Macedonia has removed defamation and libel from the penal code – but some media unions and other critics say big fines will still intimidate reporters.The 53 MPs of the ruling VMRO DPMNE-led coalition voted in favour of the Law on Defamation and Libel on Monday. Twenty of the 123 deputies voted against.“The main purpose of this law is to guarantee freedom of speech and information,” the Deputy Justice Minister, Biljana Briskoska-Boskovski, told parliament.
She explained that journalists will no longer face criminal charges for libel and judges can no longer set arbitrary fines if journalists are found guilty of the offence.
But opposition MPs claimed reporters will not be any better off, as the new law allows steep fines of up to 27, 000 euros for journalists, editors and media owners found guilty of libel.
“This law has been passed to silence the few remaining free media that think with their own heads, hence the draconian fines,” said Safet Bishevac, a former journalist who is now a legislator in the opposition bloc.
Government MPs said the opposition was exaggerating the danger.
“Opposition lawmakers point only to the maximum envisaged fines but the fines might also be symbolic, such as one euro,” Aleksandar Nikolovski from VMRO DPMNE replied.
Nikola Gruevski’s government pledged to decriminalize libel in June after reaching an agreement with the main media guild, the Journalists’ Association of Macedonia, ZNM.
“This law puts an end to over 700 [ongoing] court cases for defamation and libel before criminal courts, half of which were waged against journalists,” the ZNM said, greeting the passage of the law.
However, after seeing the draft law, many NGOs, human rights groups and media argue that the ZNM has been duped.
The Union of Macedonian Journalists and Media Workers, SSNM, said that fear of the steep fines would silence journalists who mostly earn only a few hundred euro a month.
Macedonia was obliged to decriminalize libel as part of the high-level talks with Brussels that started in March. The dialogue is intended to boost the reform process and complement future accession negotiations.
At the same session, the government also adopted a Law on Foreign Press Materials, Foreign Movies and Foreign Information Activity.
This law has also caused controversy as it puts Foreign Ministry directly in charge of accrediting foreign journalists and in general tightens rules on foreign media by obliging them to renew their permits more frequently.
The change has raised fears that what in the past was a mere formality could become a tool for exercising greater control over foreign correspondents.