by Ana Ribeiro
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled that forcibly removing journalists from the Macedonian parliament while they were covering a debate violated their freedom of expression. The court also decided the journalists’ right to a fair trial in the case had been breached.
According to the ECtHR’s press release on the case, the plaintiffs against the Macedonian state were six accredited Macedonian journalists based in Skopje. They were covering a meeting of the National Assembly of the Republic of Macedonia on 24 December 2012.
Selmani told the ECPMF that he was covering the parliamentary session for the Vest daily newspaper. His colleagues also involved in the case were working for other Macedonian news outlets: Natasha Stojanovska (Alsat-M channel), Snezana Lupevska (Channel 5), Toni Angelovski, (Den daily newspaper), and Frosina Fakova and Biljana Bogdanovska (Makfax news agency).
Approval of the state budget was being hotly debated in the chambers, and members of the parliament (MPs) began acting aggressively on the occasion. Security intervened and threw out parliamentarians as well as journalists.
The ECtHR in its judgement “reiterated the crucial role of the media as public watch-dog, and particularly in situations such as in the applicants’ case where the authorities had had to handle disorderly behaviour of MPs during a Parliamentary session”.
The Macedonian state budget for 2013 had been a controversial and highly publicised issue: It forecast a deficit in the thick of a recession, riling opposition members. The reporters were in the designated area for the press in “the parliament gallery”, while groups of people rioted outside parliament as approval of the budget was underway.
Suddenly, tensions and aggressions also erupted inside the parliamentary chamber.
“The strained atmosphere culminated in a group of MPs creating a disturbance,” the ECtHR press release describes. “They surrounded the Speaker, slapped his table, prevented access to the podium and started damaging technical equipment. The Speaker, who had been pulled out of the chamber, ordered security to restore order.”
It was at that point that trouble started for the plaintiffs. Security “forcibly ejected opposition MPs”, and then also began to expel journalists from their designated reporting area. When the plaintiffs refused to leave, security guards began to physically remove them.
“I was one of the journalists who were removed from the gallery and the only one against whom the security used force to kick me out of the gallery”, Selmani said.
Previously I resisted to leave the place without explanation, [asking] from whom is the order, why we need to leave the gallery and in which provision of the law the order is based.”
Selmani and the others then sought out the Constitutional Court of Macedonia.
The Constitutional Court hearing had taken place in April 2014, without the plaintiffs’ presence. Ruling in favour of the state, the Macedonian court contended that the journalists had been removed from the parliament area for the maintenance of order and for their own safety.
The ECtHR’s decision came in September 2016, following more than two years of court battles since the journalists took their case to the Constitutional Court. The Macedonian court’s dismissal of their freedom of expression case without hearing the plaintiffs led to their lodging a follow-up complaint with the European-level court in October 2014.
Naser Selmani had expressed dismay at the manner in which he and his colleagues were treated both during their coverage in parliament and later by the Macedonian court, seeing the court’s decision as “encouraging institutions in future to restrict the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the media in an even more drastic manner”.
At the time, the AJM publicly announced it would file a complaint against the decision with the ECtHR in Strasbourg – which eventually ruled in the journalists’ favour. Selmani told the ECPMF his “role in the case is as a plaintiff because according to Macedonian law, NGO’s cannot sue the institutions for violation of human rights and freedoms.”
First, the plaintiffs maintained that they had been forcibly prevented from covering a subject of “particular public interest” in parliament, in violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Second, they contended that the Constitutional Court of Macedonia had denied them the right to an oral hearing, in violation of ECHR’s Article 6.
On the first count, “the Court noted that the applicants’ removal from the gallery had prevented them from obtaining knowledge based on their personal experience of the events unfolding in the chamber.” On the second, the ECtHR found the plaintiffs had requested an oral hearing but had not been granted one; the absence of “exceptional circumstances” to justify this constituted a violation of the ECHR.
Both the AJM and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) welcomed the ECtHR decision after it was publicly disseminated in February 2017. Selmani says he considers this a “big victory” and a landmark decision for the AJM’s members and journalists in general in Macedonia and the wider Europe.
Statement by Naser Selmani on ECtHR ruling
The decision of the ECtHR is very important for Macedonian journalists and freedom of expression generally. It’s the first case when the court finds that Macedonia has violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The decision confirmed that Macedonia violated freedom of expression because previously the authorities claimed that the accusations for breaching this basic freedom were just perception. Macedonian institutions have to change their behaviour towards the journalists and media if they want to be a respected member of the European family.
This verdict of the ECtHR is a big victory also for the Association of Journalists of Macedonia. We succeeded to convince the court that Macedonian institutions failed to protect and promote freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by the national constitution and by the European Convention. On the other hand, we showed to our members that it is always worth it to fight for your rights and freedom. Justice is slow but sure!
This is a huge support for journalists in their fight against the present policy of impunity in Macedonia and around Europe. This means that institutions in the future cannot stop journalists from covering public events based on arbitrary decisions. Also, it reconfirms the right of journalists to cover public events and underlines the responsibility of institutions to insure a safe environment for journalists. The restriction of this freedom can be justified only if it’s necessary in a democratic society.
The decision, brought unanimously by the jury, reaffirmed the crucial role of the media as public watch-dog in a democratic society, and the right of the public to be informed.
Full text of the case (in English): Selmani and Others v. “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”
The article was originally published by European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)