A preliminary hearing in Predrag Koluvija’s defamation lawsuit against BIRN, claiming that the organisation incorrectly conveyed facts about his past while reporting on his trial for alleged marijuana cultivation, was held at Belgrade Higher Court on Monday.
The lawsuit claims BIRN’s report on a court hearing on September 21 at Belgrade Special Court damaged the reputation of Koluvija, the owner of the Jovanjica company, and caused him mental anguish. He is seeking 200,000 dinars (around 1,700 euros) in damages.
During the hearing in September, the prosecution presented documents from a cannabis-smuggling trial in Hungary in 2011 and 2012, stating that although Koluvija was not charged, his name was mentioned numerous times in connection with the defendants.
BIRN presented the prosecution’s claims, as well as a response from Koluvija’s legal team and Koluvija himself, in detail.
Serbia’s Law on Public Information and Media states that journalists are free to report from court hearings.
“In this case, we have all the elements of a SLAPP lawsuit… In brief, the aim of these lawsuits is not to protect rights, but to intimidate media so they will not report on specific topics or people and thus silence public debate on issues of public interest,” BIRN said in its response to the lawsuit.
Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, SLAPPs are a “form of legal harassment against critical voices, pursued by powerful individuals and organisations who seek to avoid public scrutiny”, according to a report on SLAPP lawsuits in Serbia published by Article 19, the American Bar Association Centre for Human Rights and the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, NUNS in 2022.
“Their aim is to drain the target’s financial and psychological resources and chill critical voices to the detriment of public participation,” the report said.
Koluvija, BIRN editor-in-chief in Serbia Milorad Ivanovic and BIRN journalist Jelena Veljkovic, who wrote the report, are expected to give statements at the next hearing scheduled for May 29.
The case against Koluvija began after police stopped him on the Belgrade-Nis highway in November 2019 for reckless driving and detained him for possessing a false police identity document.
On the same day, police raided his property near Stara Pazova, where the indictment stated they found 1.6 tons of marijuana.
Two indictments were raised in the case – the so-called ‘Jovanjica 1’, which deals with illegal marijuana production, and which is currently in progress, and ‘Jovanjica 2’, which deals with alleged Serbian state security links to the marijuana farm.
Both indictments claim Koluvija is the organiser of a criminal group.
BIRN has been reporting from court since the trial started over two years ago.
Koluvija previously filed two lawsuits against investigative news outlet KRIK over its coverage of the case, seeking around 24,700 euros in damages.
Reporters Without Borders urged the Serbian government in April 2022 to amend its regulations to give journalists protection from SLAPP lawsuits.