The Digital Forensic Center discussed with Tamara Srzentic, Minister of Public Administration, Digital Society and Media, the negative scores that Montenegro obtained in the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders in April, as well as the increasingly present online hate speech issue.
Minister Srzentic emphasized that her Ministry has started the Continuing Media Dialogue, where all the issues that pose problems to this sector are discussed with the media representatives, in order to find systemic solutions. Besides, the Minister highlighted that the discussions about the drawing up of the Media Strategy began, which should encompass our future activities, provide recommendations and strategical guidance on the media industry development, as well as the improvement of media freedoms in the broadest sense.
DFC: Montenegro ranked 104th on the World Press Freedom Index, published in April by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), climbing one place compared to 2020, but yet, it remains the region’s worst-ranked country. What do you think contributed the most to such a low ranking?
T. SRZENTIC: The Government closely read and analyzed the findings of the 2020 World Press Freedom Index prepared by the Reporters Without Borders that identified the challenges and problems in the media industry during the previous year. It is important to say that, since the very beginning of the work of the new Government and especially after having had conversations with the media representatives, we have recognized the challenges. Let me remind you that we started the Continuing Media Dialogue, the first of this type, where all the issues that pose problems to this sector are discussed with the media representatives in order to find systemic solutions with joint efforts.
Stricter punishments for attacks on journalists
I believe that the growing attacks on journalists and the cold cases of crimes against journalists that are yet to be solved are the main reasons, among the others, behind the country’s low ranking in the Index by Reporters Without Borders. A deeply polarized society in each segment also contributed to this. Having recognized it as one of the key issues regarding the freedom of speech and the status of journalists in Montenegro, we opened up a discussion, at the governmental level, on the amending of the Criminal Code as to punish more severely the attacks on journalists, while such a provision would prevent all future attacks and other crimes against journalists.
On the other hand, it is equally important to improve the policy of criminal sanctions in the former cases of attacks on media representatives. The Minister of the Interior and the Head of the Police Administration have paid special attention to these issues. I believe that the work of the Commission for the monitoring of the investigations of the competent authorities in cases of threats and violence against journalists, murders of journalists, and attacks on the property will give results and shed a light on cold cases.
Freedom of speech and media freedoms are a pillar of each democratic society. We need to carry out reforms and improve public awareness of the importance of the media and their role in every society. The Ministry of Public Administration, Digital Society and Media has committed itself to solve systematically these issues and it has been intensively working on challenges and problems that piled up during the previous period.
The importance to adopt Media Strategy
DFC: According to the Index, the government’s harassment of media and professional journalists continues, while the attacks go unpunished. What will your Ministry do to improve media freedoms in Montenegro?
T. SRZENTIC: This Government has been working on creating an atmosphere where the media and journalists in Montenegro should feel free to report, under no political pressures, on any topic in an unbiased manner. Apart from all the things previously mentioned, I believe that the adoption of the Media Strategy and the reform of the media regulation will be of great importance. We have already started working on activities for drawing up the Media Strategy, the first of this type in Montenegro, which we will design together with the media representatives. Besides the regulatory framework that should be improved and completed, we believe that such a document is more than necessary since we found no document that adequately covers the development of the media industry in Montenegro. The Strategy should encompass our future activities, provide recommendations and strategical guidance on the media industry development, as well as the improvement of media freedom in the broadest sense.
DFC: The RSF also emphasizes that the current government, after the August election, announced the amendments to the media laws from 2019, particularly in the provisions according to which the journalists would be obliged to reveal their sources. Are those and other amendments being worked upon and when could we expect stronger mechanisms for the strengthening of freedom and protection of journalists in general?
T. SRZENTIC: Along with all these activities, we work on the media legislative reforms referring to the adoption of the new Law on Audio-Visual Media Services and the amendments to the Law on Media and Law on National Public Broadcaster – Radio Television of Montenegro (RTCG), in order to harmonize all three laws. Certainly, one of the intentions of this Government is to completely protect the journalists and their sources through legal reform in accordance with the best practices and standards applied in more developed countries, which will be in accordance with the expectations of the Montenegrin media community and our international partners.
Completion of the legal framework by the end of the year
The entire legal framework for the media is expected to be completed by the end of the current year, while the adoption of the Media Strategy is planned for the end of September 2021. That way, we will provide comprehensive reforms that will protect both journalists and media themselves and will allow them to perform their work without obstacles.
DFC: Do you think that the problem of hate speech in general, and especially on the internet, can be solved with legal regulation or any other action, such as campaigns? Is your Ministry planning any particular steps in this regard, and which ones?
T. SRZENTIC: I am aware that hate speech, under the pretense of the freedom of speech, often takes shape, on social media and the internet in general, that threatens individuals, but also the society as a whole. The social media expansion significantly contributed to the spreading of hate speech and disinformation that are overflowing the media environment. On one hand, we have complete freedom of speech in the online environment, but, on the other hand, we have the growing hate speech with inadequate sanctions policy. We are aware that this issue burdens our society and, therefore, within the Media Strategy, we will define direction and steps to solve this problem, as well as the concrete measures and activities of the relevant bodies. Also, I think that Montenegro and its society definitely need objective self-regulation, in order to implement professional and ethical informing, which will apply the ethical standards to the media work on the basis of a voluntarily agreed code. We also recognized the importance of promoting media literacy and, in that area, this Government needs to make a particular contribution, in order to raise the citizens’ awareness of the critical and safe usage of media content. Likewise, the public administration must be as transparent as possible, and I am particularly dedicated to this task since the transparent work itself is the best mechanism to reduce the space for the launching of disinformation referring to our work.
Media should constantly build their own capacities
DFC: Among other things, the Digital Forensic Center organizes training for journalists in order to introduce them to the phenomenon of disinformation, as well as the methods of open-source fact-checking. Director-General of the Reporters Without Borders Christophe Deloire said that journalism was the best vaccine against disinformation. How do you plan to raise the level of professional journalism where true and reliable information will be the goal and tool for the development of a healthy society?
T. SRZENTIC: I believe that all these questions will be recognized and defined through the development of the Media Strategy in the following period. In this context, it is particularly important that the media sector itself applies the Code of Ethics of Montenegrin Journalists. The media themselves need to be aware that their capacities should be continuously built, particularly when it comes to the education and training of younger journalists. It is also necessary to protect their journalists so that no party meddles in their work and that they do not experience any kind of pressure, to provide them with good and secure working conditions, to continuously invest in their education. The role of NGOs is also very prominent since they largely contribute to media professionalization, which is something that I am particularly thankful for.