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Defendants prevented from testifying at preliminary hearing on lawsuit which may bankrupt newspaper; editor wrongly sued

(IPI/IFEX) - The following is a 19 December 2007 press release by the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), an IPI affiliate:

SEEMO condemns excessive sanctions against media outlets

Vienna, 19 December 2007

The Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), a network of editors, media executives and leading journalists from South East Europe and an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI), has been informed about a lawsuit dated 6 September 2007 against Zeljko Ivanovic, founder and director of the daily "Vijesti" from Podgorica, Montenegro, Ljubisa Mitrovic, the editor-in-chief of Vijesti, as well as the publishing house of Vijesti, Daily press.

According to the information made available to SEEMO, the civil lawsuit for defamation has been filed by Milo Djukanovic, president of the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro (DPS). The case is based on comments Ivanovic made in reaction to an assault on him on 1 September 2007. During this attack, to which SEEMO reacted at the time, Ivanovic was beaten by three assailants.

Based on the arguments of the defence attorney, Branislav Lutovac, Article 20 of the Montenegro Law on Media states that, whilst a legal action can be brought against the author of the defamatory statement and the publisher, the lawsuit against the editor-in-chief is unfounded.

Another point made by Lutovac regarding the trial is that both the plaintiff and the defendants were prevented from testifying at the preliminary hearing, where basic information regarding the case would normally be collected. This is in direct violation of the Law on Legal Procedures in Montenegro.

SEEMO has also been informed by the defence that Djukanovic has demanded an unusually large sum of compensation for the alleged damage suffered, namely one million euros. Such a sum could have serious financial implications for the media company, and could force it into insolvency. This would create a worrying precedent for freedom of speech in the country.

Speaking about the case, Oliver Vujovic, SEEMO Secretary General, said that "according to international principles, compensation that could close media organizations is not acceptable. Such excessive sanctions exert a chilling effect, not only for the publication involved, but also for the protection of free speech."

In addition, the case law of the European Court of Human Rights has found that excessive defamation damages are a direct violation of the applicant?s rights and deemed unnecessary in a democratic society.

SEEMO would like to urge the Parliament of Montenegro to introduce a regulation similar to Article 43 of the Montenegro Law on Media, which places limits on sanctions, including damages in defamation.

SEEMO will continue to follow this case and strongly believes that the law should not be used to undermine the freedom of the press by applying excessive sanctions. In democratic societies, damages in civil law should be proportionate and fair, and should not excessively penalize the media organizations or force them into insolvency.

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