The current Serbian Public Information and Media Act (the “Act”) prescribes the right to indemnification of both material and non-material damages in cases which include publishing of information which is false, and/or offends a person’s honor or reputation, and/or violates a person’s right to privacy by publishing personal information without prior consent, and/or violates the presumption of innocence, etc.
The right to indemnification is granted to a person to whom the published information refers to, and such person is entitled to file a law suit against the journalist – author of the published feature containing the information in question – against the subject media’s responsible editor and the publisher of the media. This means that the journalist, the editor, and the publisher are jointly liable to the plaintiff. In practice, the publisher is usually the one who will, if the verdict states so, pay the whole amount of indemnification, given that the publisher is usually a legal entity which has larger financial power than the journalist or the editor working for it. Legally, the publisher can either be a legal entity or a natural person, but the latter is much less likely.
When deciding whether or not there are legal grounds for the lawsuit, the judge has to take into consideration multiple circumstances. First, it needs to be determined whether the author of the published feature containing the information in question acted with due diligence when obtaining such information. For instance, the published information might be false, but if the court is convinced that the journalist in question did everything within their power to find out the truth, this could lead to the dismissal of the lawsuit or influence the indemnification amount. Courts often do not have available evidence to determine the veracity of the information in question, but must rely on testimonies of the plaintiff, author of the published feature, responsible editor, and other witnesses.
For the plaintiff, justice can come at an extremely slow pace. Even though the Act prescribes that this kind of proceedings are urgent, in reality they can last for several years on average, especially if the first-degree verdict is appealed against, which is usually the case.
However, the length of the proceedings is not the only issue here. Another problem is that established court practice grants extremely slow monetary compensations for non-monetary damages in case of winning in the law suit. Compensation is usually in the range of 50.000,00 RSD to 300.000,00 RSD (ca 400 EUR to 2.400 EUR). The costs of proceedings (including court duties and attorney fees) are often higher than the actual monetary compensation granted to the plaintiff.
Lengthiness and low compensation in cases of indemnification for damages caused by publishing information forbidden by the Act raise the question whether filing a lawsuit makes sense. For instance, if a tabloid media publishes false or offensive information about a person, the person may suffer emotional pain and their reputation may get shattered, and the only legal remedy is filing a lawsuit in accordance with the Act. However, such person can spend a lot of time and money due to inefficiency of the Serbian court system, and end up with a rather low and unsatisfying compensation. One can wonder – is it all worth it? A lot of times a person filing a lawsuit is not interested in monetary compensation per se, but also for ‘punishing’ the media which published the information by dragging them to courts for years to come, and not letting them get away with it.
Court inefficiency and low compensations established by the court practice definitely suit the media publishers in Serbia, especially tabloids which most often get sued in these cases – this leaves them with the possibility to basically publish whatever they want, knowing that they will not get much of a punishment in the end. For such media, it pays off.