Dangerous Judicial Ruling Against OCCRP Member Center in North Macedonia Erodes Protection for Independent Media
November 10, 2023 - A civil court in Skopje, North Macedonia has ruled against OCCRP member center Investigative Reporting Lab (IRL) and its editor in chief, Saska Cvetkovska, in a defamation case brought by businessman Kocho Angjushev. The court ordered IRL and Cvetkovska to pay €1 in damages, as well as both sides' legal costs.
IRL is registered as a civil society organization with a statute to produce media content about corruption, crime, rule of law, and good governance, but Judge Jovanka Spirovska Paneva said in her ruling that IRL was “non-media” and that its staff were merely “members of a group” instead of journalists. The judge advised the Ministry of Justice to shut down IRL, incorrectly arguing that it lacks the right to publish media content because it is a civil society organization. (In North Macedonia, digital newsrooms like IRL are not licensed by the media regulator as broadcasters are, but this does not affect their status as journalists.)
The verdict was announced on October 24 but the written justification for it was only published on November 10. It has drawn criticism for imposing censorship and threatening press freedom in a case that has all the characteristics of a SLAPP — a strategic lawsuit against public participation.
“Saska and her team have decades of experience as journalists, and the award-winning IRL has been publishing investigative reporting in North Macedonia for six years,” said OCCRP Publisher Drew Sullivan. “The court’s characterization of IRL as “non-media” and its threat to shut them down is outrageous and represents a new low in this SLAPP-happy world many investigative journalists are constantly fighting.”
In May 2021, the IRL investigative documentary “Conspiracy Against the Air'' aired on public television, identifying Angjushev as an official who may have played a role in the import of a highly polluting, chemical-laden fuel oil being used in heating systems across public institutions in North Macedonia. (OCCRP also published the investigation and a version of the film.) After the documentary aired, Angjushev issued a statement denying that he had anything to do with “the import of any toxic oils or fuel oil.”
Citizen reports of huge billowing clouds of black smoke coming from places like maternity hospitals prompted the investigation. Impact was immediate, with many Macedonians writing into government offices to demand action. Skopje authorities fined seven oil companies and took away licenses from four of them. The investigation and documentary won several domestic and international awards.
The International Federation of Journalists said the ruling against IRL represented “a failure of the judge to place the public interest, the interest of the citizens, over the private interest of a powerful businessman.” Angjushev is a former deputy prime minister of North Macedonia, and one of the richest men in the country.
This is the second ruling on the same case by the same judge, after the case was sent back for a retrial by a higher court. In May of last year, the judge ruled in favor of IRL and dismissed the defamation suit. Cvetkovska and IRL will appeal this latest ruling to a higher court and file a complaint with the constitutional court about the violation of the constitutional right to freedom of the press.
In its 2023 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked North Macedonia 38 out of 180 (with 1 being the highest), noting that “judicial abuse of the Law on Civil Responsibility for Defamation incites self censorship in the media,” and that “lawsuits are used as a tool for intimidation and pressure on independent media.”
The European Centre for Press & Media Freedom (ECPMF) organized an international press freedom mission to North Macedonia in July of this year, noting concern about statements made by politicians and public officials that fuel a hostile climate toward journalists.
“Overall, this unacceptable behavior by politicians undermines the public trust in media and signposts to others that journalists are a fair target for harassment on social media, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), or worse,” the ECPMF mission report said.