Media Development Centre, Macedonia
We have been working with The Media Development Centre (MDC) since 2012 to provide legal defence to journalists, bloggers and independent media in Macedonia, with support from one of our national Media Defence Centre grants. Here MDC speak about some of the issues affecting Macedonian media, and one illustrative case.
Macedonia’s media sector is in a period of change. In 2012 the country decriminalised defamation, transferring these cases from the criminal to the civil courts. After the ousting of Macedonia’s authoritarian government in 2016, the press freedom situation in the country is perceived as much improved. However, civil defamation charges remain a threat to the very survival of impoverished media and journalists – mainly because of the deep financial crisis of the media sector.
Shrinking advertising budgets and the migration to online content have made the financial landscape extremely tough. Several outlets have already folded, including the leading publishing company – taking three daily papers with it. Few media can afford proper quality defence when facing any kind of judicial pressure, so without MLDI’s support journalists would find themselves in much more precarious situation.
Though MDC was always interested in defamation from a freedom of expression and media freedom viewpoint, the partnership grant project has increased MDC’s knowledge, skill and competence around defamation issues, and pushed MDC to work on the topics in a more focused and hands-on way.
MDC is now widely recognised in the Macedonian media community as providing a tangible legal representation service. These changes are exclusively the result of MLDI’s support and funding. Other funders are uninterested in media projects, and media legal defence is never a priority area.
One case MDC supported was that of the journalist Valentina Gjorgievska Pargo and the tabloid news site Skandal.com.mk. Pargo and Skandal were taken to court in a civil defamation case over a series of articles, published years before, about a minor local politician. The case demonstrates some of the legal issues regularly affecting Macedonian media.
Articles published on the Skandal news site in December 2012 and January 2013 reported, from confidential sources, that Anastas Dzurovski (a university professor and, at the time, leader of the local branch of the ruling party) was a ‘scandal-maker’ with the ‘manners of a tyrant’. Anastas Dzurovski launched a civil defamation case against the outlet and the journalist in response.
Despite a number of procedural mistakes and abuses of office by the judge, the court ordered the defendants to pay 250,000 MKD (around £3,500) in damages. This is almost double the upper limit for defamation damages against journalists and publishers.
These types of cases are legally required to be presided over by a council, not an individual judge. Nevertheless the judge ruled to accept the lawsuit regardless, and despite the fact that the statute of limitations had passed for both of the articles. (The judge who initially presided over the case has since been prosecuted and sentenced on corruption charges.)
The judge also engaged in deciding which parts of the articles were libellous or offensive (it rests with the plaintiff to state this) and awarded punitive damages without first taking the legally-required step of asking the defendants to apologise and publicly retract the offending information.
.The court ruled that both defendants must pay the damages, but it did not try to ascertain the journalist’s financial situation – an important factor when determining a reasonable sum – and failed to differentiate between the actions of the journalist and the publisher, or specify what amount each party should pay. This unacceptable conflation of roles makes the journalist responsible for the actions of the publisher, leaving journalists especially vulnerable.
The case risks setting an unwanted precedent in Macedonia. Because online media are not mentioned in Macedonian laws’ official definition of media, many judges currently dismiss or choose not to consider cases like which relate to online media only. However, in this case the judge’s rationale described the website as certainly “some form of media outlet”. Therefore this case could create further confusion in deciding who is and is not a journalist – a hotly-debated topic in Macedonian media community.
The case is currently being reviewed by the Court of Appeal. The court has already ruled to relieve Ms Pargo of the obligation to pay filing fees.