Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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The Higher Court in Belgrade, Serbia held that the editor-in-chief of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project endured pain and suffering and injury to his reputation following the publication of a tabloid article alleging he was the mastermind of a plot to ensure the resignation of the Serbian Prime Minister. The Court referred to the right to freedom of expression under the Serbian Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights and held that the allegations in the articles had damaged the editor’s reputation.
On March 17, 2016 the Serbian tabloid newspaper, Informer (which is officially known as the Insider Team), published a front-page story in its issue number 1179 about Stevan Dojcinovic, the editor of Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (Krik), one of Serbia’s few investigative journalism media outlets. The Informer article addressed an alleged plot to remove the then-Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić and included the headlines “Exclusive: A Plan to Provoke Chaos” and “The Purpose: Forcing the Prime Minister to Quit and to Propose a Different Person to Lead the Government”. The article also featured a photograph of Dojcinovic and stated that Dojcinovic “[t]ogether with a convicted narco dealer Vojislav Jevtic and a journalist from Sarajevo Andrew Sullivan is preparing a fake scandal about hidden real estate of Vučić family.” The newspaper continued the story on pages 2 and 3 with headlines “Mafia strikes Vučić family” and “Exclusive: How media-political-tycoonesque racketeers plan the coup.” The article claimed that the Vučić family was targeted based on a careful psychological analysis of the Prime Minster which had found that his family was the most vulnerable aspect of his life, and that the aim of the alleged plot was to attack Vučić’s family in such a way that he would be forced to resign.
This article also included a photograph of Andrew Sullivan, an American citizen and the co-founder of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an investigative reporting platform formed by 40 non-profit investigative centers, journalists and major regional news organizations around the globe. Krik is a member of OCCRP and Sullivan, based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a visible media figure in the region and often a target of pro-government tabloids. The article captioned the photograph of Sullivan saying “He gives orders from Bosnia,” and claimed that Sullivan was personally responsible for coordinating the attack on Vučić.
At the time the Informer articles were published, journalists from Krik were working on an investigation that would be published a month later, revealing that Vučić and his family owned assets worth more than €1 million.
Sullivan sued the Informer for defamation, arguing that the March 17, 2016 articles damaged his reputation and caused him pain and suffering. Dojcinovic also sued the Informer in a separate case.
Judge Jelena Stojilkovic delivered the judgment of the Higher Court in Belgrade. The central issue before the Court was whether the impugned article tarnished Sullivan’s reputation
Sullivan argued that he is not a “Mafioso”, a “media-tycoon-racketeer”, nor a conspirator, and that he had not intended to attack the Prime Minister or target Vučić’s family members in order to force him to resign. Sullivan also denied participating in a coup. He submitted that he did not give orders to Krik in his position as co-founder of OCCRP and has no editorial control or oversight over their reporting.
The Informer argued that Sullivan had not been falsely portrayed and that it had done the requisite due diligence and fact-checking before publishing the story about Sullivan. It submitted that Sullivan and Krik had been given an opportunity to provide their side of the story and argued that Sullivan is a public figure and so must expect a higher degree of public scrutiny.
Stojilkovic defined public information as “news, data, opinions and other dispatches that are disseminated via print or other channels but are based on fact”. She then referred to the Serbian Law on Public Information and Media and noted that article 9 requires that information must be fact checked and verified before publication and that, while article 10 states that the media has a right to publish information in the public interest, articles 79 and 112-115 stipulate that publishing false information about a person constitutes a violation of their reputation and as such is unlawful.
In discussing the importance of the right to freedom of expression, Stojilkovic noted that the Constitution of Serbia and article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights both guarantee freedom of the press and speech, and added that freedom of information is one of the foundational democratic and political freedoms and that it constitutes the basis for the people’s participation in political life and decision-making. The Judge accepted that the right to freedom of information allows for the publication of erroneous statements, but emphasized that this privilege does not extend to publishing false information that could easily be verified.
Stojilkovic found that Sullivan had provided substantial evidence which clearly demonstrated that the article made numerous false claims, and held that, by portraying Sullivan as the main coordinator – a marionette – conspiring to bring down the government, the article endangered his life, undermined his integrity, and eroded his journalistic credibility. The Judge awarded Sullivan non-pecuniary damages of 80,000 Serbian Dinars (about 800 USD in 2018) and ordered the Informer to publish the court decision in the next edition of the newspaper without any commentary.
Stojilkovic referred to the article that Krik had published concerning Vučić’s personal assets and commented that Krik conducted a fair and factual investigation and therefore the published story could not be characterized as an attack on the then-Prime Minister. Furthermore, the Judge noted that the findings of Krick’s investigative reports were never disputed.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This is among the first cases in the recent Serbian history where a tabloid has been held responsible for publishing fake stories about investigative reporters, and the judgment describes the ways tabloids in Serbia fabricate information with the intention to discredit the work of investigative reporters. Given the increasingly repressive media environment in Serbia since the change of government in 2014 and a rise in attacks on investigative journalists as “foreign-backed propagandists” the judgment’s protection of journalists’ right to freedom of expression is an important contribution. The judgment further expands expression by demonstrating that an investigation into assets held by a Prime Minister is not an attack on a public official but rather an investigation into a matter of public concern, and confirms that there are no topics that should be deemed to be above the law.
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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