Media legislation offers solid solutions for improving media freedom and the position of media workers, but its constant improvement is necessary so that it is ready to respond to the new challenges that the profession is facing. Also, it is necessary to make more efforts to apply the good solutions better in practice.
This was announced at the round table “Two years of application of media laws: lessons learned”, which was organized by the Trade Union of Media of Montenegro (SMCG) with representatives of political parties and the civil sector.
The Vice President of the SMCG, Radomir Kračković, referred to the two-year implementation of the new Law on Media and the Law on the National Public Broadcaster, Radio and Television of Montenegro.
“Despite the changes in media laws since 2020, the state of media freedom in Montenegro is still characterized by numerous problems which, in our opinion, are primarily reflected in the poor financial position of journalists and media workers. Despite the salary increase during the last year, journalists and media workers were generally overworked during the covid epidemic and few media outlets rewarded their great efforts during that period. Also, overtime work is generally not paid, and many journalists and media workers are forced to do additional work. In general, the average salary of journalists and media workers does not reflect their importance as a profession. The fact that we have over 200 media outlets in the country certainly contributes to that, so there is a huge competition and there can’t be a lot of money for everyone,” Kračković said.
He said that the amendments to the Law on Media, at the insistence of the SMCG, improved the autonomy of journalists within newsrooms by adopting a decision that their text/articles may not be changed without their consent, that they have the right to refuse to publish content that is in conflict with ethical principles, that they have the right to freedom of expression, without fear that their employment may be terminated because of it.
“One of the main novelties was the obligation to publish data on the advertising of state bodies in the media. After two years, we can say that the results are half-hearted. The Ministry in charge of media for the year 2021 failed to get all the necessary data from public institutions because as many as 81 percent of institutions ignored this legal obligation and did not send data on which media and how much money they paid for advertising. We don’t know what the line ministry did on this occasion,” Kračković said.
He reminded that the Media Law established the Fund for Encouraging Media Pluralism, from which money from the budget is distributed to private media for various media contents that are in the public interest.
“The first allocation of the Fund showed the need for additional clarifications. It is necessary to create measurable criteria for the allocation of money, improve the monitoring system and make sure that the allocated money is actually spent on increasing the pluralism of media content. Since this is state money, it is necessary to increase transparency during all stages of the procedure. The media strategy envisages a significant increase in the Fund’s budget, so the need for control will be even greater,” he stressed.
When it comes to the implementation of the new Law on RTCG, Kračković said that the focus was on monitoring the implementation of the new system of self-regulation – the Ombudsman, and emphasized that it is necessary to strengthen its independence in its work.
“What particularly worries us is the unwillingness of the state to deal more seriously with the issue of the survival of local public broadcasters. Back in 2019, the SMCG made recommendations that provided for a significant improvement in the financial sustainability of these media, as well as strengthening the independence of their Councils. Those proposals became part of the Draft Law on AVM Services. However, nothing has been done since then. The situation in some local public broadcasters is catastrophic, some of our colleagues’ salaries are delayed by up to 15 months, they do not have basic working conditions, debts for taxes and contributions are piling up, and in the meantime, new local broadcasters are opening. The state must take more account of these media which are normally established by municipalities and which employ more than 350 people and should be an important factor of information at the local level”.
Kračković said that SMCG actively participated in the drafting of the first Media Strategy 2022-2026, which is the first government document that more seriously and broadly analyzes the state of media freedom in the country.
“It also states that the earnings of journalists in Montenegro are at a low level, that there is a lack of investigative journalism and topics of public interest in the original production of the media, and that there is a danger that the media will be misused as “bulletin boards” of political and other power centers. The strategy proposal was determined in April when a public discussion was organized, but what happened after that is unknown because the members of the working group are not familiar with the further work. It is not known whether the experts of the Council of Europe have given their opinion and if they have, what it is,” Kračković said.
Lawyer Mirko Bošković, who is also an associate of SMCG in the free legal aid service, reminded that at the end of 2021, the Parliament unanimously adopted amendments to the Criminal Code, which strengthen the criminal legal protection of employees in the media.
He reminded that in the case of criminal acts: serious murder, serious bodily injury, coercion, endangering security and preventing printing and broadcasting, stricter sanctions are foreseen. The changes came as a response to the initiative of SMCG and Action for Human Rights, which was supported by seven NGOs fighting for media freedom and improving the position of employees.
“For now, two cases are qualified under the new provisions of the Criminal Code, and both for the criminal offense of coercion. Proceedings are ongoing, one is with the prosecutor, and the trial for the other has started,” said Bošković. Bošković said that prescribing criminal offenses is the last measure to protect the safety of journalists and that the basic function is to prevent future attacks on journalists and other media workers.
During the discussion, representatives of political parties supported the protection of media freedom and the safety of journalists, and indicated the need for joint action in order to improve media legislation.
SD spokesman Nikola Zirojević said that his impression is that there are more and more attacks, but that they pass with mild reactions from the civil sector.
“Unfortunately, when we talk about the safety of journalists, we took not one, but several steps back,” said Zirojević.
The PM of the Democratic Front, Nikola Bajčetić, said that the essence is in political will and that political instability affects the freedom of the media. He emphasized the problem of “bot media” that many social communities face, as well as media hyperinflation. Member of Parliament of the “Crno na bijelo” coalition Božena Jelušić believes that bots are a form of political influence and that it should be seen if there is a possibility to resolve this issue.
Mirko Stanić, the head of the SDP media team, warned that the media’s critical attitude towards the biggest holders of state power is “effective for democracy”, and that it must not be the subject of targeting by public officials.
DNP representative Nemanja Baošić said that the solution could be in a stricter penal policy and called on representatives of the media community to “together contribute to a much better position of media workers”.
The Director of the Media Center, Goran Đurović, said that the problem with the application of the Criminal Code is that even the Media Act does not define who a journalist is. He called for the professionalism of the profession and the establishment of an effective self-regulatory mechanism.
“A large number of media does not mean media pluralism, but the question is what kind of content these media produce”, said Đurović.
Amina Murić from the NGO Civic Alliance assessed that greater solidarity is needed between the civil sector, the media and media workers when it comes to improving the status of media workers.
The round table is part of the project “Improving the dialogue between journalist associations and parliaments in the Western Balkans for a stronger civil sector” funded by the Swedish Agency for International Development and Cooperation (Sida) and implemented by the Balkan Civil Society Development Network (BCSDN).