Belgrade Court of Appeals delivers a ruling against “Informer” in a defamation case

BDK Advokati represented journalist Slobodan Georgiev in his successful claim against the publisher and the editor-in-chief of daily newspaper “Informer”. In a decision BDK Advokati received on 12 April 2018, the Belgrade Court of Appeals declared that the text and photography published in “Informer” violated Georgiev’s right to dignity. The court obliged both defendants to pay non-economic damages for mental distress to Georgiev and the editor-in-chief to publish the holding of the first-instance court’s judgment.

On 15 January 2015 “Informer”, a widely read pro-governmental daily newspaper, published a cover page headline and a two-page article using strong words against BIRN, a regional non-governmental organisation which creates and publishes media contents, and Slobodan Georgiev, BIRN’s editor. “Informer” claimed that BIRN “attempted to steal 23.2 million euros from the pockets of the citizens of Serbia”, that “the journalistic mafia on behalf of EU racketeers throughout Serbia”, and that “BIRN resorts to blackmailing, so that a company from EU can get the budget money”. The cover page and the article in “Informer” contained photos of Georgiev, whom the newspaper accused of “lying with a license of the EU” and called “BIRN’s boss” (šef), i.e. “a boss of journalistic mafia”. The invectives were in response to a BIRN article criticising the government over its handling of a public tender for draining of a flooded coal mine.

The judgment threads carefully in pointing to the difference between strong (and permissible) journalistic expression, on the hand, and impermissible violations of one’s right to dignity, on the other. The court found that the allegations in which Georgiev was associated with “mafia” and accused of racketeering, blackmailing and stealing millions of euros lacked any factual basis and therefore did not reach the level of permissible value judgments.

The judgment also clarifies that even though the article in “Informer” mainly referred to BIRN as an organisation, Georgiev had a standing to sue because “Informer” used Georgiev’s photos and made an equation between the activities of BIRN, on the one hand, and the activities of Georgiev, whom “Informer” called BIRN’s boss, on the other hand.

The decision is a reminder that newspapers and their editors are obliged to refrain from accusing individuals in the absence of facts to support the allegations. By narrowing the space for false accusations and unfounded value judgments, the judgment contributes to improvement of the quality of information available to the public.