For the first time since the country gained independence in 1992, a Macedonian court has applied the lèse-majesté (royal insult) portion of the Criminal Code in order to protect a president — though not the president of Macedonia.
In their ruling, which concerned a Facebook post referring to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the court found the citizen guilty of posting “ironical statements and insult[ing] a leader of a foreign country.”
According to reports by Anadolu Agency and local media, the person, known only by the initials EA, bears Macedonian and Turkish citizenship. EA will have to either pay around 400 euros or serve a prison sentence.
The proceedings before of the Macedonian Criminal Court opened after the Turkish ambassador to Macedonia, Tulin Erkal Kara, filed charges against EA in late 2016, when Macedonia's previous government was still in power. The court issued its ruling in mid-July and the ruling became public on August 24.
Article 181 of the Macedonian Criminal Code protects the “reputation of a foreign country” and stipulates that “a person who has the intention to publicly ridicule a foreign country, a flag, a coat of arms, an anthem or a head of state or a diplomatic representative will have to pay a monetary fine.”
But not a single judge in the history of the country's independence has used this article to sentence someone for insulting a foreign country, flag, coat of arms, anthem or a head of state. On social networks, Macedonian citizens reacted to the news about this case with outrage and dismay.
Македонски Суд осудил лице за навреда на Ердоган? Поради пост на Фејсбук? This is a joke??
— Пргавиот (@prgaviot) August 25, 2017
A Macedonian Court has sentenced someone for insulting Erdoğan? Because of a Facebook post? This is a joke??
Filip Medarski, a prominent lawyer from Skopje, tweeted that Macedonian Criminal Code Article 181 and the verdict from the judge are inconsistent with the practices of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR):
Самиот член,а посебно пресудата се спротивни на праксата на Стразбург.Најпозната пресуда во тој контекст е: https://t.co/pxMMGrWm0B
— Filip Medarski (@FilipMedarski) August 25, 2017
The article itself, and especially the verdict are contrary to the Strasbourg law practice. [ECHR is based in Stratsbourg]
The most famous case in this context is: [Eon Vs. France]
Since Macedonia is a member of Council of Europe, the decisions of this court are binding for its judiciary.
In a statement for the Meta News Agency in Skopje, Medarski said that such a crime may exist in the Macedonian Criminal Code, but in another form because in principle, it should defend the symbolic aspect of flags, coats of arms and other representations of a state, in deference to the institution of the state — not to the individual who holds office.
“But here it is not about insulting the president as an institution, but an insult to the actual person currently in office, in this case – Erdoğan”, Medarski said, adding that this was also noted by the ECHR and in the verdict that he cited in his tweet.
In 2013, the European Court of Human Rights heard Eon Vs. France, a case that concerned the 2008 visit of now former French president Nicolas Sarkozy to the French city of Laval, where a citizen named Hervé Eon waved a small banner reading “Get lost, you prick” (Casse toi pov’con). Sarkozy himself had used the same phrase earlier that year at an agricultural rally, for someone that wasn't so keen on greeting him. It later became a frequently used banner at different demonstrations and on the internet.
Eon was arrested and prosecuted for offending the President. He was found guilty and made to pay a fine of 30 euros. Later that decision was confirmed by the Court of Appeal in France and even by the highest court in the French judiciary, the Cour de Cassation. The applicant was immediately arrested and prosecuted for offending the President, an offense under the 1881 Freedom of the Press Act.
Consequently, Eon asked the European Court of Human rights to recognize that his sentence infringed his right to freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Eventually the ECHR confirmed that his freedom of expression had been violated. The Court concluded that by echoing the phrase used by the president, Hervé Eon had used “satirical impertinence” to express his criticism.
Unlike France, Macedonia has a record of high levels of corruption in all segments of society, low levels of respect towards the rule of law and undeniable attempts to restrict media freedoms and interfere with the judiciary. This was highlighted in the last report from the US State Department's Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. “Political interference, inefficiency, favoritism toward well-placed persons, prolonged processes, violations of the right to public trial, and corruption characterized the judicial system,” the report read.
In May 2017, Macedonia ushered in a new government that introduced a bold and optimistic reform plan in order to expedite the country's processes of integration into NATO and the EU, that were stalled by the previous rule of right-winged VMRO-DPMNE party and their inclination towards Russia. A major aspect of these plans is comprehensive reform of the judiciary.