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When They Censored Messaging Apps on Election Day, Montenegrin Regulators ‘Acted Legally’

A polling station in Montenegro. Photo by Center for Democratic Transitions, used with permissions.

A polling station in Montenegro. Photo by Center for Democratic Transitions, used with permission.

Two months after parliamentary elections in Montenegro, state regulators at the Agency for Electronic Communications and Postal Services say they acted legally when they shut down access to two popular mobile messaging apps on Election Day.

Political oppositionists and prominent members of the country's civil society, meanwhile, say the government's crackdown on social media harmed Montenegro's freedom of expression at a time when it was most needed.

What happened on Election Day

On October 16 (Election Day), Montenegrin state regulators ordered all mobile data operators to block access to the popular messaging apps Viber and WhatsApp. Officials kept the apps offline for several hours, citing a problem with “spam messages” being sent over the networks.

Officially, the government has the power to order telecoms to suspend Internet and telephone communications whenever the state deems it “justified” in cases of “fraud or abuse,” giving regulators a broad basis for intervention.

Hoping to prevent future arbitrary crackdowns by the Montenegrin government, local NGO Human Rights Action appealed to the country's Constitutional Court, asking it to review the constitutionality of the “disputed provision of the law” that allowed regulators to orchestrate the social media shutdown on Election Day.

“This authority of the Agency is defined too broadly and lacks judicial supervision, contrary to the standards of freedom of expression according to the Constitution of Montenegro and international human rights treaties,” the human  rights activists argue on their website.

Vuk Brajović, a representative of Viber (which according to the company is used by over 90% of smartphone users in Montenegro), has also stated publicly that the country owes this “crisis” to the incompatibility of Montenegrin legislation and modern communication technologies.

The public Viber channel for elections in Montenegro and beyond.

The public Viber channel about the elections in Montenegro and CEE region run by CDT has over two thousand users.

“The official decision to shut down communication via Viber, regardless of being considered justified as to block the impact of spam messages, was implemented without procedures or protocols that are commonly used in similar situations,” Brajović said in a statement after the elections.

The Election Day “crisis” was especially felt at the Center for Democratic Transition (CDT), Montenegro's leading independent election monitor. (Editor's note: the author of this article is affiliated with CDT.) For the elections, the group organized a public chat on Viber, where it informed readers about allegations of voting irregularities and suspicious election results.

“Thanks to our Twitter and Facebook followers who shared published information, we managed to informs citizens accurately and objectively on Election Day. However, we believe that the national law must be reformed to suit new technologies,” a spokesperson for CDT told Global Voices.

The world is watching

Montenegrin officials have also faced criticism from abroad. For example, Reporters Without Borders says the loss of access to social media on Election Day is an attack on free speech that undermines faith in democratic institutions, encouraging the public to suspect the government is trying to influence the election results. Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe also published a report about Montenegro's voting, expressing concerns about its legitimacy.

To this day, the country's political opposition refuses to recognize the results of the election, in part because the crackdown on Viber and WhatsApp may have influenced the vote. Instead, oppositionists have decided to boycott the parliament.

The final results of the Montenegro elections can be viewed in an animated map here.

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