28 May Press Shelter Novi Pazar: Shutdown and financial exhaustion of Free media by lawsuits

After four years of trial, changes of three judges and only one verdict in favor of Sto plus radio journalist Nikola Kocovic, lawsuit of the officials of the Novi Pazar Progressives and the Deputy Mayor Igor Novovic ended with obsolescence.

This is the second lawsuit filed by locally powerful persons against one of the few independent media in Sandzak. In Belgrade, the High Court rejected the lawsuit of the former mayor of Novi Pazar, Meho Mahmutovic, while another lawsuit is pending, in which Novovic is seeking compensation of 200,000 dinars from Kocovic, editor of Radio Sto plus Ishak Slezovic and Beta News Agency.

In Belgrade, the High Court has so far passed two verdicts rejecting Novovic’s claim as unfounded, and a decision is underway on his appeal filed with the Court of Appeals.

Novovic filed both lawsuits in 2017, believing that the text “Novi Pazar citizen who got beaten by a taxi driver passed away” damaged his reputation.  But, the trial before the Basic Court in mid-March passed a verdict acquitting the journalist of Sto Plus Radio. Novovic’s representative appealed the verdict to the High Court, to which Kočović’s lawyer responded. The Court passed a verdict suspending the procedure due to the statute of limitations before it could consider them.

Regardless of the statute of limitations Kocovic said that he was satisfied because the only verdict passed during the procedure was in his favor, which gives him a certain kind of satisfaction.

“I believe that justice has been served, especially having in mind that some of Novović’s witnesses gave calculated statements during the proceedings so that I could be found guilty,” said Kocovic.

Nikola Kocovic: a four-year trial

He added that Novovic was represented by family members who testified in his favor.

“There were two other witnesses who gave almost diametrically opposite statements about the tragic event in 2017. Two different statements about who owned the taxi and who hired the taxi driver were given to the police and in front of the Court, all with the intention of me being convicted,” Kocovic pointed out

The lawsuits of the Serbian Progressive Party and Sandzak Democratic Party high-ranking officials Novovic and Mahmutovic were “an attempt to discipline disobedient media,” assessed Ishak Slezović, editor-in-chief of Sto plus radio.

“Unlike ten years ago, when transmitters were set on fire with ‘Molotov cocktails, we are now the target of financial exhaustion, because how else to interpret these lawsuits, which demand huge sums of money from us,” said Slezovic.

By the way, Mahmutovic sued Radio Plus for the text “Half a million euros evaporated with Mahmutovic,” seeking compensation of 300,000 dinars for damage caused by harm to honor and reputation.

Ishak Slezovic: Lawsuits instead of “Molotov cocktails”

Burying the professional media with lawsuits has been going on since the 1990s said Tamara Filipovic Stevanovic, Secretary-General of the Independent Association of Journalists’ of Serbia.

“We have been fighting for a long time against seeking high compensation claims aimed at the economic destruction of the media. Many judges underwent training that included working on judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. We seemed to be on the right track two or three years ago,but the reality and SLAPP lawsuits from the end of last year speak for themselves, ”  Filipovic Stevanovic pointed out.

The SLAPP lawsuits aim to stifle freedom of speech and limit public criticism of influential individuals, institutions, or companies.

“This phenomenon is not unknown in much more developed countries where media freedoms are at a high level. The difference is an independent judiciary in these developed countries. In our country, the judiciary, as well as journalists and the media, are under great pressure. Only a few judges judge by following the letter of the law, ” said Filipovic Stevanovic.

She assessed the current situation as worrying and added that IJAS monitors and records all cases of lawsuits against the media and journalists, trying to provide legal support to all those who complied with the Code of Ethics in their reporting.