After a controversial lawsuit in which one of Macedonia's last independent magazines, Fokus, was charged with defaming Director of the Security and Counter-Intelligence Directorate (UBK) Sasho Mijalkov, a court in Skopje ruled that the magazine must pay Mijalkov over 9,000 euros (about 12,500 US dollars) for damaging his reputation.
Mijalkov sued the daily publication, which has been shut down in the meantime and only the weekly edition of this Macedonian media house remains, for two published articles that were based on the statements of former Macedonian ambassador to the Czech Republic Igor Ilievski. Ilievski held this diplomatic position until December 2012, when he informed the media [mk] that his mandate ended before the official date, blaming Mijalkov for this.
In view of all the evidence available to the public regarding this case, it seems that the newspaper has been fined for transmitting their source's statements. The only potentially disputable statement claims, “Off the record, from before the holidays UBK Director Sasho Mijalkov is in Prague where he owns a business empire”, which alleges that Mijalkov was staying in Prague during that period, of which there was no evidence.
Vlado Apostolov, the journalist who wrote the articles involved in the lawsuit, and Editor-in-Chief of Fokus weekly Jadranka Kostova will have to pay 6,000 euros (about 8,200 dollars) in damages and some 3,300 euros (about 4,500 dollars) for the costs of Mijalkov’s lawyer during the trial.
Ilievski will also have to pay 10,000 euros (about 13,500 dollars) in damages to Mijalkov for having made a statement to the newspaper that the main reason why he resigned from his post as Macedonian ambassador to the Czech Republic was “the coordinated activity of the Chief of the Macedonian secret police, Sasho Mijalkov, with his ‘friends’ who are very well organized in the Czech Republic”.
He also stated that Mijalkov was pressing the Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikola Popovski and Macedonian President Gorge Ivanov to take their hands off the case. In his statement for Fokus daily, Ilievski said:
Сашо Мијалков го спречи тоа и почна масовен последен напад. За среќа, неуспешен. Мијалков беше нем набљудувач на четирите закани по мојот живот и трите закани за бомба на амбасадата
Sasho Mijalkov prevented it and started his last massive attack. Fortunately, unsuccessfully. Mijalkov was a silent observer of the four threats on my life and the three threats to bomb the embassy.
Vlado Apostolov said in an interview for A1on that the ruling is scandalous and that they have been sentenced for simply presenting the statements of former ambassador Ilievski.
As previously reported by Global Voices, the media landscape in Macedonia has become a somewhat dangerous place and Apostolov reminds the public of this in the mentioned interview:
Од едена страна паричната казна е голема и за Фокус е критична, ама од друга страна Македонија е земја во која што новинари одат во затвор, други загинуваат во сообраќајни несреќи под чудни околности, и со парична казна ни е треба дури да бидеме среќни
On one side the fine is very large and critical for the magazine Fokus, but on the other side, Macedonia is a country where journalists go to jail, others die in car accidents under strange circumstances, so with this fine we should be happy.
After hearing of the court's decision, Fokus Editor-in-Chief Kostova told Balkan Insight, “With this court criteria, we might as well close Fokus. Or perhaps that is exactly their goal.” She also noted that the last remaining weekly, Fokus magazine, 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 lawsuits against it.
The court ruling also brought strong reactions from media and citizens on social networks.
Meri Jordanovska, a journalist for Fokus, posted on her Facebook profile:
И после ќе зборуваме за автоцензура? Па нормално дека ќе зборуваме!
Гарантирам дека после пресудата, ќе нема новинар што 3 пати ќе се запраша дали да пренесе изјава од некој! А во случајов тоа не е било кој, туку бивш амбасадор. Интервјуто и пренесувањето изјави ќе станат потежок жанр од истражувачкото новинарство!
Ај што луѓево одамна се плашат да проговорат, туку сега и оние што ќе сакаат да проговорат ќе нема кој да ги пренесе.
And are we going to talk about self-censorship? Of course we are!
I guarantee that after the verdict, there will be no journalist that will wonder whether to present a statement! And in this case it is not anyone, but a former ambassador. Interviews and presentation of statements will become more complicated over investigative journalism!
For a long time people are afraid to speak out, but now even those who wish to speak will have no one to present their statements.
In 2013, both the daily and weekly Fokus were closed temporarily because of the sudden death of their owner and publisher Nikola Mladenov, who died in a car accident that many suspect involved foul play. The daily newspaper was closed for financial reasons and several pending defamation lawsuits, while the weekly Fokus re-launched in July 2013 under the leadership of Kostova.
The Association of Journalists of Macedonia (ZNM) reacted strongly against the verdict, saying that it is “draconian” to punish the journalist and the editor of the newspaper for libel. In their statement, the Association said:
Ова е прва осудителна пресуда против новинари според Законот за граѓанска одговорност за навреда и клевета која може да се процени како сериозна непријателска порака кон новинарите на Македонија. Со пресудата новинарите се заплашуваат и обесхрабруваат да информираат и истражуваат за одговорноста на јавните функционери што е една од главните принципи на новинарството низ целиот свет
This is a first verdict against journalists according to the Law on Civil Liability for insult and defamation, which can be estimated as a serious hostile message to Macedonian journalists. With this verdict, journalists will be intimidated and discouraged to investigate and inform the public about the responsibility that the public officials have, which is one of the main principles of the journalism worldwide.
The Independent Journalists’ Trade Union (SSNM) also reacted, saying that this verdict is a clear indication of the attitude that the judicial system and the government have towards freedom of the press:
Казните за новинарите на Фокус е показател за исклучително непријателскиот и репресивен амбиент во кој функционираат новинарите во Македонија
The fines for the journalists from Fokus are an indicator of the extremely repressive and hostile setting where Macedonian journalists work.
International media organization Reporters without Borders strongly condemned the judicial harassment of Fokus in a statement of their own:
Репортери без граници силно го осудуваат судското малтретирање на Фокус, една од последните независни публикации во Македонија. Уште еднаш судот во Скопје го осуди Фокус на несразмерно висока парична казна со што, се чини, дека има за цел да се затвори последниот независен неделник во Македонија
Reporters without Borders strongly condemns the judicial harassment of Fokus, one of the last independent publications in Macedonia. Again, the court in Skopje condemned Fokus with a highly disproportionate fine, and it seems like the aim is to close the last independent weekly magazine in Macedonia