Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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The Court of Appeal in Belgrade affirmed the judgment of the Higher Court in Belgrade, holding that the internet portal Informer.rs damaged the plaintiff’s reputation and honor. The Portal had reported a statement made by one of the city councilors in Belgrade in which he called the plaintiff “a pest columnist” and “a thief” and falsely claimed that the plaintiff was sentenced to prison in 2005 for corruption. The Court primarily based its decision on the fact that the internet portal did not act in accordance with journalistic due diligence standards since its coverage was biased in favor of the city councilor, and it failed to represent both sides of the story or verify the relevant information. The Court also noted that the online article did not contribute to a debate of general interest since the impugned statements were not directed at the work of the plaintiff as a public office holder.
Almost two decades ago, Milan Savić (the plaintiff) was the managing director of a utility company that deals with the construction and maintenance of roads and highways in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. He has been retired for many years and is not involved in politics, but as an expert in the field of construction and maintenance of roads and highways, he is often invited to comment on issues considering construction projects related to the construction of roads, squares and the like. Thus, at the end of 2019, the plaintiff was invited to write a column in the well-known Serbian weekly magazine NIN, in which he pointed out from a professional point of view that the city government spent far more money on the reconstruction of the main square in Belgrade than the real market value for performed works was.
Immediately after the plaintiff’s column was published, one of the city councilors of the city of Belgrade reacted. He forwarded the statement of denial of the plaintiff’s claims to almost all influential media in Serbia. In his statement, the city councilor did not contest the plaintiff’s argumentation, but used the opportunity to challenge his reputation and honor. He not only called him a “pest columnist” and a “thief”, but also falsely pointed out that the plaintiff had been sentenced to prison in 2005 for economic crime.
Among the numerous other media, the internet portal Informer.rs. with a large number of readers, reported the statement of the city councilor and completely sided with him in the terms of editorial discretion, such as in the publicized title and subtitles, acting uncritically and without adequate verification (not in terms of material truth) of the relevant information.
The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the editor-in-chief and publisher of the internet portal to the High Court in Belgrade, demanding the court to oblige the defendants to pay him compensation for non-pecuniary damage due to damage of reputation and honor.
During the court proceedings, the plaintiff obtained a relevant document from the competent authority (a police department) and proved that he had never been convicted in criminal proceedings and focused his argumentation around that fact while underlining that the defendants have not acted in line with journalistic due diligence standards since they published false information which was easily accessible and verifiable.
The second direction of the plaintiff’s legal argumentation concerned the fact that the insults towards him did not refer to the results of his work as a holder of public office and as such it did not fall under the protected political speech. Those insults were aimed at personal defamation without any real striving to contribute to the public debate on the general issue.
The defendants basically stated that they only reported the statement of the city councilor which was previously published in another media, and that there was no place to apply defamation rules since it is an issue of protected political discourse. Accordingly, they denied their legal responsibility.
The Higher Court in Belgrade determined that the internet portal Informer.rs damaged plaintiff’s reputation and honor and, thus, found the lawsuit valid. The defendants appealed to the Court of Appeal in Belgrade arguing that the first-instance court did draw proper conclusions regarding the relevant facts and that it erroneously applied law.
The Court of Appeal in Belgrade (the Court) confirmed the first-instance decision. The Court based the decision on the relevant legal norms contained in the Serbian Law on Public Information and the Media – Official Gazette of the RS, no. 83/2014, 58/2015 and 12/2016 – authentic interpretation (hereinafter: LPIM).
The Court firstly briefly reiterated the relevant facts of the case, in particular the content of the impugned online article. Further on, the court made reference to the main findings of the lower court concluding that the appealed decision was lawful.
The LPIM in Art. 9 (2) prescribes the journalistic duty of care (a journalistic due diligence standard), which is reflected in the obligation of the editor and journalist to attentively, in accordance to a given situation, before publishing information regarding a certain event, occurrence, or person, verify the source, veracity, and comprehensiveness of the information, which is especially important in terms of statements of facts with potential to harm. In the Court’s opinion, the average reader may get the impression that the plaintiff was really sentenced to prison for economic crime, what was proven to be false in the proceedings. In that context, the court concluded a violation of due care, i.e. violation of journalistic due diligence standards since the defendants did not even try to check and verify the statements.
The LPIM (Article 116) stipulates that journalists take no responsibility regarding the publishing of harmful information if the information is, inter alia, contained in the public document issued by a relevant authority. However, during the proceedings, it was proven that the statement of the city councilor was not made through the official press service, nor he was acting in an official capacity.
Regarding the conveyance of information from other media, the Court’s standpoint was that despite the fact that a specific piece of information was published by one media, the defendants can still be held liable for damages. The authenticity of the conveyance of the illicit information by itself does not make publishing such information permissible. The fact that an impermissible claim is in circulation does not, by itself, justify its publishing. In such a case, conveying another’s impermissible claim is equivalent to expressing one’s own impermissible claim. In line with such legal position, the Court did not accept the argument that defendants are not legally responsible for defamation since they reported the statement of the city councilor which was previously published in another media.
The defendants claimed that the plaintiff had been a public servant before so the defamation threshold was higher than in a case of private individuals. Nevertheless, the Court found that offensive and aggressive discourse towards the plaintiff did not concern the results of his work as a public office holder nor did it contribute to the public/political debate. After all, the Court referred to the general rule that the public has no interest in being informed about false information.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The Court essentially applied the standard established in the ECHR jurisprudence that the journalists must systematically and formally distance themselves from the claims of others that could insult or provoke others or damage their reputation. If media outlets in any way join another’s claim by accepting it as their own (by editorializing, with the headline, title, subtitle, etc.), the claim will be considered as their own. From that legal principle, the Court concluded a violation of journalistic due diligence standards.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
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