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European Court of Human Rights vindicates Macedonian journalists convicted of defamation

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Photo by Wikipedia user CherryX, CC BY-SA 3.0.

This story was originally published by Meta.mk. An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation. 

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in favor of two journalists from Fokus, a now defunct daily newspaper from North Macedonia, determining that the domestic judiciary infringed on their rights and freedom of expression by pronouncing them guilty in the defamation case raised against them by Sašo Mijalkov, who at the time was head of the secret service in Macedonia.

The ruling in Strasbourg comes after Macedonian domestic courts ruled in 2014 and 2015 that Focus newspaper editor Jadranka Kostova and journalist Vlado Apostolov had to together pay more than EUR 9,000 as damages to former director of the Administration for Security and Counterintelligence (ASC) Sašo Mijalkov, for defamation and insult.

According to the Strasbourg verdict, published on April 5, 2022, the judicial authorities in Macedonia violated Article 10 — freedom of expression of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the plaintiffs, editor Kostova and journalist Apostolov were awarded non-pecuniary damage of EUR 3,000 to Kostova and EUR 1,250 to Apostolov, the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) reported.

The editor-in-chief of Fokus magazine Jadranka Kostova and journalist Vlado Apostolov coming out from Court hearing in May 2013. Screenshot via a video from A1on.mk.

The Journalists’ representative Medarski Law Office from Skopje submitted the application to ECHR in 2016 after all domestic courts upheld the conviction, forcing them to collectively pay over EUR 9,000 in damages to one of the of the most powerful and richest persons in the country, cousin of then-prime minister Nikola Gruevski.

The first degree court set the fine for the journalists at the beginning 2014, the Appellate Court confirmed the ruling in September 2014 and the Constitutional Court refused the journalists’ appeal in November 2015.

Fokus daily newspaper featuring the statement by former ambassador Ilievski accusing Mijalkov for pressure. Photo by NovaTv, used with permission.

The texts were published in January 2013 in the daily Focus, which had closed down three months later, after the controversial death of the publisher Nikola Mladenov. The articles included quoted statements by the former Macedonian Ambassador to the Czech Republic, Igor Ilievski, who claimed he had fled the Czech Republic due to pressure from Mijalkov.

In 2014 AJM said the decision of judges Lidija Dimchevska, Stanka Zafirovska, and Enver Bexheti seriously violates freedom of expression and discourages journalists from writing about possible abuses of power, while the compensation for non-pecuniary damage is too high and disproportionate. In their announcement, they argued:

ЗНМ тогаш апелираше дека судот воведува неприфатлива пракса новинари да се осудат за клевета заради пренесена изјава. Ако новинарите ги проверуваат фактите на секоја изјава, како што бара судот, тогаш најголем дел од изјавите на јавни личности, не треба да се објавуваат.

AJM then appealed that the court was introducing an unacceptable practice of convicting journalists for defamation for a transmitted statement. If a journalist checks the facts of each statement, as required by the court, then most public statements should not be published.

In 2014 AJM initiated a solidarity action to raise money to help cover the fee through individual donations. Other civic organizations also joined the effort, including the National Network against Homophobia and Transphobia of Macedonia which organized a fundraising event in Skopje Old Town. In less than ten days they managed to gather most of the required EUR 9,000 which the journalists were required to pay Sašo Mijalkov for the non-material damage and for covering of court expenses.

Fokus magazine front page from October 3, 2014, featuring the face of Sasho Mijalkov and the stamp “censored.”

Both Mijalkov and Gruevski had been implicated in numerous court cases related to their abuse of power during the period of state capture that ended in 2017, after their populist political party VMRO-DPMNE failed to form a majority government following 2016 elections.

Gruevski has been convicted of corruption and fled the country in 2018. He is currently hiding from the law in Hungary, under protection of their political ally, the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán. 

Mijalkov is currently accused party in several court cases. He has so far has been convicted and sentenced to eight years for corruption in a case, codenamed Vault,  and to 12 years for illegal surveillance of thousands of citizens in the Target and Fortress cases. He is currently released on bail after he deposited a guarantee of EUR 11 million.

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