confirmed by the Supreme Court. At the same time I recognise that it will be a formality, as it was the Court itself that sent everything back to the sender, establishing that in the new trial other elements had to be taken into consideration and some gaps filled. So, it’s a formality, but to celebrate I have to wait a few more months.
In this last trial, your activity as a journalist was considered, acknowledging that those contacts with the criminal group were aimed at journalistic investigations. So, good news. But I guess you’re exhausted by now from telling your case: a journalist is more used to asking questions than receiving them, right?
If you had to find an explanation for what happened, would you mention revenge, punishment, injustice, or rather the will to control and silence journalism?
It’s just the legacy of the communist system. Unlike in all other countries, communists continued to rule in Montenegro until 2020. It was the same political party that came to power in 1945, and just changed the name after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
So, nothing personal?
The new communist system did all it could to retain control of each aspect of life. And if you work for international outlets, then you are automatically a foreign agent, a suspect. I have been treated as such for years. This is not my first incarceration: in 2004 I was in detention for the denigration of the good name of the country. It’s a charge that had not been used since 1974. But in 2004 they charged me for denigration of the good name of Montenegro because I happened to be a photographer for the British guy who wrote the story on the sale of Roma children in the country. The funniest thing is that when I was arrested I wasn’t questioned about the story at all. I was questioned about who was assisting Italian and German press coverage of the secret smuggling, that was the main topic of my interrogation, not the actual story that was used as a pretext for taking me in.
This episode tells us a lot about journalism in the country, isn’t it?
Exactly, if you don’t cooperate, if they can’t force you to submit, or to do whatever you are told by the secret service, be prepared for consequences.
Your case received a lot of solidarity and support from international organisations, including MFRR. What did you experience with your colleagues from Montenegro?
It must be said that they are not really my colleagues, in the sense that we don’t deal with the same things and I don’t work for Montenegrin newspapers; I also deal with other countries as well. So, it’s not like they knew me that much. Furthermore, at the beginning it was also difficult to let people know what was happening to me: the news of my preventive detention only came out after three months. In any case, I must say that they then made up for it, several journalists’ associations made themselves heard, as well as some independent newspapers, and even colleagues who work in state broadcasters showed empathy, some publicly, others privately.
So, there is hope for journalism in Montenegro. What do you think?
I think so! Since former communists no longer control the government, people are slowly getting rid of that legacy. It’s not just about massive surveillance, but also self-censorship, because even now, journalists are aware of what they can cover, or how far they can go in terms of certain issues.
Is the situation in Montenegro influenced by the fact that it is a small country?
What makes it unique is that the same political party ruled for 75 years, without interruption, from 1945 to 2020. It’s a small country, 600,000 people, which is easy to control and which is not strategically important to any big power, and the big powers were not that bothered with internal reforms, they just wanted stability and no big commotion, like in Bosnia or in Kosovo.
In the end, what is the outcome of your story? What have you lost, and what have you learned?
The consequences were bad, I’ve been marked. But on the other hand, when you have a clean conscience and you know that you were just doing your job, it just gives you strength to carry on. And I continue to do my work as before and even more. But secondly, I just won’t compromise, I mean, this is not the first time that I have encountered warnings and threats. I rather believe that this came as a result of me ignoring early warnings and threats. Eventually, it’s good for freedom of speech and the press, because giving in is something that backfires.
It seems you had no other choice.
I just carry on. I know it’s not pleasant, but it’s real. You find yourself under such charges, and of course in detention it’s like science-fiction meets you in a way, you have the feeling it’s happening to someone else, you’re just a by-stander, it’s surreal but it’s a reality at the same time.
What kind of message does your story hold for the rest of the country?
Well, the country is known for many unsolved attacks against journalists, there are many cases of physical assaults, threats, there’s a case when one editor-in-chief, Dusko Jovanovic, was killed in 2004, and it is still unsolved. So, freedom of the press has been constantly mentioned in many EU reports, the country was at the bottom of the Index by RSF, so it is something that has been known for years and remained unaddressed by the former government, except for promises.
If things go well in your case, are you expecting compensation?
Yes, once the verdict is final, I can claim compensation, but the main compensation is the clearing of guilt. I don’t believe money can compensate what I have been through. The main thing is just to clear my name. Having a pile of dirt thrown upon, a criminal record against someone who has fought all his life against injustice and crime and corruption, is a lot. Clearing my name is my main satisfaction, the rest comes after.
Will it be possible to name the perpetrators?
It depends. Recently, the deputy chief of the special prosecutor’s office was arrested for abuse of his office, and some other things have changed in terms of the abuse of the previous special prosecutor office. So it may come a day when the prosecutor is not only involved in abuse of office or cooperation with the criminal cartels that were operating in the country, but some other evidence may come up that they were complicit in covering up attacks on journalists. Actually, recently a former police official accused the former attorney general of being complicit in covering up of the murder investigation of Dusko Jovanovic killed in 2004. It’s reasonable to conclude that there will be new details on how the former prosecutors worked, or failed to work in accordance with the law and the Constitution. But this is not my task, it’s up to the new prosecutors in power to deal with.
It must be quite hard to continue to believe in justice.
Thanks to the EU there are certain changes in the justice system. Unfortunately, all comes with big external pressure, but nevertheless it’s happening. And of course it will take some time. Well, it will take probably a lot of time till we have a judiciary which is on pair with the European Union. But it’s a process, and we’re all aware that it takes time.
Your plans for the future?
For the time being, I carry on with my work. After so many years, and after being incarcerated nearly 15 months, you just learn to live with that. You just carry on with your life despite all the difficulties. And I think that’s a good attitude to take, because if we cave into resentment and hard feelings, that’s bad, that backfires. My approach was to remain open, to take it easy and to just move on. And this gives you more strength than being resentful and bitter, blaming people and lashing out. It’s something that I have always wanted to avoid.
This interview was conducted Paola Rosà for OBC Transeuropa as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors, and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries.