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‘Most Efficient Trial in History’ Fines Serbian Magazine for Defamation of Interior Minister

An illustration of a tweet by anti-corruption initiative "Don't Drown Belgrade" sums up the case of defamation verdict against NIN magazine. "Verdict: NIN to pay 300.000 dinars to Stefanović - The Revenge of the Phantoms. For 8 months the prosecutors keeps silent about the demolition and the cover-up in Savamala, while the journalists writing about accountability of competent authorities receive a sentence in record time of only 30 days."

An illustration from a tweet by anti-corruption initiative “Don't Drown Belgrade” sums up the case of defamation verdict against NIN magazine. “Verdict: NIN to pay 300,000 dinars to Stefanović: The revenge of the Phantoms. For eight months, the prosecutors keep silent about the demolition and the cover-up in Savamala, while the journalists writing about accountability of competent authorities receive a sentence in record time of only 30 days.”

A Belgrade court has ordered respected news magazine NIN to pay a fine for “defaming” the country's Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanović when it accused him of having a hand in a local demolition scandal.

NIN, an acronym for “Nedeljne informativne novine” (Weekly Informative Newspaper), gained a reputation as one of the most influential news magazines in Yugoslavia during the 1970s and 1980s. It presents commentary and opinion pieces by leading intellectuals, combined with news reporting and other articles.

The trial against NIN consisted of only one hearing, on November 29, 2016, and the court ruled in favor of Stefanović on December 30. Regional news broadcaster N1 TV was one of the first to provide a report on the decision, editorializing that the trial was “the most efficient in history”:

Suđenje po tužbi ministra Nebojše Stefanovića protiv NIN-a jedno je od najefikasnijih jer je trajalo svega jedan dan. Viši sud u Beogradu odlučio je da su urednik tog nedeljnika Milan Ćulibrk i novinarka Sandra Petrušić povredili profesionalni ugled i čast ministra policije, a prvostepenom presudom kažnjeni su novčanom kaznom od 300.000 dinara.

The trial resulting from the lawsuit by Government Minister Nebojša Stefanović against NIN was one of the most efficient trials, because it lasted only one day. The Belgrade Higher Court decided that the magazine's editor, Milan Ćulibrk, and journalist Sandra Petrušić hurt the professional reputation and the honor of the interior minister, and the first instance verdict imposed a fine of 300,000 dinars [2,559 US dollars].

The lawsuit stemmed from a NIN story about Stefanović's alleged complicity in the so-called Savamala affair. In April 2016, a group of masked persons used heavy machinery to illegally demolish several buildings in Belgrade's historic district of Savamala, in what the claimant argued was an effort to enable construction of the controversial government “Belgrade Waterfront” project. Police failed to intervene at the time, and as of January 2017, Serbian authorities have not solved the case.

The perpetrators of the Savamala demolition wore balaclava ski masks, which in Serbian are known as “fantomke” (phantom masks), related to the masked comic strip character The Phantom, which is popular across former Yugoslav states. Since the news of the illegal demolition broke, the media in Serbia have referred to those who were involved in the affair and its aftermath as “the Phantoms.”

In May 2016, a witness in the case — a night guard who had been held captive by the perpetrators while they carried out the demolition and was then released — died from heart failure. In June, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić made an unfulfilled promise that “in seven to ten days the truth will come out,” placing the blame on local government.

Urađeno je nešto loše, što je kriminalno i što ne bi smelo da se ponovi i iza toga stoje najviši organi gradske vlasti u Beogradu i oni će snositi i krivično pravnu i prekršajnu i svaku drugu vrstu odgovornosti.

Something bad was done, a criminal act which must not be repeated. The highest organs of Belgrade city government are behind it, and they will bear all kinds of legal responsibility for it.

On June 16, NIN magazine published a cover story by journalist Sandra Petrušić with the title “Nebojša Stefanović, the chief phantom of Savamala.” The accompanying text read:

Рушење у Савамали укључивало је више различитих структура: државне и недржавне и више нивоа власти по вертикали. Отуда је одговорност градског врха неспорна. Једино што није довољна. Јер такав посао није био могућ без знања и помоћи министра полиције.

The demolition in Savamala included a number of different entities: state and non-state actors, and several levels of government moving upward. Therefore the responsibility of top city officials is undeniable. However, that is not enough. Such a job was not possible without the knowledge and the assistance of the interior minister.

In reaction to the ruling against NIN, former journalist and current lawyer Ivan Ninić commented:

During my short practice I haven't seen or heard someone getting awarded astronomical damages of 300,000 dinars for violation of reputation and honor in the media!

In his tweet, Ninić linked to an editorial by NIN editor-in-chief Milan Ćulibrk titled, “In the Name of the People: Karić Released, NIN Sentenced,” which criticized the Serbian judiciary by contrasting the defamation verdict with the canceling of an investigation into the allegedly corrupt dealings of Serbian business tycoon Milan Karić. Ćulibrk vowed that NIN will continue to seek the truth about the Savamala case and demand accountability from all responsible parties.

Film director Srdjan Dragojević made an ironic comment via Twitter, which made him a target of “bots” that promote the opinions of the ruling party:

You see how the judiciary can work – when they get the order.

According to the European Union's 2016 country report for Serbia, a candidate country since 2012, the “quality and efficiency of the judiciary and access to justice remain undermined by an uneven distribution of workload, a burdensome case backlog and the lack of a free legal aid system.”

Dragojević also offered concrete help to the magazine, tweeting, “I want to contribute 10,000 dinars [85 dollars] for NIN's fine. Where should I do so? NIN is important to me, like all free media.” NIN's editorial staff responded to his tweet:

Much obliged with your generous offer, but this is just the beginning. We'll appeal the verdict.
Sincerely yours, NIN

NUNS, the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia, announced that the journalism and media community they represent fully support NIN. Eight leading NGOs also signed a joint statement about the “confusing” and “contradictory” verdict:

Obaveza da državni funkcioneri trpe javnu kritiku nije propisana sa ciljem da se ograniči njihov rad, već da se proširi prostor za slobodu javne reči i javni dijalog. Presuda Višeg suda u Beogradu predstavlja zabrinjavajuću poruku medijima šta može da im se dogodi ako negativno pišu o državnim funkcionerima.

Zaprepašćeni smo tvrdnjom sudije Slobodana Keranovića da novinarski stav o političkoj odgovornosti jednog ministra u Vladi Srbije spada u “nedopuštene”, “neistinite” i “nedozvoljene informacije”. Zabrinuti smo za slobodu izražavanja u Srbiji ako se oštra kritika rada ministra, obrazložena u rečenicama u kojim novinarka Sandra Petrušić pravi jasnu razliku između izričitih tvrdnji i pretpostavki, na sudu proglašava za “nedozvoljenu informaciju”. Kako novinaru može biti “nedozvoljeno” ono što mu je posao: da prikuplja informacije i da na osnovu prikupljene građe sugeriše moguće zaključke?

The obligation of public functionaries to endure public criticism has not been prescribed in order to hamper them in their work, but to extend the space for freedom of expression and public dialogue. The verdict of the Higher Court in Belgrade represents a worrying message to the media about what can happen to them if they write about state functionaries.

We are astonished by judge Slobodana Keranović's claim that journalists’ position on accountability of a minister of the government of Serbia should be classified as “unacceptable,” “untruthful,” and “unauthorized information.” We are concerned for freedom of expression in Serbia, if a sharp critique of the work of a government minister, reasoned through sentences in which journalist Sandra Petrušić makes a clear distinction between factual claims and assumptions, can be deemed as “unauthorized information” by the court of law. How can a journalist be “unauthorised” to do their job: gathering information and suggesting conclusions based on the gathered evidence?

One Twitter user quoted Serbian writer Ljubomir Simović commenting on the wider implications of the affair:

“Savamala is a paradigm of our reality.” – Ljubomir Simović, member of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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