North Macedonia: Ruling against Investigative Reporting Lab and its editor must be overturned
The organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) and the SafeJournalists Network (SJN) today express shared dismay at a recent defamation verdict by a judge in North Macedonia which recommends shutting down one of the country’s leading investigative media outlets and expects this damaging ruling to be swiftly overturned on appeal.
Our organisations warn that this ruling – and the alarming recommendation by the judge – represent a clear violation of international standards, a fundamental failure of the recognition of public interest of the journalism in question, and an attack on investigative journalism and media freedom in the country.
On 24 October 2023, a judge at the Basic Civil Court in the capital Skopje ruled against the Investigative Reporting Laboratory (IRL) and its editor-in-chief, Sashka Cvetkovska, and ordered they pay a symbolic €1 in damages to businessman Kocho Angjushev, the former Deputy Prime Minister of North Macedonia, plus thousands of euros for both sides’ legal costs.
However, in the written justification, published on 10 November, the judge inexplicably ruled that IRL should be classified as “non-media” and that its staff were “members of a group”, rather than professional journalists. She suggested the platform was operating illegally and recommended that the Ministry of Justice examine the operations of the media outlet.
The civil defamation lawsuit stemmed from a documentary IRL aired in May 2021, entitled “Conspiracy Against the Air”. The documentary, part of a joint investigation with the OCCRP, was broadcasted on public television and revealed how chemical-filled fuel oil used in heating systems throughout the country’s public institutions were causing pollution. It briefly named Angjushev as one of the officials involved in making introductions between buyers and sellers of heating systems, which he denies and claims is defamatory.
In the first hearing in March 2022, the judge Jovanka Spirovska Paneva ruled in favour of IRL and rejected Angjushev claims. After the verdict was challenged, the Court of Appeal in May 2022 dismissed the verdict and ordered a retrial. In the retrial, the same judge excluded the public from monitoring the trial, sided with Angjushev and found the defendants guilty of defamation. No new evidence was presented by the plaintiff during the retrial.
IRL, a member centre of the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), will appeal the latest ruling to a higher court. It said it also intends to file a complaint with the constitutional court over the alleged violation of the constitutional right to freedom of the press.
The MFRR and SJN organisations stand firmly behind the Investigative Reporting Laboratory, Sashka Cvetkovska, and her staff, and support their principled legal challenge against this ruling and its serious consequences for investigative journalism in North Macedonia. This case bears some characteristics of a SLAPP — a strategic lawsuit against public participation – which are wielded by powerful business or political figures and are aimed at muzzling public interest journalism. It should be noted that the lawsuit by Angjushev comes against a backdrop of years-long attempts to pressure, discredit and verbally attack the media outlet and its staff.
While the demands for compensation and damages ordered by the judge were symbolic, the payment of the legal fees of both sides will represent a financial hit for the investigative media platform. The penalising nature of the verdict also carries a censorious chilling effect on the journalistic community in North Macedonia. As outlined in a recent report following a mission to Skopje by multiple international press freedom organisations, abusive lawsuits of this kind risk undermining the fragile press freedom progress achieved in recent years.
Furthermore, the judge’s verdict inaccurately claims that the IRL is not a media outlet and that its staff are not journalists. In fact, like many investigative media across the region, IRL is legally registered as a civil society organisation and has a specific mandate to report on issues such crime, corruption and good governance. It is clear that the verdict does not take into account the functional definition of journalism: an activity that can be exercised by everyone, as highlighted by the UN Human Rights Committee and by the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers.
IRL has been responsible for much of the most high-quality investigative journalism in North Macedonia in the last half decade and has published award-winning investigations. Its reporters are highly professional journalists who, along with other investigative mediums, fulfil a vital watchdog role which is lacking in the wider media landscape.
The recommendation by the judge that the Ministry of Justice shut down IRL therefore represents both an incorrect and dangerous attack on investigative journalism in North Macedonia. This ruling should be overturned as quickly as possible on appeal and legal rulings involving matters of journalistic freedoms should be assessed with full respect for international standards and jurisprudence.
The Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) submitted a complaint to the Judicial Council about Judge Spirovska Paneva for a disciplinary violation over unprofessional and negligent performance of the judicial function. The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) publicly reacted to the court verdict from October 24 and expressed support to the IRL and Cvetkovska.
The MFRR stands ready to offer financial support to cover the legal costs of challenging its ruling in the higher court and calls for increased international attention and solidarity over this worrying attempt to shut down one of North Macedonia’s finest independent media platforms.