Despite decriminalisation, libel cases cast shadow over Macedonian journalism Investigative magazine loses court appeal, fears for its futureThe front cover of Fokus magazine on Oct. 3, 2014 after an appeals court in Skopje upheld a lower court’s ruling ordering the magazine to pay over €6,000 in damages to the country’s chief of intelligence (Sašo Mijalkov,pictured). Photo: IPI.
SKOPJE, Oct 21, 2014 – Defamation may no longer be a criminal offence in the Republic of Macedonia/Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, but the dangers defamation cases harbour for press freedom remain alive and well in the southeast European country, an official candidate for European Union membership.
An appellate court in Skopje late last month upheld a civil judgment against the investigative magazine Fokus for defaming the chief of the country’s secret police. The ruling requires Fokus Editor-in-Chief Jadranka Kostova and one of the magazine’s journalists, Vlado Apostolov, to pay €5,000 and €1,000, respectively, in damages to Sašo Mijalkov, director of the Administration for Security and Counterintelligence (UBK). The magazine must additionally pay approximately €3,300 in legal costs.
The charges relate to a story from early 2013 in which Fokus published comments made by the former Macedonian ambassador to the Czech Republic, Igor Ilievski, accusing Mijalkov of being behind the sudden end to Ilievski’s tenure in late 2012. Ilievski himself has been ordered to pay €10,000 in damages; the ex-ambassador, however, disappeared following the episode and his whereabouts are currently unknown.
Nationally, the case has raised serious questions about both the efficacy of a generally well-regarded civil defamation law and the independence of the judiciary, particularly in cases involving high-ranking public officials. Mijalkov, a cousin of the current prime minister, is widely considered to be one of the country’s most powerful, if elusive, figures, and court observers have identified what they believe are discrepancies between the rulings in this and other, similar cases.
IPI, which recently concluded a two-day seminar for Macedonian journalists and lawyers on defamation and press freedom, met with Kostova and Apostolov, as well as the magazine’s deputy editor, Zoran Dimitrovski, to discuss the case and its consequences for the magazine’s future. In a separate e-mail interview, Kostova responded to specific questions on her experience.
IPI: Can you tell us a little bit about the background to your case? Why did you decide to publish this story?
Kostova: The so-called defamatory statement was given by the ex-ambassador of Macedonia to the Czech Republic, Igor Ilievski. Ilievski had only been out of his position for one month when he gave the statements…. He is married to a woman from Spain, with whom he had a baby. But while they were in Prague they separated and she took the child with her, and he did not know where they went. Ilievski got a court order in Skopje granting him custody of the child.
Ambassador Ilievski gave a press conference stating that his child was gone. Shortly [thereafter] he was removed from his position, two months before his mandate [ended]. There was information on Internet portals that Ilievski was missing and that is why we tried to contact him and find out what was going on. That was the first reason why we decided to investigate the case, because there was an official missing and nobody was reporting about it, not even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They said only that his mandate was over!
After we contacted Ilievski, he accused Mijalkov of not helping him and even putting pressure on officials to forget about his [custody] case! Ilievski even said that Mijalkov was the reason he left Prague. Mijalkov never commented on these accusations, never denied them and never showed up in court to tell us his side of the story….
We stand [by our belief] that a missing Macedonian diplomat is a question of public interest, especially when he says that part of the problem is the chief of the secret police, the most powerful man in Macedonia for the last decade. To cut the long story short, we never found out what was really going on in Prague during that time, but it is clear that Mijalkov does not want anyone to talk or write about it.
IPI: What was your reaction to being sued for defamation?
Kostova: I wasn’t surprised because in the last few years, since 2011, Fokus suddenly was hit by a cascade of lawsuits for defamation. 95 percent of the time it was I who was sued as editor in chief. In my 25-year career as a journalist, I had only one lawsuit, but all of a sudden I’ve become problematic. In 95 percent of the cases we were sued for publishing the statements of others, even for question[s] asked in interviews. I think this practise [was designed to] silence Fokus, which was at the time developing a daily newspaper, too. I believe that these lawsuits were targeted to destroy Fokus because the owner of the magazine, the deceased Nikola Mladenov, had no other businesses besides the newspaper and the government couldn’t silence him like it did with other mainstream media. Most of the mainstream media have owners that are business partners of the government or are part of the ruling coalitions. It is worth mentioning that Fokus was founded in 1995 and was always on the side of the public, [checking] the government.
IPI: What was your reaction to the verdict?
Kostova: The verdict was problematic because the arguments in it are dangerous for freedom of the press. First, [according to the verdict, there] was no public interest in the article that we published. The judge’s argument was that people disappear every day, so the disappearance of the ex-ambassador was a private matter. [Additionally,] in the verdict the judge stated that Ilievski is not a relevant source because he was ex-ambassador! (Ed. emphasis added) Plus, for the judge the ambassador was not a relevant source because he had family issues (probably referring to the recent divorce from his wife). The same judge gave a completely different verdict in another very similar case, in which the journalist had published a statement that an official found defamatory.
IPI: How has the court case affected you and Fokus magazine financially? What kind of challenge does the fine ordered by the court present for you and the magazine?
Kostova: This court case could close the weekly magazine Fokus. Ten thousand euro is deadly for an independent newspaper that does not receive a penny from governmental advertising that is worth millions of euros (the governmental advertising goes to the media that support the ruling party politics).
Since the founder and owner of Fokus, Nikola Mladenov, died in March 2013 under suspicious circumstances, the daily newspaper Fokus stopped circulation and the weekly magazine was re-established three months following Mladenov’s car accident. We got help from the Soros Foundation, because that was the only way to survive [given that] the governmental [advertising] campaigns ruined the media market in Macedonia.
A ray of hope is a solidarity [campaign] that the Association of Journalists of Macedonia started to help Fokus. At the moment I do not have information as to how much money has been [collected] but the reactions are good. The public service [media] and the main TV stations did not [broadcast] anything about the case and they did not even [broadcast] the call of the Association to help Fokus.
IPI: Has the case affected your ability to do your work as an editor/journalist?
Kostova: Absolutely! Journalists are self-censoring and for the first time I have started to censor some parts of the comic that is a trademark of Fokus.
IPI: Based on your experience, what are the main problems with Macedonian defamation law or the way that defamation cases are treated in Macedonian courts?
Kostova: The main problem with the defamation law is the high penalties (Ed. damages) if you compare them to the salaries of Macedonian journalists…. The penalties are very high especially for the media outlets [as a whole] and for the editor-in-chief. In the case of Fokus, I am now the owner and the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, so in these kind of conditions that makes me a real kamikaze. Also, the court [fees] are very high and to appeal to the higher court we had to pay €1,500 even though we knew what would happen at the end.
All Macedonian judges … know how to work by European standards. I had two lawsuits that were decided in my favour but the plaintiffs were not in the range of the chief of the secret police.
So it does nobody good that foreign funders are throwing money for training Macedonian judges on Strasbourg practice – they need training for integrity.