Montenegro: Unbalancing the Press
Montenegrin politicians disown controversial proposals on interfering with private media, but could they be indicative of the government¹s plan to win independence?
by Aida Ramusovic, 23 April 2005
PODGORICA, Serbia and Montenegro
Controversy broke out in Montenegro following the leak of a report recommending government action to secure a more affirmative posture by the local media towards independence. Although the furor quickly died down after the government distanced itself from the document, the whole affair could still reverberate as Montenegro prepares for a referendum on eventual independence from the state union with Serbia.
The government of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic has been a reluctant participant in the common institutions of the state union and is working towards full independence. But the citizens of Montenegro are divided over the issue, and the government will need the media if it is to win any referendum campaign.
Indeed, the controversial document clumsily but accurately titled, Analysis of the media scene in Montenegro in the year when decisive steps towards sovereignty are planned to be undertaken criticized even pro-independence media for being too balanced in their reporting on the issue.
The analysis was submitted by an unidentified contractor to the Montenegrin Foreign Ministry, which forwarded it in mid-February to high state officials including Prime Minister Djukanovic and the speaker of parliament, Ranko Krivokapic. It was then leaked to the press.
The scandalous document, as the Montenegrin media came to dub it, proposed changes to the organizational structure and staffing of a number of press and broadcast outlets in order to secure a more affirmative posture towards Montenegrin independence. The document specifically criticized Montenegrin Radio and Television (RTCG), the country’s public broadcaster, as well as the MINA news agency, the daily Vijesti, and local television station MBC. Other channels such as Sky Sat TV or Montena TV were described as having little influence on public opinion.
The unknown drafter proposed reshaping the government¹s communications office and to improve professionalism at RTCG through the strategic use of its budget. According to the paper, the government should also provide financial support to private television and radio stations and provide RTCG with a correspondent network in European capitals since the present one mainly consists of journalists from Belgrade.
NOTHING OUT OF THE ORDINARY?
Foreign Ministry chief of staff Ivana Pajevic confirmed the document’s authenticity to a Podgorica radio station and explained it had been written by an independent expert. Foreign Minister Miodrag Vlahovic seconded Pajevic’s statement and declined to point the finger at the anonymous writer.
A statement on the ministry¹s website reinforced the message that there was nothing unusual about the report: The ministry commonly and frequently receives analysis, ideas, remarks, and interpretations initiated by groups or individuals from outside institutions. As a part of its established procedure, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs conveys the received texts and analysis to other governmental bodies, thus recognizing the importance of making officials acquainted with their content, good or bad. Therefore, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs makes known that it neither has any direct relation with the content, i.e. with stated remarks, nor is it by any means the author of the mentioned report.
But Vlahovic’s actions contradicted the placid picture painted by his own ministry: he apologized to the media for the proposals made in the report and offered his resignation, which was promptly rejected by the cabinet. And Prime Minister Djukanovic said the document should in no way be seen as a reflection of government thinking. He added, the government¹s relationship with the media should be judged by its policy and not on the basis of something someone wrote in an unofficial report.
The junior partner in the ruling coalition, the Social Democrat Party (SDP), which also nominated Vlahovic for his post, stated that it was up to the author of the report to come out and take responsibility. For the SDP it is important, and for the ministry as well, that this [report] is not any kind of official policy towards the media, SDP spokesperson Branislav Radulovic said.
Opposition parties unanimously condemned the proposals, and the reaction in the media was swift and furious.
The MINA agency went as far as announcing it would sue the author of the document. In an editorial MINA said, we would like to tell Miodrag Vlahovic that as far as we are concerned and as long as the real author does not come forward, he is the only one responsible for offending the reputation and dignity of editors and journalists and the only and exclusive author of the scandalous report.
Vijesti was also highly critical of the analysis and the government’s reaction, editorializing that Djukanovic "is defending a member of his cabinet because meeting the requests of the media and the democratic public would show weakness, which on his understanding of governing is unacceptable.
The president of the Association of Young Journalists, Boris Darmanovic, said the document¹s proposals for disciplining the media were its most disturbing content and that someone had to take responsibility. "That person should resign in 24 hours. This is a scandal that undermines the Montenegrin media. I almost can¹t believe this is happening.
The editor of Montenegrin public television's first channel, Snezana Nikcevic, said that other interests and agendas might be behind the analysis. In a reference to a possible referendum on Montenegrin independence, she said, I’m afraid that this [report] could be a preparation for blaming the journalists and the media in case the big project that this government started and for which it is responsible fails.
The respected weekly Monitor, finally, thought that the affair would have far-reaching implications for the country’s political future. According to the magazine, several influential foreign diplomats have already announced visits to Podgorica to discuss the media affair talks that require some serious damage control on the part of the government. It will be very hard to explain that a country in which official correspondence talks of plans to muzzle the media has the conditions for organizing a fair referendum, Monitor wrote.
The president of the influential, independent think tank Group for Change, Svetozar Jovicevic, agreed.
The affair "will have serious repercussions on the Montenegrin position and the future of the project the government, and especially [Vlahovic], is fighting for, Jovicevic said.
From an innocuous internal report to an affair of state -- the explosive contents of the anonymous document mean that even if the row is dying down now, its echoes will continue for some time to come.
Aida Ramusovic is a TOL correspondent.
A Virtual Country
As it enters its third year of existence, the state union of Serbia and Montenegro is unlikely to function any better--or to exist much longer. by Igor Jovanovic, 2 March 2005
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