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Macedonian investigative magazine "Fokus" fined thousands of euros in defamation case

Media freedom suffered another blow in Macedonia when the appellate court confirmed that Fokus magazine must pay almost ten thousand euros to a high government official for defamation.

The Skopje Court of Appeals confirmed the sentences from the first degree court: Fokus editor-in-chief Jadranka Kostova must pay The Director of the Security and Counter-Intelligence Directorate, Sasho Mijalkov, EUR 5,000. The journalist Vlado Apostolov must pay Mijalkov EUR 1,000 and both of them must also cover the court expenses of an additional EUR 3,300. The total amount that the journalists must pay to the government official is over EUR 9,300 (over USD $11,875), Fokus reported on September 27.

Mijalkov, a cousin of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, sued Fokus for publishing statements by former ambassador Igor Ilievski, accusing him of various forms of corruption and abuse. After abruptly leaving his post in the Czech Republic, Ilievski has since gone into hiding, and has not been heard from. Fokus relayed his statements with full attribution and invited the reclusive Mijalkov to deny them on numerous occasions, but could not secure an interview with him.

The court case was marred by various irregularities, from incomplete documentation submitted by the litigant, to a decision that Ilievski's statements were not relevant to the public interest because they were given as a private citizen, after he resigned his post as ambassador.

The handling of this defamation case was pointed to as an instance of media intimidation by the former UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, in June 2013. After a lengthy trial, the court passed the “draconian” sentence in January 2014, which was contested by the defendants. The sentence confirmed the control of the ruling party over the judiciary, and was condemned by individual journalists, the Association of Macedonia, Journalists' Trade Union, Reporters without Borders, and others. Journalists interpreted it as clear warning and confirmed its “chilling effect.”

The Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) condemned the appellate court verdict as unfair and contrary to the letter of the Defamation Law. In view of financial ruin to the publisher and journalists, AJM also pleaded with Mijalkov to waive the EUR 6,000 fee and accept only one euro for non-pecuniary damages. The average net salary in Macedonia is around EUR 350.

Mijalkov did not respond to this appeal, and instead his layer announced that the money from the fine would be donated to an orphanage. AJM and other NGOs started a donation drive, asking the citizens to help the journalists, as the payoff would mean financial ruin both for the magazine and their families.

Fokus magazine was established as a weekly in 1995, and it also started a daily edition in 2011. It had always assumed critical stance to whoever was in power, based on investigative journalism demanding transparency and accountability. The daily stopped publication in March 2013, after the death of its founder, Nikola Mladenov, in a controversial car accident. The weekly magazine continued to run from July 2013.

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