Outspoken critics of FYROM’s prime minister are finding themselves facing heavy fines for denigrating him.
by Ljubica Grozdanovska Dimishkovska
3 March 2011
SKOPJE | Agim Tairi was on a street in Skopje one day in February when he spotted an old friend, Rade Spasovski. The men, who had not seen each other in a decade, began swearing at each other, in a kind of rough joviality.
“I swore in FYROMian, he swore in Albanian. That’s how we salute each other,” Spasovski said later on national television.
But nearby, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was laying the foundation stone for a cultural center. “Right after the ceremony, one of the prime minister’s bodyguards approached and grabbed Agim like he was a criminal. He accused Agim of swearing at the prime minister,” Spasovski said.
A few days later, on 6 February, a Skopje court ordered Tairi to pay 700 euros for disturbing the public order and peace and for denigrating an official.
Tairi, a FYROMian with Belgian citizenship, has appealed to the Belgian Embassy for help.
He is not the only person stuck with a significant penalty recently for insulting the prime minister.
A few months before the cornerstone incident, Dushko Ilievski, a dairy farmer from the southwestern town of Bitola, was ordered by a lower court to pay 400 euros.
In March 2010 Ilievski had put up posters throughout the town that featured a photo of Gruevski drinking yogurt at the opening ceremony of dairy producer Swedmilk. The posters carried the message, “Theft in 100 steps,” a play on the motto of the FYROMian government, “Rebirth in 100 steps.”
Ilievski was among the dairy farmers selling milk to Swedmilk, a Swedish company that came to FYROM in 2007. Based on optimistic predictions from Skopje, some farmers took out loans to buy more cows. But Swedmilk went bankrupt two years later, and the farmers were forced to sell their cows to repay the loans. At the beginning of last month, prosecutors alleged criminality behind the bankruptcy.
“I wasn’t the only farmer who was putting up posters in Bitola. The police accused only me because I was among the loudest critics of Gruevski,” Ilievski said. He said the swiftness of the verdict surprised him. The original penalty of 800 euros was reduced to 400 euros in consideration of Ilievski’s existing debts and the fact that he has a family to support.
He appealed the verdict to a higher court in Skopje. The appellate court summoned Gruevski to a hearing on 22 February in order to explain how much he was insulted by the farmer from Bitola. Although the prime minister did not show, two police officers testified against Ilievski. The court ordered a retrial by the lower court.
“I’m the one who is offended by the prime minister,” Ilievski said. “Because of Swedmilk and his promises that we would sell more milk than ever, I lost 31,500 euros. I sold all my cows to repay the bank loans.” The farmer said his family is being harassed by officials, with his brother and father wrongly accused of growing marijuana on their property.
Like Tairi, Ilievski faced accusations of disturbing the public order and peace and of denigrating an official. FYROMian law states that “A person who insults, denigrates, and offends an official representative of a state institution will receive a penalty from 600 to 800 euros. And those who insult, denigrate, and offend a police officer will receive a penalty from 600 to 900 euros.”
Gruevski has not commented on the cases of Tairi and Ilievski. But members of his VMRO-DPMNE party say that public figures, especially the prime minister, must be protected and that people who offend him must be punished.
“If someone insults the prime minister, he or she is insulting his own state. If the people don’t respect the prime minister and the state, we cannot expect other countries to respect FYROM and its state officials,” said Blagorodna Dulik, a member of parliament from the VMRO-DPMNE.
Mirjana Najcevska, a former president of FYROM’s Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, said laws should not protect politicians from people’s thoughts.
Najcevska said politicians should be expected to have a higher tolerance for criticism and that the right of free expression should outweigh a public figure’s right not to be insulted. Libel and defamation are criminal, rather than civil, offenses in FYROM, and this is especially problematic given the control that the parties in government have over the country’s judicial system, she said.
“Here we’ve only seen examples of people penalized who spoke against politicians,” Najcevska said. “Where is the verdict against politicians who speak against or offend ordinary people? This one-sided protection is only a measure to intimidate people, to say, ‘Look what will happen to you if you offend some official.’ ”
Afrim Osmani, a criminal law professor at the private FON University in Skopje, said it’s appropriate that the law protects politicians from insults, otherwise people would be free to offend everyone, everywhere.
“I support the institution of the prime minister in this country,” Osmani said.
But the professor questioned the urgency of the judgments, which were handed down quickly, with orders that the penalties be paid within days.
“Politics has a major influence on the judicial system in FYROM,” he said. “We can see that no one is respecting the right to be presumed innocent, which is why many of the decisions are made before the court procedures even begin. These kinds of penalties are assessed outside of the rules, outside of the laws. Everybody who has political power thinks that he or she is bigger than the laws. Politicians have immunity. Ordinary people don’t.”
Recently, though, it is not just ordinary people who claim to be on the receiving end of the ruling party’s touchiness about the prime minister’s reputation.
Andrej Zernovski, a lawmaker from the opposition Liberal-Democratic party, said he was physically attacked by Marjan Jovanov, a member of the VMRO-DPMNE.
On 24 February, Zernovski had taken to the floor of parliament to ask why Gruevski and his government had spent more than 10 million euros for government media campaigns in the last three years urging FYROMians to, among other things, be kind to one another, read more books, and be proud of their heritage. The spending, on which the country’s media have come to depend, has been repeatedly attacked by government and media watchdogs.
Referring to a weeks-long political standoff, Zernovski noted that the opposition Social Democratic Union was boycotting parliament and possibly early parliamentary elections this year. “If VMRO-DPMNE did the same, FYROM would be saved,” he said.
The next day, Zernovski said Jovanov confronted him in a Skopje restaurant. He said Jovanov accused him of insulting the prime minister and assaulted him. Zernovski has pressed criminal charges.
Jovanov denies that there was a physical attack. Instead, he said he was yelling at Zernovski because Zernovski was spreading rumors about him in Skopje.
Ljubica Grozdanovska Dimishkovska is TOL’s correspondent in Skopje. Image of Dushko Ilievski from a video by Tera TV.
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