Serbia: Local media fined $32,300 in defamation case

New York, December 8, 1999 — The Belgrade daily newspapers Blic and Danas and the Studio B television station have been fined a total of 970,000 dinars (about $32,333 at the official rate of exchange) in a defamation case brought against them under the Serbian Information Law. The fines were announced Wednesday afternoon following a two-hour criminal court hearing in Belgrade that morning.

Blic was fined about $6,670. The paper’s editor, Veselin Simonovic, and director, Miodrag Djurisis, were fined about $2,670 and $1,670 respectively. Dan Graf, the company that owns Danas, was fined about $6,670. The paper’s director, Dusan Mitrovic, and editor in chief, Veseljko Koprivica, were each fined $2,670.

The television station Studio B was fined $6,670. Its editor and director, Dragan Kojadinovic was fined an additional $3,330. Though the court refrained from levying maximum fines of 600,000 dinars (about $20,000) per organization, local journalists say it will not be easy for Blic, Danas, or Studio B to pay the fines. Each organization reportedly intends to pay up, but it is unclear whether they will be able to do so within the 24 hours stipulated by the Information Law. After 24 hours, the government may seize corporate assets. Individuals face up to 30 days in prison for non-payment of fines.

The defamation charges stem from a December 4 Blic story that reported statements made by Vuk Draskovic, leader of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement, implicating the Serbian Secret Service in a recent assassination attempt against him. On October 3, a truck swerved into Draskovic’s car, injuring him and killing his brother-in-law and three others.

Blic is the largest-circulation newspaper in Serbia. The television station Studio B is controlled by Draskovic, and the opposition daily Danas is a highly influential paper that circulates among Belgrade intellectuals. All three outlets were charged for carrying Draskovic’s statement.

The suit was brought by two senior Serbian government officials: Aleksandar Vucic, the Serbian information minister, and Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj, both of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party. Both claim to have been defamed in local coverage of the assassination attempt against Draskovic.

“Once again, the draconic Serbian Information Law has been used to stifle independent media” said CPJ’s Executive Director Ann K. Cooper. “These outrageous fines mark a new level of government pressure on journalists who are simply doing their jobs.”