November 25, 2020

European Court of Human Rights verdict vindicates Macedonian columnist convicted of defamation in 2010

4 min read

Nikola Gelevski. Photo by Nebojša Gelevski, used with permission.
This story was originally published by Meta.mk. An edited version is republished here via a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation.
In September 2020, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a verdict that ordered the Republic of North Macedonia to pay compensation in the amount of 3.000 euros to Nikola Gelevski for the violation of his freedom of expression, announced the portal Okno.mk.
The Strasbourg-based court’s verdict is related to a defamation case filed by Dragan Pavlović, widely known by his nickame Latas, the former editor-in-chief of the newspaper Večer and Sitel TV, against the columnist for his article titled “The Megaphones from the Führer’s alley”, published by “Utrinski vesnik” on March 31, 2009.

Government influence over media between 2007-2017
Leaked wiretaps published in 2015 showed that high official of ruling populist party VMRO-DPMNE directly influenced the daily editorial policy of media outlets managed by Dragan Pavlović – Latas.
In one of these conversations, with then minister of culture, Latas personally complained that his Sitel TV serves as “a condom for VMRO-DPMNE’s propaganda.” In another conversation, Secret Police Chief  Sašo Mijalkov reminded him that the regime funnels 2 million euros annually to the outlet he runs. Latas replied that they earn that money by “delivering” the requested propaganda services, unlike other less effective media.
According to open data released by the new government established by social democratic SDSM party in May 2017, the VMRO-DPMNE regime gave 10.2 million euros of taxpayers’  money to Sitel TV during the period 2010-2017.

Gelevski’s article documented the behavior of media personalities,  including Latas, who provided incitement and justification for the violence organized by the then-ruling party against protesting students on the main square of Skopje on March 28, 2009.
In the column he draw parallels with rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany, including use of propaganda and thugs to beat up political opponents, warning that the country is slipping into dictatorship that might cause a civil war. Gelevski boldly demanded accountability of the likes of ruling party apparatchik Aleksandar Bičikliski and TV show host Janko Ilkovski. At the time one of the most powerful among persons he named was Latas, a member of inner circle of power around then Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his cousin, then Secret Police Chief Sašo Mijalkov.
In 2010 Latas won a private lawsuit for defamation against columnist Nikola Gelevski in the trial that lasted for a year. Gelevski tried to contest the ruling of judge Ljubinka Baševska and filed an appeal to all higher instances of domestic courts, including the Constitutional Court in 2012, but none ruled in his favour.
At the time, defamation was part of the criminal law, and the conviction brought a status of felony. In 2012 defamation was decriminalized – moved from the Criminal Code into the sphere of civil law, which meant it no longer carried danger of prison sentences, but allowing steep fines that also had chilling effect.
In the aftermath of his appeals to domestic courts, Gelevski filed a lawsuit to the ECHR in December 2012. Almost eight years later, the court stated that the “Government has admitted there was an interference in the applicant’s freedom of speech.”
Among the remaining parts of the verdict’s explanation, ECHR reiterated that “individuals, and in particular journalists, who take part in a public debate on a matter of general interest are allowed to have recourse to a degree of exaggeration or provocation” and also states that “the applicant’s criminal conviction could undoubtedly have a chilling effect on the political debate between members of the media on matters of importance.”
In a statement published by cultural portal Okno.mk, Gelevski wrote:
Задоволен сум, се разбира, од пресудата на Судот за човекови права. Исто така, се разбира, задоволен сум што оваа пресуда има пошироко општествено значење, не е само моја лична сатисфакција.
Со пресудата добивме уште еден доказ за недемократската природа на режимот на Груевски кој 11 години управуваше со сè во Македонија: од урбанизам и култура до судство и медиуми. Управуваше со својата послушна војска, не сам, и сигурно не е единствениот виновник за ужасните 11 години кои нè уназадија, како општество, на сите рамништа.
Пресудата е важна и за македонските новинари, колумнисти и, воопшто, луѓето што се појавуваат во јавноста, охрабрувајќи ги да бидат принципелни, чесни, храбри и упорни.
Пресудата треба да го замисли и македонското судство кое безрезервно цела деценија беше во функција на еден исклучително деструктивен и опасен режим.
За жал, во многу сфери сериозно не се оддалечивме, во овие три години, од злокобните стратегии и практики на груевизмот. Ова особено се однесува на судството и медиумите. Така што, и од тој аспект, оваа пресуда од Стразбур, дури и после десет години од настаните, можеби може да биде барем мал поттик да почнат да се менуваат лошите состојби кај нас, не само во сферата на човековите права.
I am pleased with the verdict of the European Court for Human Rights, of course. I am also pleased that this verdict has wider meaning in society, beyond my personal satisfaction.
The verdict provided yet another proof about the undemocratic nature of the regime of Nikola Gruevski which ruled everything in Macedonia for 11 years: from urbanism to culture to judiciary to media. He didn’t rule alone, but he ruled with his own obedient army of followers, so he’s not the only culprit for the terrible 11 years which set us back, as a society, at every level.
This verdict is important for Macedonian journalists, columnists, and overall, for the people that appear in public, as it encourages them to be principled, honest, brave and persistent.
The verdict should provide food for thought for the Macedonian judiciary which, without reservation, for a whole decade served an extremely destructive and dangerous regime.
Unfortunately, over the last three years, we didn’t venture very far from the malignant strategies and practices of Gruevism. This is particularly valid for the judiciary and the media. Therefore, from this perspective, this verdict from Strasbourg, even though came about ten years after the events, might be a small incentive to start changing the bad situation in our country, and not only in the sphere of human rights.
While reform of the judiciary was one of the key election promises of the government that replaced Gruevski’s regime in 2017, it cited lack of support from the opposition for masive overhaul of the legislature that would enable vetting of judges and prosecutors. Many of the enablers of the state described by the European Union as ‘state capture’ in 2016 still hold decision-making positions within state institutions. Judge Ljubinka Baševska, who ruled against Gelevski, still holds the judicial position within the Basic Criminal Court in Skopje.
A 2020 European Commission report on North Macedonia acknowledges some progress in the area, adding that “efforts are still needed to ensure systematic implementation of the updated action plan of the judicial reform strategy” while the US State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices states that “limited judicial independence, politicization of the judicial oversight body, and inadequate funding of the judiciary continued to hamper court operations and effectiveness.”

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