Hate speech in Montenegro: Looking away from the past

Since 2020 there have been nine indictments for the crime of inciting racial, national and religious hatred confirmed in Montenegro. In April this year, two verdicts for inciting hatred and violence due to religious and national affiliation were passed, with seven months and one year prison sentences respectively.

Is that enough to stop “troubling the trouble that is not troubling you”? It is not. Are these the only examples of hate speech? Far from it. But if we remember that in the ’90s, state prosecutors did not pay any attention to this type of crimes, which were legally liable throughout former Yugoslavia, then let this text begin with modest optimism. After all the wars, at least that much has been learned.

However, the decision whether battles will be ruled out this time, will again not depend on us, but on politicians, whose speeches fuel those who are already planning whom they will attack, with what and where. Such planners are among the nine accused ones, but the fact is that there is not a single politician among them.

Montenegro’s current political elite does not differ much from the past. Similar to Slobodan Milosevic they see that war as one of the options for the country’s current tensions. Milo Djukanovic’s promise that Montenegro will “defend itself in the woods ” – meaning that guerillas will take up arms – is rather ominous. Statements by political officials are already on the line of hate speech. This outcome is also the main reason why freedom of expression stops when hate speech is present. Instead of contributing to the debate, the basic engine of democracy, hate speech appears as a source of general danger, which encourages and justifies intolerance and, ultimately, violence. The problem with the speech of influential politicians is that their flirting with hatred, its justification, leads to terrible consequences.

Hate speech includes derogatory names such as “Shiptars”, “Gypsies”, “fagots”, as well as speech that incites violence in the form of expulsion (“move out”) and threats to kill (slaughter, hang) people determined by some personal characteristics. The nine indictments mentioned in Montenegro include cases of this last, most dangerous speech, which can be seen from a far that it has been banned. However, certain countries have no mercy for any hate speech. For example, in France, in 2004 and 2008 the former leader of the right-wing National Front party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was fined twice with 10,000 euros each for two statements in which he incited hate speech. The European Court of Human Rights in 2010 rejected Le Pen’s claims that his freedom of expression had been violated, explaining that his statements promoted hostility and rejection of the Muslim community in France and that such statements were not protected by freedom of speech. The court said that it was unacceptable that he “set the French against a community whose religious beliefs he explicitly stated, and whose rise in number he portrayed as a latent threat to the dignity and security of the French people.”

Hate speech based on religious and national affiliation has been flaring up in Montenegro since the end of 2019 and the beginning of protests against the Law on Religious Communities. The elections in August 2020 only added fuel to the fire, especially the change of the government after three decades and the fact that the new government was formed under the strong influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The President of Montenegro and the Democratic Party of Socialists Milo Djukanovic, after losing the parliamentary elections, called the Serbian Orthodox Church a “quasi-religious community”, a “clerical-fascist menagerie”, “trying to keep illegally appropriated property”, “responsible for the Srebrenica genocide” and most of the crimes during the wars of the ’90s,’ while he had previously called protests against the law (litije) a “crazy movement.” Due to these statements, at least two criminal charges were filed against him whose outcome is still pending.

The Prime Minister of Montenegro, Zdravko Krivokapić, on the other hand, called the Montenegrin Orthodox Church a “so-called”, “non-governmental organization”, and pointed out “that its only goal was not to establish faith, but to return property”, which, as well as Djukanovic, also promoted, to say the least, “rejection and hostility towards the targeted community,” as the European Court of Human Rights would say.

The Deputy Prime Minister Dritan Abazović was also under a special impact of hate speech, whose parents were insulted both in the parliament and in front of him because of his nationality, and to whom, for example Councilor Milovan Janković (DPS) said that “there’s no place in Montenegro neither for him, nor the Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić, nor the Minister of the Interior Sergej Sekulović”. Due to a similar speech, calling for ethnic cleansing, the trial of a man who shouted “Move out, move out” from a car covered with a Serbian flag, in an area where mostly Muslims live, is underway. The prosecution also investigated a similar statement by Bosniak party official Adnan Muhovic: “Were they only to try to destroy Bosnia, we will organize a tractor race to Serbia.”

When one assesses the kind of speech of the above statement – that is whether it’s provocative political speech which is protected under the freedom of expression or hate speech – one should keep in mind that “public officials have a special responsibility to refrain from statements that may to be understood as hate speech” (Recommendation R(97)20 of the Council of Europe Expert Committee on Hate Speech). The European Court of Human Rights has also emphasized that it is crucial for politicians to avoid comments that may incite intolerance. They said this confirming the decision of the Belgian courts to punish the MP and the party president for hate speech against immigrants, with 250 hours of community service with them, and a ban on access to public office for 10 years (Féret v. Belgium).

Hate speech is an overture to physical violence, so everyone in charge, as well as everyone with public influence, would have to oppose it without hesitation.

Author: Tea Gorjanc Prelević, Human rights Action, Podgorica

Photo: Djordje Kostic/ Shutterstock