Analysis: Verdicts on defamation and insults in cases involving journalists

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SKOPJE, 12.01.2018 – With the entry into force of the Law on Civil Liability for Defamation in November 2012, was introduced civil liability for defamation and insult, which regulated the issue of compensation for damage caused to the honor or reputation of a natural or legal person that is concerned by the slanderous or offensive expression. One of the main goals of this law was to avoid the occurrence of self-censorship by journalists and the media that is arising from the possibility for journalists to be criminally responsible for published critical speech towards the holders of public office.

This view was presented in the recommendations of the Council of Europe and the remarks of the European Commission presented in the reports on the progress made by Macedonia.

Effects of the application of the Law on Civil Liability for Defamation in the first four years

Around 700 cases for defamation or insult were initiated under the provisions of the Criminal Code in the courts in the Republic of Macedonia in the period prior to the Law on Civil Liability for Defamation entered into force, out of which around 330 proceedings involved journalists.

There are no comprehensive and systematically collected official indicators on the number of new court proceedings brought against journalists after the entry into force of this Law, but the general conclusion is that this number has been significantly reduced. During 2013 and 2014, the Centre for Media Development monitored 74 court proceedings, out of which 16% were lawsuits against journalists, editors and media. 43 procedures were completed before the first-instance court, and only five were found responsible for defamation and defamation. In the course of 2015, the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) also organized in-depth monitoring of 39 court procedures involving journalists; 17 court proceedings in which both the plaintiff and the defendant were journalists or editors. Out of the 39 proceedings, eight were completed before the court in which seven journalists were exempted from any liability, because it was assessed that the journalist protected the public interest and did not intend to harm the reputation of the plaintiff. In only one case, the court partially accepted the claim, i.e. found that there was slander, but did not adopted decision for compensation of damage.

The perception of the application of the Law on Civil Liability for Defamation in the period from the beginning of 2013 to the end of 2016 can be summarized in several important points:

(1) The number of court proceedings against journalists is significantly lower in this four-year period and no high court fines are issued to journalists except for individual court proceedings (example: case Mijalkov v. the weekly magazine Focus);

(2) The procedures in which the holders of public functions participated as parties were run more quickly, and during the judges actions there was tendency of ungrounded protection of the honour and reputation of the officials;

(3) The costs of conducting proceedings before the civil courts are very high, which in turn allows those who sue journalists to have high monetary claims from the court and

(4) Despite the efforts of the Academy for Training of Judges and Public Prosecutors, AJMs and other organizations, a large number of judges are still under-trained in court procedures related to insult and defamation and the use of the case law of the European Court of Human Rights.

Protection of the public interest and the right to honour and reputation in court verdicts for insult and defamation

AJM conducted a short analysis on seven court cases for which final judgments were passed. In all seven cases, the lawsuits were rejected as unfounded, i.e. was not established the defendants responsibility for defamatory expression. At present, according to the AJM knowledge, there are about 39 cases against journalists in the court procedure, which were not covered by the analysis, since no final verdicts have been passed for them.

The seven judgments are analyzed from several aspects: the length of the proceedings; the presentation of evidence by the judges; judge’s assessment of the balance between the public interest and the protection of the honour and reputation of plaintiffs; the manner and the extent to which judges in the judgment rationale refer to the case law of the European Court of Human Rights.

 

The case name Plaintiff / Defendant Outcome
Vladimir Taleski v. Blazhevska and others Plaintiff: Vladimir Taleski, mayor of the municipality of Bitola

Defendants: Aneta Blazhevska, correspondent of “Utrinski vesnik” from Bitola, Sonja Kramarska, editor-in-chief of Utrinski vesnik, Association for Media Print Macedonia, Vasko Kovachevski, counsellor at the Municipality of Bitola from SDSM

The lawsuit was rejected as unfounded, with the judgment from 11 of September 2015.

 

Agency for audio and audiovisual media services v. Kabranov and PRO LIBERTI Plaintiff: Agency for audio and audiovisual media services

Defendants: Aco Kabranov, chief editor of the portal “Libertas”, Citizens’ Association PRO LIBERTI

The lawsuit was rejected as unfounded, with the judgment from 18 of February 2016.

 

Samsonenko v. Sport Info Media

 

Plaintiff: Sergei Borisovich Samsonenko, owner and president of the management board of HC “Vardar”

Defendants: Company for trade, trade and services Sport Info Media DOOEL Skopje, Nikola Gjurovski, Editor-in-Chief of the portal “Ekipa MK”, Stefan Canevski, journalist

 

The lawsuit was rejected as unfounded, with the judgment from 05 of May 2015
Dragan Pavlovich-Latas v.Kabranov and PRO LIBERTI Plaintiff: Dragan Pavlovich-Latas, journalist

Defendants: Aco Kabranov, Chief Editor of the portal “Libertas”, Citizens’ Association PRO LIBERTI

 

The lawsuit was rejected as unfounded, with the judgment from 03 of October 2016
Dragan Pavlovich-Latas v.Geroski, Shushleska and “Sloboden Pechat” Plaintiff: Dragan Pavlovich-Latas, journalist

Defendants: Branislav Geroski, editor-in-chief of “Sloboden Pechat”, Mimi Shushleska, journalist and Publishing and Marketing Company “Sloboden Pechat”

 

The lawsuit was rejected as unfounded, with the judgment from 13 of May 2016
Milenko Nedelkovski v. Chadikovski and others Plaintiff: Milenko Nedelkovski

Defendants: Mladen Chadikovski, editor-in-chief of A1 TV, Vladimir Tevchev, journalist and Dobrivoj Budimski, source-interlocutor in the article (unemployed)

 

The lawsuit was rejected as unfounded, the judgment from 19 of May 2015
Ivona Talevska v. “Fokus”, Kostova and Jordanovska Defendant: Ivona Talevska

Defendants: Media Plus Fokus DOOEL, Jadranka Kostova and Meri Jordanovska

 

The lawsuit was rejected as unfounded, the judgment from 17 of November 2015

 

In this context, particularly important issue for journalists is the rationale of court ruling on the balance between the public interest that protects journalists in their reporting and the protection of the honour and reputation of the persons subject to journalistic texts. Although it is only matter of seven court rulings, it can be concluded that the judges show knowledge on the character of the journalistic profession, understanding of the importance of critical journalism for democratic debate and the protection of the public interest. This applies in particular to the three cases where public prosecutors (Vladimir Talevski), public institutions (Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services) and public figures (Sergej Borisovich Samsonenko) appear as plaintiffs.

For example, in the explanation of the judgment on case Vladimir Taleski v. Blazhevska and others, it is clearly stated that the journalist Blazhevska, in the text titled “How rich is Vladimir Talevski” (published in Utrinski vesnik from 23-24 November 2013), informing on the part for the debate in the Council of the Municipality of Bitola, “… undoubtedly … was guided by the public interest, since it was about issues related to the work of the local self-government.” In addition, adds that it is expected that “journalists, analysts and all relevant experts to respond to events of this kind, taking into account the nature of publicity and accountability that has the function of the mayor.” Accordingly, it is unambiguously clear to the Court that the public interest protected by journalist Blazhevska is more important than the reputation of the mayor Talevski, who due to his function must be subject to critical observation of journalists and the public.

In the case Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services v. Kabranov and PRO LIBERTI, the plaintiff is legal entity founded by the state. In the rationale of this court ruling, it was crucial that it was body with assigned public authorizations, whose work is of interest to the public, and hence it is emphasized that holders of public functions in this body should demonstrate greater degree of tolerance when it relates to journalists criticism. It is also important to note that the Court took into account the arguments presented by the defence and that according to the European Court of Human Rights, state institutions do not enjoy legal protection against defamation and insult due to the increased public interest in their work. Hence, the Law on Civil Liability for Defamation does not provide opportunity for state institution to initiate a dispute.

In the third case – Samsonenko v. Sport Info Media, the Court paid attention to the public interest that protects journalists and reporters reporting on sports events. Namely, in the text titled “The omniscient Sergej Samsonenko” (published on November 26, 2013, on the Web portal “Ekipa MK”), the journalist criticized the owner and president of the management board of HC “Vardar”, Sergej Samsonenko for the omissions in the organization of handball competition during which occurred serious incident. Therefore, it was more important for the Court that the journalist intended to point to the public the poor organization of the sporting events and the irresponsible behaviour of the organizers, rather than the reputation of the owner of the handball club.

Four of the analyzed court rulings are cases in which journalists (close to the then VMRO-DPMNE government) sued journalists for critical texts in which were published information about various scandals and privileges that their colleagues received from the government. Although in these cases the plaintiffs are not holders of public office, the Court emphasizes issues of public interest in the journalistic profession.

For example, in both cases in which Dragan Pavlovich-Latas appeared as plaintiff, as well as in the case Ivona Talevska v. Fokus, Kostova and Jordanovska, journalists published several texts with information about the assets of their colleagues, i.e. about the affairs in which they were involved. Most of the published information was previously presented at press conference of SDSM, regarding the investigation of the Special Public Prosecutor’s Office, based on the footage of the wiretapped conversations. In both cases, the court emphasizes that the journalist is excluded from liability when is reporting on statements and information disclosed by third party. For example, one of the verdicts states that the journalists: “… acted in accordance with the professional standards of the journalistic profession … only transferring information already provided within the framework of press conference of the political party SDSM”.

The case Milenko Nedelkovski v. Chadikovski and others is older case that was again filed after the adoption of the Law on Civil Liability for Defamation. Editor-in-chief Chadikovski and journalist Tevchev were sued for the TV article entitled “Milenko Nedelkovski owed wages” (published on the former A1 television), in which they gave the interviewer and source of information to provide to public information about the property owned by journalist Nedelkovski and the fact that that he owes him unpaid wages. The court assessed that the journalists had no intention of harming Nedelkovski’s honour and reputation, but to allow Budimski before the public “… to awaken the consciousness and plaintiff’s emotions on to pay him the debt.”

 

Prof. PhD. Snezana Trpevska

 

This activity is part of the project “Regional Platform for Advocating media Freedom and Journalists’ Safety”. The content of the analysis is the sole responsibility of the Association of Journalists of Macedonia and the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union.

The Association of Journalists of Macedonia is an institutional grantee of the CIVICA Mobilitas program.


AJM, Skopje, 12/01/2018