AIM: start

TUE, 25 DEC 2001 12:01:38 GMT

Editor of "The Day" Sentenced

Handcuffs Instead of Laurels

Prison sentence pronounced to Vladislav Asanin started numerous reactions and discussions within Montenegro, but also raised a question of the position of journalists in Montenegro.

AIM Podgorica, December 16, 2001

Vladislav Asanin, former editor-in-chief of the daily "Dan" (The Day) has been sentenced to three months in prison for slander. Asanin was convicted in a civil claim filed by Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic for publishing texts from the Zagreb weekly "Nacional" about tobacco mafia.

Since Asanin already had one suspended sentence for slander (passed in a civil suit of Stanko Subotic), the court in Podgorica sentenced him to three months in prison. This would be the first time in Montenegro that a journalist would end up behind bars. That was why this verdict did not leave anyone in Montenegro indifferent. Some disputed it, others justified it, whereas still others considered it to harsh or inadequate not denying Asanin's responsibility.

"Imprisoning and convicting of journalists is impermissible. I am against this sentence, as well as against slander as a part of Criminal Law", commented Borislav Banovic, former Montenegrin Assistant Secretary of Information and official of the Social-Democratic Party.

Numerous domestic and foreign non-governmental organisations, as well as journalists, including those who have been criticising "The Day" for unprofessional editorial policy for a very long time, have raised their voice against Asanin's prison sentence.

Such stands have opened many other questions. Has everyone risen to defend Asanin as a professional journalist, acquitting him of responsibility that he has been accused of? Or, perhaps, this criticism has been partly addressed to the existing Montenegrin law which envisages from three months to three years of prison for slander?

"I believed that Montenegrin judiciary would not sentence Vladimir Asanin to prison for slander in the media, although there is a legal procedure for that. For some time now, journalists and non-governmental organisations in Montenegro have been fighting against imprisoning journalists because of their writing and publishing, demanding the replacement of that sentence by a fine, as is the case in other European countries", said President of the Association of Professional Journalists of Montenegro Danilo Burzan. Burzan thought that the court should not be blamed for acting according to a valid Montenegrin law, although as he said, he was in favour of eliminating all remnants of the old practice from the Criminal Code.

Apart from those who consistently advocated the principle that journalists should not be threatened with a possibility of being put behind bars for using "strong language", there was an increasing number of those who saw Asanin's penalty as an opportunity to score a political point or two. "I read what politicians have been saying and do not doubt their good intentions, but for them it is still just an opportunity at securing political points for themselves", observed Asanin.

"This is yet another blow to the freedom of public expression and publicity in Montenegro, delivered by none else but Milo Djukanovic in a way that doesn't exist even in the most rigid communist systems", commented a SNP official, Vuksan Simonovic. However, Simonovic and all those like-minded have forgotten the fact that Asanin was just the last of a number of Montenegrin journalists who stood accused for a crime of slander. Already in early nineties journalists of "Monitor" Mihailo Radojicic, Seki Radoncic and Ceseljko Koprivica had been tried and got suspended sentences.

It is also without doubt that things have somewhat changed today. At the time of war frenzy, convictions of independent journalists were followed in silence. Today, victims of that regime (to which Asanin also once belonged) raised their voice against Asanin's conviction. Namely, Vladimir Asanin had been editor-in-chief of Radio&Television of Montenegro at the time when unified DPS was in coalition with Milosevic.

Asanin did not hide this: "I do not deny that; times were different. If I have changed from a journalist who belonged to a political party into a journalist working for an independent paper, that means that criticism was effective." Indeed, his "The Day" did not rise in defence of journalistic profession when Montenegrin journalists were persecuted or when Slavko Curuvija was killed, owner of "The Daily Telegraph" (Dnevni Telegraf). Ironically, now that same weapon that his protégés had been using against others for years, has turned against him.

That is why sentence pronounced to Asanin started disputes in the divided Montenegro. "That has nothing to do with either the court or justice", said President of the Association of Journalists of Yugoslavia Budo Simonovic assessing the process against Asanin as "open political trial which was meant to please Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic".

There were those who reacted to Simonovic's reaction. "Simonovic's association, which mostly rallied correspondents of Belgrade papers, never spoke in defence of the profession, but only of those belonging to that political option", recalled Danilo Burzan.

Burzan was not the only one to observe this Simonovic's "principle". A well-known journalist Miodrag Marovic also wrote about it in his book "Stumblings of the Old Lady". "Under new circumstances Simonovic has been given a new role of connecting the phantom organisation Association of Journalists of Yugoslavia (ASY), he is the President of, with leaders from Dedinje. He does that by loudly reacting to every open attack on "patriotic journalists" in Montenegro and wisely keeping silent when professional and independent journalists are being persecuted in Serbia. And all that under the scandalous Law on the Media which Budo Simonovic, as President of the AJY, supported by keeping silent instead of defending the journalistic profession", wrote Marovic.

Simonovic and all those like-minded, were not heard even during NATO intervention when the Army arrested journalist Antun Masle and brought in foreign correspondents, confiscating their journalistic equipment, nor when Milosevic's papers labelled them spies in "The Day".

That is exactly why it would be frivolous to forget scenes from more recent Montenegrin history and observe Asanin's conviction as an original social phenomenon. We have already seen similar things. However, there is nothing that power-holders today can use as an excuse for settling scores with journalists through institutions which have been burying free thought in Montenegro for years.

Provision of the Montenegrin Criminal Law on slander are nothing new. They were used for years as a convenient toy by those who have just now realised that there are two ends to a stick. The point is not who will get it first at a given moment. Perhaps Vladislav Asanin's trial might serve as a cause for permanently eliminating this practice from Montenegrin public stage as a means for scaring journalists.