European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Photo by Wikipedia user CherryX, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in favor of Focus journalists in the case against Sašo Mijalkov, former head of the secret service in Macedonia. The ruling in Strasbourg comes after in 2014 Macedonian domestic courts ruled that Focus newspaper editor Jadranka Kostova and journalist Vlado Apostolov had to pay more than 9,000 euros as damages to former director of the Administration for Security and Counterintelligence (ASC) Sasho Mijalkov for defamation and insult.

According to the Strasbourg verdict, published on April 5, the judicial authorities in Macedonia violated Article 10 – freedom of expression of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the plaintiffs, editor Kostova and journalist Apostolov were awarded non-pecuniary damage of 3,000 euros or 1,250 euros, the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) reported.

Journalists’ representative Medarski Law Office from Skopje submitted the application to ECHR in 2016 after all domestic court instances confirmed the conviction, forcing them to pay over 9,000 euros in damages to one of the of the most powerful and richest persons in the country, a cousin of then-prime minister Nikola Gruevski.

The first degree court set the fine for the journalists at the beginning 2014, the Appellate Court confirmed the ruling in September 2014 and the Constitutional Court refused the journalists’ appeal in November 2015.

Fokus daily newspaper featuring the statement by former ambassador Ilievski accusing Mijalkov for pressure. Photo by NovaTv.

The texts were published in the daily Focus, which had closed down in 2013, after the controversial death of the publisher Nikola Mladenov. The articles included quoted statements by former Ambassador of Republic of Macedonia to Czech Republic, Igor Ilievski, who claimed he had fled the Czech Republic due to pressure from Mijalkov.

AJM in 2014 considered that the decision of judges Lidija Dimchevska, Stanka Zafirovska and Enver Bexheti seriously violates the freedom of expression and discourages journalists from writing about possible abuses of power, while the compensation for non-pecuniary damage is too high and disproportionate. In their announcement, they reminded:

“AJM then appealed that the court was introducing an unacceptable practice of convicting journalists for defamation for a transmitted statement. If a journalist checks the facts of each statement, as required by the court, then most public statements should not be published.”

In 2014 AJM initiated a solidarity action to collect money for the fee through individual donations. Other civic organizations also joined the effort, including the National Network against Homophobia and Transphobia of Macedonia which organized a fundraising event in Skopje Old Town. In less than ten days they managed to gather most of the required 9,000 euros which the journalists of the newspaper Focus paid to secret service chief Mijalkov for the non-material damage and for covering of court expenses.

Fokus weekly magazine front page from October 3, 2014, featuring the face of Sasho Mijalkov and the stamp “censored.”

Both Mijalkov and Gruevski had been implicated in numerous court cases related to their abuse of power during the period of state capture that ended in 2017, after their populist political party VMRO-DPMNE failed to form a majority government following 2016 elections.

Gruevski has been convicted of corruption and had fled the country in 2018, and is currently hiding from the law in Hungary, under protection of their political ally Viktor Orban.

Mijalkov is currently accused party in several court cases. He had so far has been convicted and sentenced to 8 years for corruption in a case code named Vault, and to 12 years for illegal surveillance of thousands of citizens in the cases Target and Fortress. He is currently released on bail after he deposited a guarantee of 11 million euros.