Court SLAPPs OCCRP’s North Macedonian Media Partner

Опубликовано: 15 Ноябрь 2023

IRL Macedonia SLAPP2

OCCRP's North Macedonian media partner IRL hit by a SLAPP. (Photo: IRL)

The Civil Court in Skopje has ruled that North Macedonia’s Investigative Reporting Lab (IRL), an OCCRP partner, had no right to publish a documentary on the import and burning of low-quality dirty oils because it is a non-governmental organization and not a media outlet.

The judge, Jovanka Spirovska Paneva, also suggested that the IRL be closed down for breaching the law because it improperly publicized information that “slandered” Kocho Angjushev, a North Macedonian oligarch and former high-ranking politician.

Saška Cvetkovska, IRL’s chief editor, called the judge’s ruling “shocking,” as for more than six years the lab has been publishing stories online, working closely with other media organizations and broadcasting documentaries to growing audiences.

“Not many things are shocking to me as a media worker in a country with a long history of hostility towards journalists … [but] being threatened that you’ll be banned from working as a media [outlet]” is a direct assault on free speech, Cvetkovska told OCCRP.

She added that IRL is constantly “under pressure, bullying, threats and harassment by those with political and economic power.”

Angjushev, the country’s former vice premier, had sued IRL for defamation and insult, in what appears to be a typical example of a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or SLAPP suit.

“Saška 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.”

The documentary “Conspiracy Against the Air,” was part of a joint OCCRP and IRL investigation titled “Bad Oil - ‘Europe’s Waste Dump’: How Dangerously Polluting Oil Ended Up Heating North Macedonia’s Hospitals.” The investigation, published more than two years ago in May of 2021,  identified Angjushev as an official who may have played a role in the process.

Angjushev had served as deputy prime minister in charge of economic affairs from 2017 to 2020 and is one of the country’s wealthiest men. The owner of  several businesses, he sued IRL over the documentary, which examined how low-quality dirty oils arrived in North Macedonia and their possible impact on the extensive air pollution in the Balkan country.

The latest ruling is the third in this case. Originally, the same Civil Court judge exonerated IRL of defamation. Angjushev appealed and won a new trial, with a diametrically opposed decision this time.

The judge excluded the public from the third trial, according to IRL.

IRL Macedonia was founded in 2017 and has since expanded to produce the investigative magazine Provereno that airs on TV24 news every Tuesday. Its reporting and editing teams have produced dozens of stories on such topics Russian meddling, fake news, and assets owned by politicians.

IRL also claims that Angjushev wields enormous power over the courts.

“In our case, he’s only asking for one euro (US$1.06), so it’s not about money,” IRL said, adding that Angjushev is simply using this lawsuit to undermine the organization.

In her decision, Judge Paneva said that she believes the right to privacy is more important than freedom of expression.

She seemed to base her decision on the fact that IRL is an online publication, rather than a traditional newspaper, calling it an organization “without media properties” and whose “members cannot have journalist status,” and hence “cannot position themselves as journalists.”

Judge Paneva wrote that “IRL’s journalists are not journalists, they are members of the organization,” and that Cvetkovska “can’t be an editor.”

Vasko Popetreski, editor-in-chief of 360 Degrees media outlet, believes that the verdict is “dangerous and must not be followed by silence, because the ruling tries to promote ‘licensing’ of who is a journalist, and that by a state institution, which does not exist in any democratic country.”

He believes that if anybody should decide who is a journalist, it should be the Association of Journalists, not the courts.

Other domestic and international journalists’ associations denounced the decision of the Skopje court.

Throughout the proceedings, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its North Macedonian affiliates – the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) and the Independent Trade Union of Journalists and Media Workers (SSNM) – contended that journalists should not be considered as a public evil because they work for the public good.

“Journalism is a public good, and the job of every journalist is to discover system malfunctions,” said Pavle Belovski, president of the SSNM. He stressed that the court decision against IRL is “a typical example of disregard of the public interest.”

“We regret that the court accepted this typical SLAPP suit that is precisely being brought up for intimidating and demotivating the journalists,” Belovski said.

Tim Dawson, Deputy General Secretary of the IFJ, stated that it is the responsibility of journalists to expose malfeasance, corruption, and incompetence.

“Sadly, those who find their activities exposed increasingly abuse our legal systems to bully and silence their critics. The case of IRL and its editor-in-chief Saška Cvetkovska is a case of just this,” he said.

The IFJ further stated that this court verdict adds to the increasing worldwide record of cases in which “freedom of expression has been damaged by unwarranted legal intimidation and financial exhaustion of journalists.”