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News 20 Jan 14

Critical Macedonian Weekly Faces ‘Draconian’ Fine

Macedonia’s oldest political weekly, Fokus, said it was again under threat of closure after a court ordered it to pay a fine for libelling Macedonia's secret police chief.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
BIRN
Skopje

Photo by: Sinisa Jakov Marusic

Fokus, a critical weekly that already shut down for few months last year after the tragic death of its founder and owner, journalist Nikola Mladenov, said it suspected that the aim of the authorities was to force its permanent closure through a “draconian” punishment.

“With these court criteria… we might as well close Fokus. Or perhaps that is exactly their goal,” said editor-in-chief Jadranka Kostova.

Last week, judge Jovanka Spirovska-Paneva from Skopje Court 2, ordered Fokus to pay a total of around 9,000 euro for libelling the head of the country’s Security and Counterintelligence Directorate, UBK, Saso Mijalkov.

But Kostova said that the last remaining weekly that is critical of the government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was already on the brink of financial ruin, mainly because of a series of law suits against it.

The weekly was fined for publishing a statement in which the former Macedonian ambassador to Prague, Igor Ilievski, accused Mijalkov last year of masterminding his ousting from the post in order to protect his shady businesses in the Czech Republic.

Ilievski, whose whereabouts since last year are unknown, told Fokus via the internet that “the main reason why I ran away from the Czech Republic was the coordinated activity of the chief of the Macedonian secret police, Saso Mijalkov, with his ‘friends’ who are very well organised in the Czech Republic”.

The weekly insisted that a statement from a relevant source was no basis for a libel conviction and that Mijalkov, who did not appear in court, could at least have presented a medical report on the supposed emotional pain that the article caused him.

Kostova along with a colleague were ordered to pay some 6,000 euro in damages and an additional 3,000 euro for the plaintiff's court expenses.

The Journalists’ Association of Macedonia, ZNM, and the Independent Journalists’ Trade Union, SSNM, have condemned the sentence, calling it “draconian” and disproportionate in terms of journalists’ wages in Macedonia, where reporters get monthly salaries of just a few hundred euro.
 
SSNM said in a press release that the swift and harsh verdict was a form of “repression” and an “illustration of the tendency to suffocate freedom of expression in Macedonia”.

ZNM said that the verdict “frightens and discourages journalists from informing about and investigating the responsibility of state officials, which is one of the main journalistic principles across the world”.

Both organisations said they hoped that an appeals court would annul the ruling.

Last year, the three-month-long closure of the newspaper added to concerns about media freedom in Macedonia, following the closure of most media outlets that were critical of the Gruevski government.

The government however insists it is not cracking down on critical media outlets.

The Fokus weekly, and the daily with the same name, closed temporarily following the death of its owner and publisher, Mladenov, in a car crash in March 2012 which some still suspect it may have not been accidental.

Fokus shut for financial reasons, under pressure from several connected libel cases whose plaintiffs together demanded up to 100,000 euro from the weekly and the daily.

But the weekly re-launched in July under the leadership of Mladenov’s long-term associate, Jadranka Kostova, and retained its critical course.

While some plaintiffs withdrew their lawsuits after Mladenov's death, others, like Mijalkov, did not, making the future of the newspaper uncertain.

 

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