EC non-papers note pressures on judiciary and media in Serbia and Montenegro

European Commission; Photo: European Union

BRUSSELS – In its latest six-month report on the state of the Chapters 23 and 24 , the so-called “non-paper”, the European Commission notes the continuation of threats, intimidation and violence against journalists in Serbia, adding that, during the first half of 2020, an “unbalanced representation by public service broadcasters of the plurality of political views”. In Montenegro, the Commission stressed the lack of progress in prosecuting the attacks against journalist and vulnerbility of the judicial system.

The European Commission stated that the Government of Serbia adopted a media strategy in January 2020, and that the process of writing it was inclusive and transparent, as well as that an action plan based on the strategy is currently being worked on.

However, intimidation and violence against journalists continue to worry, especially at the local level. It is noted that out of 57 charges in 2018, 34 were considered by the end of 2019, of which 10 were concluded.

The non-paper also highlights the Serbian Government’s attempt to centralize information during the COVID-19 pandemic and the arrest, and then continued pressure and intimidation of journalist Ana Lalić.

“Hate speech and smear campaigns against journalists continued in the period before the elections originally scheduled for April 2020”, the document reads, noting that the constant refusal of public institutions to publish information continues to hinder the work of journalists.

In addition to stating that the presentation of political views on public services is unbalanced, the document also emphasizes that the political and economic influence on the media is worrying and ownership is non-transparent.

Judiciary: High pressure from the authorities continues

“Pressure on the judiciary still remains high. Government officials, some at the highest level, as well as members of parliament, continue to comment publicly on a regular basis on ongoing investigations or court proceedings, or on individual judges and prosecutors”, the non-paper states.

It is noted that the process of amending the Constitution has stalled and that the completion of parliamentary elections is awaited for in order for the process to be continued. When it comes to the national program for reducing unresolved cases, the document assesses its impact as positive, but reduced. The number of resolved cases decreased in 2019 compared to 2018.

The non-paper estimates that the situation in the sectors that are particularly susceptible to corruption remains largely unchanged. These include public procurement, infrastructure projects, health, education, spatial planning and public enterprises.

Additionally, the number of convictions in organized crime cases has “slightly increased”, with 167 convicts in 2019 compared to 155 in 2018. It is stated that Serbia is no longer on the “gray list” of countries with a high risk of money laundering and financing terrorism of the FATF.

Problems with the judiciary and media freedom present in Montenegro as well

The European Commission is concerned about the controversial appointment of senior officials in the Montenegrin judiciary, and challenges remain with regard to the overall situation in the area of ​​freedom of expression and the media, according to the “non-paper” for Montenegro, Vijesti reports.

“During the reporting period, Montenegro continued to implement action plans for Chapters 23 and 24 and other strategic documents in the area of ​​the rule of law, and adopted new ones,” the document states.

However, it is reminded that the parliament could not provide the necessary two-thirds majority for important appointments in the judiciary and, therefore, key functions are filled by acting functionaries.

“In addition, concerns are growing about the controversial appointments of senior judicial officials, which are not in line with GRECO’s recommendations on judicial independence. It remains important that Montenegro does not go back in judicial reform and continue to record results, especially in the fight against corruption, while ensuring the true independence of all institutions,” the EC said.

They state that the legal framework that guarantees the independence of the judiciary exists, however, the judiciary and the prosecution are still perceived as vulnerable to political interference.

Fight against corruption in Montenegro still challenging

The EC states that despite strengthening the capacity of the Agency for Prevention of Corruption (ASK) and the proactive work of the new Council, challenges remain regarding integrity, impartiality, transparency, independence, non-selective approach and uniform and full application of laws.

It is reminded that ASK investigated 31 cases of unexplained enrichment in 2019, but they did not find any irregularities.

It is added that the amendments to the Law on Financing of Political Parties, which were adopted by the parliament in December last year, only partially addressed the OSCE / ODIHR recommendations. This law permits the allocation of social assistance from the budget reserve in an election year.

“Appropriate safeguards must be put in place to prevent the misuse of public funds for election campaign purposes,” the document said.

It is added that the implementation of the current law on free access to information has not helped increase the accountability and transparency of public administration.

“The overall impact of anti-corruption measures in particularly vulnerable areas (local self-government, spatial planning, public procurement, privatization, health and education) has yet to show tangible results,” the EC said.

No progress in old cases of attacks on journalists

In 2019, four attacks on journalists were registered. Charges have been filed in three cases.

“There have been no new developments regarding older serious cases of attacks on journalists, including the murder of the editor of Dan in 2004. In April 2020, however, police shed light on four cases of attacks on media property from 2011 and 2014, when five vehicles were damaged and destroyed. Two people – minors at the time of the attack – were arrested, but the organizers of the attack remain unknown,” the EC document said, Vijesti report.

Also, a new law is being prepared in the field of personal data protection.

“The COVID-19 crisis highlighted the challenges in this area in finding the right balance between health care and respect for the confidentiality of personal health data and the right to privacy of citizens. A list of all persons who were ordered a self-isolation measure was published, which was used afterwards by one person to make an application which allows users to track people in self-isolation. In April 2020, a list of more than 60 people infected with the virus, containing their names, birth data and ID number, was leaked. A criminal investigation is currently underway,” it was stated in the non-paper.

The EC notes that the police need more senior investigators of organized crime and drug smuggling, experts in charge of special investigative measures and cybercrime, economic crime and forensics.