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Bos/Hrv/SrpShqipМакедонски 24 Feb 11

Macedonia Media Face Record Number of Libel Suits

Two years after the government pledged to stop suing journalists, they face more defamation charges than ever, and many say the only answer is to decriminalize slander completely.

Sase Dimovski

A record number of lawsuits were filed against Macedonian journalists for defamation last year, 170 in all.
Most were pressed against investigative journalists or reporters working for media seen as critical of the government of Nikola Gruevski and his VMRO-DPMNE party.
Two years ago, the government promised to stop pressing charges against journalists. But those being sued say the situation is worse than ever, and the practice is clearly aimed at intimidating the press.
Court data obtained by the Balkan Insight show that politicians are the ones who most often sue journalists. Others frequently behind lawsuits are judges, municipal officials, company directors, media owners, and sport clubs.
The political weekly Focus, which in its 15 years has drawn flak from all governments, says it has been overwhelmed recently with lawsuits from politicians, judges and lawyers.
Among the plaintiffs is one media owner and parliamentarian who heads a small party that is part of the government.
“Our story is a sad reflection of the state of Macedonian democracy and media freedom,” Jadranka Kostova, editor of Fokus, told Balkan Insight.
She says it’s hard to battle powerful moguls with close links to politics and the media in court. “It’s clearly not desirable to write about the mistakes and corruption of people in power in Macedonia if you want to avoid libel suits,” Kostova says.
“It is fine, of course, to attack the opposition, following in the footsteps of the pro-governmental media,” she adds.
Fokus is so concerned about the rising number of lawsuits targeting the media that it has written to foreign embassies and international journalists associations.
In its letter, on February 10 the magazine said that although they took care to ensure that their articles were always “buttressed with supporting material, libel suits frequently arrive at our address”.
Branko Geroski, editor of the daily Spic, says the newspaper has received dozens of lawsuits recently, from politicians, other journalists and official spokesmen. One is from a municipal mayor of Skopje who belongs to VMRO DPMNE.
Geroski says the flow of charges has continued although the ruling party pledged to stop suing journalists two years ago, when Prime Minister Gruevski told officials and office holders from his party to stop pressing such charges.
“Spic has been sued for reporting a statement of an opposition municipal councillor, although the article also published the reply from the municipality,” Geroski recalled.  “Now the municipality is suing both the councillor and the newspaper,” he told Balkan Insight.
Kostova and Geroski complain of double standards on the part of the courts.
“Whenever I’m sued, I go to court, and if I do not show up I face the possibility of being escorted there by the police,” Geroski said. “But this isn’t the case when I’m the plaintiff,” he added. “In that case, if the defendants fail to appear in the court, they are not escorted by the police.
“I suspect political pressure is involved,” he continued.
Geroski, member of a local civic group, Citizens for a European Macedonia, has alone or with others sued government and party officials from VMRO DPMNE, as well as three journalists, for having labeled them “Greek mercenaries and traitors” because the group advocated compromise in the longstanding dispute with Athens over Macedonia’s name.
Since October 2010, the NGO coalition “Za pravicno sudenje" [Fair Trials for All” ] monitored defamation proceedings against journalists to see if they got a fair trial.
The project coordinator, Aleksandar Blazeski, says a record number of lawsuits against journalists, 170, were filed in 2010. Of this, 96 are going through the Criminal Court in Skopje.
“By monitoring court procedures, we want to see the level of implementation of standards on fair and equitable trials in compliance with Article 6 and Article 10 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,” Blazevski told Balkan Insight.
Vesna Stojkovska, coordinator of a similar project, monitoring defamation cases against journalists in 2006, says the number of lawsuits and the size of court fines has since grown. “This could bankrupt numerous small media outlets,” she warns.

“Officials should show increased tolerance for criticism from the public instead of initiating court procedures,” the NGO coalition “Fair Trials for All” said in its 2006 report.

Data show that only 27 libel charges were pressed against journalists in 2006, rising to 170 last year. Back then, most journalists paid fines of 250 to 6,000 euro while today the sums can be far greater.
Two former journalists from a private TV station, Kanal 5, told Balkan Insight that the courts ordered them in January 2010 to pay 30,000 euros.
The huge sum was awarded in damages to a judge, for having offended her. They were told to pay an additional 2,000 euros in fines and court expenses.
This five-year court case had a happy ending, when the higher court finally acquitted them. Others are not always so lucky.
The new leadership of Macedonia’s Association of Journalists, ZNM, elected in December 2010, has tried to persuade politicians to withdraw lawsuits against journalists and to agree new procedures by which journalists can apologise without going to court.
So far, they have persuaded plaintiffs to drop 26 charges, 21 of them by one man, Boris Stojmenov, leader of the small VMRO Vistinska party, a coalition partner of the ruling party.
Stojmenov, whose son owns Kanal 5 TV, sued journalists from a dozen media outlets for publishing reports that named him as a former collaborator of the old Yugoslav communist secret police. Had the claims been proven, he would have had to resign as an MP in parliament.
The country’s Lustration Commission swiftly cleared his name, saying it did not believe he collaborated with the secret police.
To encourage others to do likewise, the ZNM dropped its own charges against the editor of Sitel TV and of the newspaper Vecer, Dragan Pavlovic Latas. The association called on others to solve their disputes through the guild’s own council of honour.
The Association has also championed an initiative for the government to fully decriminalize libel and defamation.
“This would not amnesty journalists of responsibility [for libel]; we just want to avoid a situation in which libel suits are used to pressurize the ‘fourth estate’,” Naser Selmani, from ZNM, said.
Among the proposals of the journalists’ guild, as an interim solution until legal changes are adopted, is a full amnesty for defamation cases against journalists.
In addition, they suggest that when courts order compensation payments, the media outlet should pay the money and not the named journalist.
Journalists complain that their media outlets rarely bare, or even share, the financial burden of lawsuit compensation orders, even though they published the information and possibly profited from increased sales or viewing figures.
Nikola Tupancevski, criminal law professor at Skopje’s Cyril and Methodius University, says the dice are weighted too heavily against journalists right now.
“Criminal charges are the severest instrument to discipline someone,” he says.
Journalists hope parliament will accept their proposal and decriminalize libel altogether. In the meantime, the flow of lawsuits continues.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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