By Misko Taleski
The Macedonian government and the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (ZNM) agreed that libel and related insults will be charged not as crimes, but as civil offences.
The fine point negotiations are still under way, but all parties involved praise the effort as a contribution to the advancement of free media and freedom of speech.
“The dialogue is conducted in a constructive atmosphere, it goes in the right direction, but talks are still needed to formalise the solution,” Gordana Jankulovska, a member of the government’s co-ordinating body, which negotiates with the ZNM, told SETimes.
ZNM President Naser Selmani said the range of penalties will be soon determined, but emphasised it is important libel is no longer part of the criminal code.
“We have taken a general stance that the penalty should be limited, but it is a question of agreement what its range will be. Nobody is at a loss from this solution and it will significantly advance media freedom in Macedonia,” Selmani said.
Deputy Prime Minister for EU Integration Teuta Arifi said the dialogue is directed to advance the freedom of speech.
“The process began in September and is bearing fruit. It is being enriched and within the EU framework and requirements,” Arifi said.
De-criminalisation of libel and related insults should be parallel with the greater professionalism and a greater sense of journalist responsibility, according to Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.
“Many journalists have that sense of responsibility and professionalism, but it is obvious there have been weaknesses in that area in the past,” Gruevski said.
Some journalists said the government move is a good one, but does not fundamentally change things since no one is going to prison for libel.
“In the future, the punishments will be reduced, which will provide an opportunity to those with enough money to conscientiously libel and pay for it,” Kanal 5 TV editor Goran Momiroski told SETimes.
Libel should be placed in the part of the civil code dealing with infractions, not suits, TMRO party president Vancho Shehtanski told SETimes.
“This new solution must have stipulations about the legal deadline in which the cases will be taken away from the criminal section, because some that are registered for three or four years are transferred into suits and will last an additional amount of time. The costs then will be even bigger than the criminal verdict punishment,” Shehtanski said.
Experts say problems arise when high monetary penalties are assigned because EU standards are not applied. The judges should apply the European Convention for Human Rights in addition to the Macedonian law, but to do so they need appropriate training.
“Libel will be decriminalised and pursued through the civil code, but journalists will face high monetary penalties. That is a problem which Serbian journalists face. They did what we in Macedonia are currently doing,” Slagjana Dimiskova, a journalist at the daily Nova Makedonija, told SETimes.
Similarly, Bosnia and Herzegovina journalists say decriminalisation of libel a decade ago — the country’s two entities then passed nearly identical legislation on defamation — betrayed their hopes for less libel suits.
They said the change encouraged freedom of the press and freedom of expression but the politicians continue to sue journalists in a judicial system in which they exercise enormous influence.
“Journalists do not trust the judiciary to pass just verdicts in a situation when a politician sues a journalist for libel. Verdicts are passed depending on who influences the courts and they evidently are influenced,” BiH TV journalist Vladimir Susak told SETimes.
Susak explained the verdict calls for monetary compensation for alleged psychological anguish and damaged reputation, which can seriously affect the economic and social status of journalists.
More recently, the European Commission supported Serbian government measures to erase libel and insults from the country’s criminal code.
“Following the adoption and the amendments to the criminal code, Serbia became one of the modern countries in which libel and insults do not exist as criminal acts,” Serbian State Secretary Slobodan Homen said.
Momirovski explained that libel decriminalisation has a cumulative effect on media freedom, but the action in Macedonia will not directly influence the media situation in the region.
“The position of journalists relative to the authorities in the region is very similar. If the EU puts pressure to fulfill certain requirements, they will occur,” Momirovski said.