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Technology and media freedom: A Montenegrin case study

Background photo created by xb100 - www.freepik.com
Background photo created by xb100 - www.freepik.com

For a media organization in a small country, Vijesti.me has a knack for big headlines. So far this year, Montenegro’s most-visited news website has broken stories on organized crime and allegations of corruption, cronyism, and shady financial dealings by President Milo Đukanović and his ruling Democratic Party of Socialists. Galvanized by the reporting, average Montenegrins have taken to the streets in recent weeks demanding political reforms.

But Vijesti’s coverage is attracting more than page views and clicks: it has also unleashed a tidal wave of politically-motivated cyber-attacks. In mid-January, one attack targeted a Vijesti.me story in which a former ally of Đukanović, Atlas Banka’s Duško Knežević, accused the president of malfeasance. Then, in mid-February, the entire Vijesti.me website came under siege; at one point, its servers were inundated with up to one million requests per second.

Outrage over the attacks has been widespread. Harlem Désir, the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, called for a thorough investigation, as did the Media Association of South East Europe and the World Association of Newspaper and News Publishers. Still, while Montenegrin authorities say they are working to find those responsible, it is unlikely that the perpetrators will ever be identified.

Đukanović’s three decades in power have not been good for independent media in Montenegro. Last year, Reporters Without Borders ranked the county 103rd (out of 180) for press freedom, while journalists and news organizations that challenge the status quo are regularly threatened and intimidated. Vijesti’s reporters in particular have been subjected to bombings, shootings, harassment, and financial intimidation. One of the newspaper’s investigative journalists, Olivera Lakić, was shot on the job last year. She recovered and was recently recognized by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for her courage and tenacity.

In hostile reporting environments, journalists must ensure that their technology is as solid as their sourcing. That’s where we come in. In mid-2018, Sourcefabric partnered with Vijesti to bring our open-source Superdesk software – along with its native plugin, Superdesk Publisher – to the Montenegrin newsroom. With more than 150,000 registered users, and more monthly site visitors (about one million) than the country’s population (622,000), Vijesti wanted a reliable software solution that could scale securely. Superdesk had the answer.

When we began our partnership, the initial goal was to help Vijesti redesign their website, switch to a new CMS, and migrate their database. But the timing of our engagement was fortuitous for other reasons, too. When the first DDoS attacks were logged on January 10 and 11, Sourcefabric was already in place to help the organization respond. Despite the bevy of attacks, Vijesti.me suffered only brief disruptions to its online operations. According to Srdan Kosović, Vijesti’s editor-in-chief, the website’s launch and Sourcefabric’s support gave his journalists the confidence they needed to keep publishing.

“One has to be aware that running an independent media outlet in Montenegro comes with a cost. For us it was extremely important to stay online during the heavy attacks we were going through, and the Sourcefabric team helped us to continue with our mission of informing the public in a relevant and timely manner,” Kosović said. “Apart from the usual challenges that come with big platform changes and redesign tricks ...working with Sourcefabric has been the right editorial choice as it has opened a huge set of new opportunities for our media house.”

Sourcefabric CEO Sava Tatić added: “No journalist or media organization should ever be attacked – either physically or digitally – for reporting the truth. But, as we have demonstrated through our partnership with Vijesti.me, innovative publishing tools can help brave journalists fight even the most powerful people. When the media does its job well, crooked leaders will try to silence the messenger. With the right technology, the messenger will always prevail.”

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