Written by: Nenad Pejić

In Montenegro, the disclosure of confidential correspondence from the Sky application used for the purpose of investigation against organized crime continues. At its heart is a former member of the security service of Montenegro, who has been accused of collaborating with one of the country’s warring drug clans in Montenegro, the so-called Kavac clan.

In public debates, questions are raised about whether the data obtained in this way is evidence or not, why the defense does not have that data, but the public has it, why that data is used by one wing of crime, one political option, and not another, and the like. However, one topic is missing.

The Panama Papers are a collection of documents, up to 11.5 million in total, pertaining to so-called off-shore companies used for tax evasion. Hundreds of journalists around the world worked on those documents, published for the first time in 2016, checking the data.  Watergate,the world’s most famous affair,  from way back in 1972, had its beginning with a whistleblower who brought documents to the Washington Post editorial office. Did the journalists promptly publicize what they got? Of course, they did not.

WP began releasing materials, only after a months- long  process of fact-checking, and analysis of whistleblower interests. As a result – then President Richard Nixon was forced to resign. The Washington Post has reached the pinnacle of credibility. Would the then-president have had to resign if the media had immediately published what the whistleblower told him? Of course, if not, WP might not be such a reputable media outlet nowadays. WP thereby demonstrated how serious the news is.

Unfortunately, many are not.

Some regional media are content to publish what, for example, police sources deliver to them without regard about journalistic ethics or the consequences. The media, accepts such a servant’s position and the police (read the government) use it abundantly. If an individual publicly opposes a regime, the servant medium publishes correspondence from that individual’s private life and destroys his ambitions. That role is filthy, professionally unacceptable, and violates the fundamental principles of media ethics. Therefore why are we, journalists, surprised that the reputation of the profession is at such a low level?

What are the fundamental rules that the media must adhere when involving whistleblowers?

The identity of the whistle-blower must be known, rarely it remains unknown. What are his motives? Without that, the media agrees to be manipulated and to manipulate the public. When deciding whether to use such data, the journalist mask always ask himself two questions: The first is “Is it really important” and the second is “Is this the only way to get such information”. Only if both questions are answered affirmatively, does the key process of validating the information on the one hand, and the motives of the whistleblower on the other, begin. If the motive is a political clash or a showdown with some group, then the media must avoid such one-sidedness. The decision to publish the story is decided, only then, and never before. But not only what the whistleblower said, but also an analytical text that discusses the matter, and the findings of the research conducted by the media. Furthermore, one of the core principles of media ethics- humanity,must be respected, in other words, be careful not to jeopradize someone’s integrity. Of course, the whistleblower’s integrity must be protected and respected, even when he misinforms you. His harshest punishment then is refusing to publish what was offered to the media.

Unfortunately, it appears that such questions were not even asked in this case. Undoubtedly, publishing correspondence benefits only one party in the process.

”Exclusive” information frequently appears in these areas, there are media outlets that only deal with it, and behind which, more or less openly, is the security service. The countries in the region are transitioning  from one crisis to the next and it is an opportune time for “confidential” information to be revealed. However, the publication of unverified “confidential” information is not the decision of the individual journalist, but the decision of the editor, that is, the editorial decision of the newsroom. It is an editorial policy. There is a hidden question, within that fact, which, let’s look back to the Montenegrin affair, no one seems to be asking. Why do some media outlets see the publication of private, unverified information as their editorial right, despite the fact that it is an obvious violation of professional ethics? Who and why provides the media with such “confidential” information? Clearly, there is some interest.  The media exists and informs in the interest of the public, therefore, it is in the interest of the public ,to research the answers to those questions.

 Without media responsibility there is no media freedom. That is also the responsibility which comes along with that freedom. Its misuse, as well as the publication of unverified information, confidential correspondence, and recordings of someone’s conversations without any context, analysis, or research is serious and is a threat to freedom. Will there now emerge confidential information from some other sources whose goal is different or opposite to that of the authors of this affair? If it is acceptable for a media to publish one-sided information, then it is acceptable for another media to publish contradictory information. If one media has editorial policy which allows it to act as an investigative body, and even sue and judge, then why would not another media, with a conflicting interest, do the same? And what kind of society is the media building? A society where there is no media, only fan groups.

The public, of course, has an interest in knowing who is behind which crime, just as it is interested in knowing who is responsible for it. Knowledge of the subject entails knowing all the facts, not just those that are offered to the media. It would be wise to legally protect whistleblowers, they very often bring information of great interest to the public. Still, who will protect society from the media and journalists who accept the roles of servants of political interest, who do not check the accuracy of the data and correspondence they publish?

This text was produced with the financial support of the National Endowment for Democracy. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and publishers of the Media Institute of Montenegro and does not necessarily reflect the views of the donors.