The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Serbia violated TV B92’s freedom of expression when the country’s assistant health minister sued the station for accusing her of abuse of office in the procurement of swine flu vaccines.
The European Court of Human Rights, ECHR in Strasbourg, ruled on Tuesday in favour of Belgrade-based TV B92 and against Serbia in a case centred on the station’s reporting of allegations of abuse of office by the assistant health minister in 2011.
The ECHR said it found that Serbia had committed a violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
“The court found that, overall, the applicant company [TV B92] had acted in good faith and with the diligence expected of responsible journalism,” the court decision said.
Amid a controversy over the procurement of swine flu vaccines in 2011, the assistant health minister at the time, Zorica Pavlovic, was accused of abuse of office.
TV B92 reported that 12 names, including assistant health minister Pavlovic, had disappeared from a police list of suspects of abuse of office in relation to the controversy, allegedly because of pressure exerted by the Special Prosecutor on the Interior Ministry.
The reporting was based on an investigation by a team of B92 journalists from the ‘Insajder’ TV show, and in particular on a note obtained from two police officers that had been drawn up by a division of the Fight Against Organised Financial Crime Department.
In April 2012, assistant minister Pavlovic, who was named in the note, instituted civil proceedings against B92.
Serbian courts found that B92’s TV broadcasts and online articles had damaged Pavlovic’s reputation, and ordered it to pay 1,750 euros in non-pecuniary damages and 900 euros for costs. It was also ordered to remove the article from its website and to publish the judgment against it.
All the Serbian courts that dealt with the case, and ultimately the Constitutional Court in 2016, found that B92 had failed to check its facts with due diligence, particularly with regard to the allegation that the criminal complaint against Pavlovic had not been filed because of pressure on the Interior Ministry.
But the ECHR’s verdict said that the courts had “gone too far in their criticism of the applicant company’s fact-checking”.
“The company had based its reporting on a note obtained from police officers about the investigation into the controversy, and there had been no doubts over the note’s credibility. The language used in the reporting had been accurate and not exaggerated, and all the parties had been contacted to obtain their version of events,” the verdict said.
The ECHR said that Serbia also needs to pay the applicant 2,740 euros in pecuniary damages, 2,500 in non-pecuniary damages and 2,400 for costs and expenses.
RTV B92, founded in 1989 as radio station, was a rare source of media resistance to authoritarian Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic’ nationalist regime in the 1990s.
It was banned by the state and achieved a cult status among its audience. After Milosevic was ousted in 2000, B92 continued its broadcasts, including the well-respected ‘Insajder’ investigative programme.
‘Insajder’ broadcast the story on the procurement of swine flu vaccines as a part of a series of shows in a series called ‘Buying and Selling of Health’.
In September 2015, the Greek ANT1 Group became the majority shareholder of TV B92, and the media outlet’s editorial focus changed.
The creator of the ‘Insajder’ programme, Brankica Stankovic, left B92 in 2015 and started her own production company and website, and has continued to work in investigative journalism.