Boban Batrićević by Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu

Boban Batrićević

 

On 11 August 2023, the prominent Montenegrin academic and writer Boban Batrićević published an article on the independent news portal Antena M in which he detailed hateful narratives spread by priests of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, including the glorification of war criminals. The Serbian Orthodox Church commands a significant following in Montenegro and an affiliated lawyer swiftly filed a criminal complaint accusing the writer of inciting religious hatred. The Supreme State Prosecutor’s Office of Montenegro followed with misdemeanour proceedings against Batrićević, indicting him with violating Montenegro’s National Law on Public Order and Peace, which prohibits national, racial or religious insults. The potential penalties include a fine of between €250 and €1,500 and imprisonment for up to sixty days. Batrićević’s hearing is due to take place on 22 January 2024.

Batrićević’s research and writing focus on the history of propaganda and of totalitarian movements, as well as cultural identity theory. He is vice-president of the Montenegrin PEN Centre. PEN is particularly alarmed by his prosecution and has called for the charges against him to be dropped. ‘His words cannot in any way be interpreted as religious insults. If anything, Batrićević called for an end to the very hateful speech he is being accused of spreading [and] is clearly being targeted solely for peacefully expressing his views,’ said Ma Thida, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. 

Other human rights organisations have spoken out in Batrićević’s defence, urging the authorities to fully uphold the right to freedom of expression. The Lawyers Association of Montenegro has offered him free legal assistance on the grounds that his prosecution is in direct contravention of the rights to freedom of thought and expression in the country.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Montenegro’s ethnic, religious and political divisions are in large part a result of its historically authoritarian political culture. Campaigns against independent media are led by politicians from both ruling and opposition parties. Professional journalists are often accused of being swayed by foreign interests or of betraying the nation or the Church. 

Batrićević’s statement and the ensuing prosecution come against the backdrop of a controversial population census, originally planned for 1 November but postponed to December. Opposition parties have threatened to boycott the census, fearing that pro-Russian forces, including the Serbian Orthodox Church, will spread propaganda and inflate the numbers of people identifying as Serbian. 

In October, PEN published a report, drafted in cooperation with its centres in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia, documenting how the pro-Russian media in Montenegro regularly spreads hate speech, inflames ethno-nationalist tensions and targets critics, intellectuals and pro-Western activists and politicians. The report quotes a 2022 European Parliament resolution on foreign interference, which identified the Serbian Orthodox Church as seeking to spread Russian influence in the western Balkans region, fuel conflicts and divide communities. A month earlier, PEN adopted a resolution on threats to freedom of expression, peace and stability in the region that specifically called on the Montenegrin authorities to end the glorification of war criminals, the promotion of revisionist narratives and the spreading of hate speech, and to publicly, unequivocally and systematically condemn all acts of violence and targeted attacks against writers, journalists and activists.

In recent years, several other writers have been targeted by the authorities. Montenegro’s previous prime minister, Dritan Abazović, called the award-winning poet and novelist Milorad Popović an agent of nationalist politics who ‘serves the interests of crime’ and has repeatedly smeared another prominent writer, Andrej Nikolaidis. Batrićević, Popović and Nikolaidis are all vocal opponents of Russian and Serbian attempts to interfere in Montenegrin internal affairs. 

Readers might like to send appeals calling on the Montenegrin authorities to drop all charges against academic and writer Boban Batrićević and expressing concern that he is being persecuted in violation of his internationally recognised right to peaceful free expression. 

Appeals to be addressed to:

Milojko Spajić
Prime Minister of Montenegro
Karađorđeva bb, 81000 Podgorica
Montenegro
Email: kabinet@gov.me

Andrej Milović
Minister of Justice
Vuka Karadžića br 3, 81000 Podgorica
Montenegro
Email: andrej.milovic@mpa.gov.me

Nataša Jovović
Chargé d’affaires
Embassy of Montenegro
47 De Vere Gardens, London W8 5AW
Email: natasa.jovovic@mfa.gov.me

Update: Belarusian-Polish writer and journalist Andrzej Poczobut (LR, May 2023) is currently being held in solidarity confinement and is being denied access to life-saving heart medication. He is serving an eight-year sentence in a high-security penal colony after being convicted on trumped-up charges of inciting hatred and encouraging sanctions aimed at harming the national security of Belarus. PEN continues to call for his release and seeks assurances that he is being provided with all necessary medication.

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