The one-year detention of Montenegrin journalist Jovo Martinović has raised questions about the country’s commitment to a free press. The start of his trial last week did nothing to allay those concerns.

Detained Montenegrin investigative journalist Jovo Martinović.

Authorities arrested the investigative reporter, known for his exposés on organized crime, in October 2015 with 16 others, charging them with drug trafficking. Journalists who have worked with Martinović – from the Economist, Financial Times, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Vice, among others – sprang to his defense. He personified professionalism and integrity, they said.

Martinović has argued from the start that the sole reason he spent time with the criminal group was his work as a journalist. As he has in other projects, he wanted to document their work.

To date, the evidence against Martinović offered by deputy special prosecutor Mira Samardžić is weak, at best. She has allegedly incriminating statements from two of Martinović’s co-accused, both of whom face jail sentences and have an incentive to cooperate with prosecutors. She also has recorded phone conversations between Martinović and the alleged gang leader, Dusko Martinović (no relation), but defense lawyers and others who have read the transcripts say they contain nothing to incriminate Jovo.

Detained Montenegrin investigative journalist Jovo Martinović.

Indeed, during the first court session on October 27, Dusko Martinović himself said his relationship with Jovo was purely of a journalistic nature: Jovo wanted to make a documentary about the so-called Pink Panther jewel thieves.

The prosecutor has ignored calls from press freedom and human rights groups to free Jovo on bail pending trial. 

By itself, the trial raises serious freedom of expression concerns. Taken together with a spate of civil defamation lawsuits, smear campaigns, and impunity for attacks on journalists, as documented by Human Rights Watch and others, Montenegro seems dismissive of its obligations to respect media freedom. 

As an aspirant to join the European Union, Montenegro also must heed established standards on freedom of expression. The European Commission should highlight this in accession talks to ensure that journalists like Martinović can do their jobs.