Despite its status as a sovereign and history of autonomous governance, Montenegro is distinct in lacking its own national autocephaly. The Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MOC) has been effectively absent from its people’s spiritual life since 1918 when it was subsumed under the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) in Belgrade. Since that time, the patriarchate in Belgrade commanded authority in Montenegrin religious and political matters beyond the jurisdiction of the Podgorica government.
Empowered with the recommendation of the Venice Commission, the Montenegrin parliament passed the long overdue Law on the Freedom of Religion in December 2019, replacing the outdated 1977 law. Its adoption was postponed for nearly a decade due to SOC opposition. The Belgrade Patriarchate protested the Montenegrin government’s plans to repossess property it possessed prior to 1918, lacking evidence of church ownership.
The SOC mobilized opposition to the law’s reform throughout the country, as well as in Serbia and Bosnia. Along with organized demonstrations, the SOC and anti-democratic affiliates launched a disinformation campaign that is still ongoing.
According to research undertaken by the Center for Democratic Transition, more than 35,000 articles and posts specifically concerning the Law on Freedom of Religion were posted on social media over the last three months. Out of over 35,000 of articles, approximately 20,000 originated in Serbia and an estimated 9,000+ pieces of information came from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A significant amount of these articles were designed to provoke, intensify tensions and hinder dialogue, collectively undermining key actors’ space to resolve the dispute through consensus. The campaign spread inaccurate information about the law with tendentious interpretations, falsehoods about handing over religious objects to the Vatican, and exaggerations as to the numbers of their demonstrators. The campaign culminated with false news about the arrival of Kosovo special forces to help “appease” the protests in Montenegro.
Most propaganda came from the media registered in Serbia, together with Russian and Bosnian (i.e. RS) media outlets with segments of local media often as the conduit. Unlike previous disinformation campaigns, this one was characterized by a more intensive involvement of both private and state-sponsored media in Serbia and Bosnia featuring biased, incomplete coverage.
Montenegro’s state institutions were caught off guard, despite the history of information manipulation by foreign, anti-democratic forces. Absent preparations, the police and state prosecutor’s office have begun arresting individuals on allegations of fomenting civil unrest by spreading “fake news.” The consequences of this response to the greater Montenegrin media community remain of distinct concern to defenders of the free press.