Montenegro: Jelena Jovanović, journalist targeted by the mafia

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Source/Author: OBCT, Vukašin Obradović

Dealing with organised crime and risking your life, needing police protection just to be able to do your job and live your everyday life. Jelena Jovanović, journalist from the Montenegrin newspaper Vijesti, explains what it is like to live under police protection

For over two years Jelena Jovanović, a journalist for the newspaper Vijesti in Podgorica, has lived under police protection: she gets up in the morning, goes about her day and goes to sleep in the evening accompanied by the officers in charge of protecting her. Jovanović has been dealing with issues related to organised crime for years and, due to her work, she is exposed almost daily to risks that threaten her safety. Highlighting the dangers faced by those investigating corruption and organised crime go far beyond “the usual”, Jovanović explains that when a journalist comes into possession of compromising information, on politicians or on prominent members of the criminal underworld, they begin to be perceived as a threat to the interests of powerful groups and individuals involved in criminal and corrupt activities.

“From that moment – and I have experienced many throughout my career – there is no longer anything ordinary or spontaneous. As I get closer to the truth, the threats become more and more concrete and the ‘benevolent advice’ to give up leaves room for attempts to intimidate me. In recent years, it has happened several times that they also tried to stop my investigations with hateful messages on social media and attempts to criminalise and discredit my work. These situations, in my opinion, are real turning points in which the journalist, subjected to unbearable pressure, finds themselves at a crossroads: give up or continue to risk their life to uncover the truth”.

How much has your private and professional life changed since you received police protection?

My life has changed significantly since I was first assigned an escort towards the end of 2018. Fortunately, that first experience did not last long, unlike the current one that began in August 2021.

I have been forced to change my habits, to give up travel and often concerts, theatre performances, sporting events, mountain walks… In simple words, for almost two and a half years now I have not been able to freely go about my daily life, because for me those places are no longer safe. This says a lot about the changes that have occurred in my private and professional life.

Do you believe that the security services have taken all the necessary measures to protect you from those who put your life in danger?

The very fact that I am here talking to you answers your question. However, I am aware that no institution in the world can guarantee absolute protection to anyone. This is even more true for Montenegro, where dozens of police officials had close links with the criminal groups on which my investigations were focused.

For me it was devastating to read the transcripts of messages exchanged through the Sky application, where some senior police officers, whom I had previously consulted, forwarded my questions to the leaders of some criminal groups, reached an agreement with them on the answers to give me and promised that they would ‘explain’ certain things to me. In that context, ‘explain’ could have several meanings, but it certainly could not mean anything good. That experience, however, made me reflect, making me even more convinced that, in a society like the Montenegrin one, keeping quiet and keeping aloof is more dangerous than speaking openly about anomalies that we witness.

Does living under protection make it more difficult for you to do journalism?

It is a significant obstacle. Some sources refuse to meet me because they do not trust the police and fear that the officers tasked with protecting my physical safety are actually here to take note of my encounters. However, the work I do every day shows that somehow I manage to move forward.

How safe can journalists feel in Montenegro?

It is completely inappropriate to talk about the safety of journalists in a country where, twenty years after the murder of  Duško Jovanović, the instigators have still not been identified, where we do not know who brutally attacked Mladen Stojović and Tufik Softić, who shot Olivera Lakić, who placed a bomb under the windows of Mihailo Jovović’s office, then chief editor of the newspaper Vijesti… In a country where clarity has never been reached on a number of attacks on journalists and assets owned by the media – a country deeply divided, so much so that even the media landscape is polarised – those who do journalism respecting the ethical rules of the profession almost daily end up in the crosshairs of various obscure structures and individuals linked to them. Instead, those who, unfortunately, continue to ridicule our beautiful profession in their articles and reports – which are anything but the search for the truth – feel safer than morally upright journalists. However, I believe that their conscience – assuming they have it – is much more tormented, because they too know that the truth is like water – sooner or later it finds its way.

Do you feel protected by living under police protection?

The police officers who are tasked with protecting me are well-trained professionals who I fully trust and I am infinitely grateful to always have them by my side. However, no one in the world can feel completely safe, and not even me. But I’m not afraid, and for me this is much more important than the feeling of safety or insecurity. Helping me overcome my fears are my family, friends and colleagues, but also all those good people who support my work.

Source: OBCT