North Macedonia Investigative Media Outlet Condemns Guilty Verdict as SLAPP


Media rights groups have slammed a court verdict favouring a wealthy businessman and former Vice Premier in his case against an investigative media outlet, calling it a classic SLAPP.

In what both domestic and international journalists’ association have called a classic example of a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, SLAPP, the Civil Court in Skopje on Tuesday ruled in favour of the businessman and ex-politician Kocho Angjushev in his case against Investigative Reporting Lab, IRL, for slander and insult.

IRL’s editor-in-chief, Saska Cvetkovska said that if they cannot get justice in the domestic courts, the next step is the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg.

“This is a scandalous decision.. As the judge herself said in the verdict’s explanation: the private law, the right of private businesses and private interests, were stronger than freedom of speech. That’s all there is to say about this scandalous verdict,” Cvetkovska said.

She added that they will seek justice in Strasbourg and sue for violation of the right to free speech.

The Skopje judge, Jovanka Spirovska Paneva, on Tuesday ruled that IRL had been found guilty of harming the reputation and honour of Kocho Angjushev and of his companies by publishing an investigative documentary called “Conspiracy Against the Air”, aired on the national broadcaster in 2021, in which he was mentioned but did not have the chance to reply.

IRL and Cvetkovska were ordered to pay a symbolic fee to the plaintiff as compensation, but were also ordered to publish the verdict in a newspaper spanning an entire page.

The same court previously ruled in favour of IRL. But this ruling fell at the Court of Appeals, and in the repeated trial IRL lost the case, making the latest ruling final.

Angjushev was Vice Prime Minister in charge of Economic Affairs from 2017 to 2020 in the Social Democratic government led by ex-PM Zoran Zaev, and a businessman and owner of Brako, Feroinvest and other companies. He was listed by Forbes in 2014 as one of the top five wealthiest businessmen in North Macedonia.

In the IRL documentary, which investigated the import and burning of low-quality dirty oils in North Macedonia, one of the likely factors behind the enormous air pollution in the country, Angjushev was mentioned in his capacity as a former Vice Prime Minister who might have played a role in the process.

The documentary showed IRL journalists fruitlessly trying to reach Angjushev for comments.

Angjushev and his companies insisted they were the deliberate targets of IRL. They have alleged that the investigative outlet has been serving “other interests” but did not elaborate on that claim.

Cvetkovska said IRL would now follow in the footsteps of the investigative weekly Fokus, which in 2022 won a case in Strasbourg, after previously losing a  battle in the domestic courts over a slander case filed by the former secret police chief, Saso Mijalkov.

The Strasbourg court last year ordered compensation for the Fokus journalists, and ruled that North Macedonia’s judicial institutions had broken Article 10 of the European Convention guaranteeing Freedom of Expression.

“We will instigate an identical procedure [in Strasbourg],” Cvetkovska said.

“It is the duty of journalists to expose malfeasance, corruption and incompetence. Sadly, those who find their activities exposed increasingly abuse the legal systems to bully and silence their critics,” commented Tim Dawson, Deputy General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, IFJ. “The case of IRL and its editor-in-chief Sashka Cvetkovska is precisely such a case,” he added.

The Association of Journalists of Macedonia, AJM, and the Independent Workers Union of Journalists and Media Workers, SSNM, have also characterized the case as a classic SLAPP, intended to discourage journalists from doing their job.

The AJM has already filed a request to the Judicial Councill, a regulatory body, asking it to assess the work of the judge in the case, complaining among other things of a lack of transparency.

During key hearings of the trial, when Angjushev and Cvetkovska were called to testify in court, the public was excluded.

Source : Balkaninsight