Journalist sentenced to jail for libel in Montenegro

New York, April 30, 2012–The appeals court in Montenegro must overturn a libel verdict and four-month jail sentence given to journalist Petar Komnenic, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The Montenegrin authorities, who are seeking to join the European Union, decriminalized libel after the journalist’s original conviction, according to news reports.

On April 18, a magistrate court in the capital, Podgorica, ordered Komnenic, the editor of the local TV Vijesti and a freelancer for Reuters and the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, to serve a four-month prison sentence in connection with the February 2011 libel conviction. The case has gone back and forth in appeals for the past 13 months, Reuters reported. Komnenic told CPJ he will appeal the sentence at the Montenegrin High Court.

The libel case against Komnenic stemmed from a 2007 article he wrote in Monitor, a local weekly, that alleged that state prosecutors had asked police to put senior judges under illegal surveillance, he said. After the story ran, a local judge who worked with the magistrate court filed a complaint against Komnenic, the journalist told CPJ.

In July 2011, a few months after Komnenic’s original conviction, the Montenegrin government passed a law decriminalizing libel and made it a matter of civil litigation, news reports said.

The new ruling prompted criticism from the EU Enlargement Commission, which oversees the accession process of prospective member states. Montenegrin authorities have been seeking to join the European Union, but Reuters reported that Peter Stano, the commission’s spokesman, said, “All necessary measures must be taken to ensure that judges apply European and international standards in their ruling. … Old cases should be resolved in line with the spirit of the new legislation.”

“Montenegro is out of step with the rest of Europe by sending a journalist to prison for what he wrote,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “Defamation is a civil, not criminal matter. The High Court must overturn this verdict.”