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EC reports on rule of law in Montenegro and Serbia note problems with judiciary and media freedom

European Commission; Photo: European Union

PODGORICA / BELGRADE – European Commission has sent its biannual non-paper on the state of the rule of law in Montenegro and Serbia to the Member States, regional media reported. The fulfillment of the interim benchmarks in Chapters 23 and 24 are now officially the conditions for closing any other negotiating chapter, while for Serbia, the state of the rule of law determines whether it will open new chapters.

The Commission noted problems with the judicial track record, independence of the judiciary, and a still problematic situation in the area of freedom of expression, among other findings.

Montenegro: Working groups for Chapters 23 and 24 incomplete, legislative changes to follow Venice Commission recommendations

The report points out that following the change in the composition of the ruling majority after the August elections and the formation of a new coalition government, the functioning of administrative structures in the area of rule of law faces new challenges, “due to widespread replacements and changes at management levels, including a vacuum in the election of members of the Working groups for both chapters (23 and 24), which prevented the continuation of their activities”, RTCG reported.

Following the news on the non-paper, Montenegrin Chief Negotiator Zorka Kordić stated that the Working group for Chapter 24 had been established and that the decision of the Government is expected this week, while the Working group for Chapter 23 will be established soon.

EC report added that legislative changes, which are essential for the success of the rule of law reform, must be prepared in accordance with European standards, best practice and the recommendations of the Venice Commission and after a broad and inclusive consultation process.

“This especially refers to the opinion of the Venice Commission on the legal initiative on the prosecution, as well as in terms of finalizing and implementing those legal solutions,” the document reads.

“The transformation of the RTCG Public Broadcaster into an independent and professional public service will depend on the expected appointment of a new RTCG Council,” the document said, adding that “the media scene remains polarized and the pandemic has further exacerbated the difficult economic situation of journalists and media workers.

The report also stressed the need to create an environment conducive to media freedom that requires the authorities and all political parties to refrain from pressuring journalists, including through public statements the report said.

The document also states that there was “not a single” verdict for money laundering, and states that the ability to investigate, prosecute and adjudicate in cases of money laundering is not yet at the expected level. The results in terms of court verdicts and convictions, on the other hand, increased in 2020, because a larger number of investigations from previous years reached the courts.

According to Vijesti, the document states that, after the opening of the last negotiation chapter in June 2020, the priority for further progress in the accession negotiations remains the fulfillment of the interim benchmarks for Chapters 23 and 24.

“As envisaged by the revised negotiating methodology, the chapters should not be closed before Montenegro achieves this goal,” the EC stressed, adding that meeting the benchmarks does not depend only on the implementation of action plans and strategic documents.

“This also entails a demonstration of a stronger political will at the Government level to address the remaining challenges, especially with regard to areas falling under Chapter 23 and those under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice and Human and Minority Rights. This includes rejecting and condemning any denial, relativization, or misinterpretation of the Srebrenica genocide”, the report reads.

Serbia: Pressure on judiciary remains high, threats to journalists still a concern

The non-paper for Serbia noted that the country had adopted a revised Action Plan for Chapters 23 and 24 in July 2020, prompting the European Commission not to use terms such as “serious delays” due to “resetting of the clock”. This does not mean, however, that long delays have necessarily disappeared, the document stated

One of the delays considered serious under the previous Action Plans was amending the Constitution in the field of the judiciary, which was originally scheduled to be completed by the end of 2017. The Government of Serbia initiated the process for the second time in 2020 and so far two out of twelve steps have been completed, the non-paper, which the European Western Balkans has seen, noted.

The parliament of Serbia is to decide whether to trigger the process of amending the Constitution next week, with the Speaker Ivica Dačić announcing that a necessary referendum might take place by the end of the year. Part of the opposition parties, most of which boycotted the 2020 parliamentary elections leaving the parliament virtually without opposition, demanded the process to be postponed until after snap elections, announced for spring 2022.

According to the non-paper, pressure on the judiciary and prosecution in Serbia remains high, with government officials continuing to comment on the ongoing cases and tabloids publishing leaked information from the proceedings. Among the positive developments in the field of judiciary, the report noted that backlog reduction programme continues to have a positive effect.

In the area of the fight against corruption, the report noted the Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO) assessed that the new Law on the Prevention of Corruption was an improvement in some areas, but also had shortcomings that could endanger its application. The indictments of the Prosecutor’s Office for Organised Crime increased in 2020, but the number of first instance and final verdicts decreased.

The non-paper also noted that cases of threats and violence against journalists remained a concern, as well as that most media associations withdrew from the working group on the safety of journalists in March 2021, referring to the hate speech and smear campaigns against journalists, including by the head of the ruling party caucus in the parliament, despite the adoption of the code of conduct in 2020.

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