A Skopje appellate court ruled on Sept. 27 that independent magazine Fokus must pay a fine of nearly 9,000 euros to a high-level government official who sued the magazine for defamation over an article suggesting that he had engaged in corruption. The court's affirmation of a previous ruling dealt yet another blow to media freedom in Macedonia, a country long plagued by issues of media intimidation and harassment.
Defamation law in Macedonia is notoriously vague, creating a pathway for powerful political actors to take journalists to court over investigative reporting, criticism, and unwanted comments. These have become a common scare tactics in stifling media, and particularly independent outlets like Fokus, known for its critical investigative reporting on political institutions and lawmakers.
The Skopje Court of Appeals confirmed the fine set by a first-degree court that Fokus magazine's editor-in-chief Jadranka Kostova must pay Director of the Security and Counter-Intelligence Directorate Sasho Mijalkov 5,000 euros. Fokus journalist Vlado Apostolov was fined 1,000 euros, and both now also must cover court expenses amounting to an additional 3,300 euros. The total amount that the two media workers owe to Mijalkov is over 8,300 euros (over 10,400 US dollars), Fokus reported on September 27. In addition to his government post, it should be noted that Mijalkov is the elder cousin of Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.
Mijalkov sued Fokus in January 2013 for publishing statements by Igor Ilievski, Macedonia's former ambassador to the Czech Republic, accusing him of corruption. Mijalkov has amassed significant wealth during his political career and had acquired real estate in Czech Republic, where he had a falling out with Igor Ilievski. After abruptly leaving his post in Prague, Ilievski went into hiding and has not been heard of since. Fokus relayed Ilievski's statements with full attribution and invited Mijalkov to deny them on numerous occasions, but he did not grant the magazine an interview.
The court case was marred by various irregularities, ranging from incomplete documentation submitted by the litigant, to a decision that Ilievski’s statements were not relevant to the public interest because he gave them as a private citizen, after he resigned from his post as ambassador.
The case was highlighted as an instance of media intimidation by UN Rapporteur for Freedom of Speech Frank La Rue in June 2013. After lengthy court proceedings, the first court came to what many called a “draconian” decision in January 2014. The initial ruling was then contested by the plaintiffs and went on to the appellate court in Skopje. Individual journalists, the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, the Journalists’ Trade Union, Reporters without Borders, and other organizations interpreted the rulings as a clear warning to media, and many confirmed the “chilling effect” this has had over Macedonian journalists.
The Association of Journalists of Macedonia publicly condemned the appellate court's verdict, calling it unfair and contrary to the Defamation Law in Macedonia. In view of amounts that could spell financial ruin for the publisher and journalists, AJM also pleaded with Mijalkov to waive the 6,000-euro fee and accept only one euro for non-pecuniary damages. The average monthly net salary in Macedonia is roughly 350 euros.
Fokus magazine was established as a weekly magazine in 1995 and later started a daily edition in 2011. Both editions had always assumed a critical stance toward political parties and individuals in power at a given time, seeking to ground their work in investigative journalism demanding transparency and accountability in the country. The daily stopped publication in March 2013 after founder Nikola Mladenov was killed in a car accident that occurred under circumstances that remain murky. The magazine resumed weekly publication in July 2013.
Fokus has continued publishing investigative pieces, but in some cases they refrain from naming the perpetrators, for fear of retaliation. For example, in a story about a series of defective eye surgeries that blinded as many as 50 individual patients, the magazine only described the person allegedly responsible as “a female doctor from the September 8th City Hospital,” despite the fact that the case was well documented with evidence pointing to the culprits. Fokus’ editor-in-chief has publicly stated that the magazine has had to institute self-censorship due to the danger of financial ruin from defamation suits such as this one.