Tuesday, May 10, 2016
The D.C. Circuit ruled in Jankovic v. International Crisis Group that a supporter of former Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic failed to make out a defamation case against the International Crisis Group for critical statements in an ICG report.
The ruling means that plaintiff Milan Jankovic's case against the ICG is dismissed. (Jankovic is also known as Philip Zepter.)
Zepter, a prominent Serbian businessman, sued the ICG for defamation after the organization published a report that said that Zepter was a member of the "New Serbian Oligarchy" and that he was "associated with the Milosevic regime and benefited from it directly." The ICG report also said that individuals like Zepter continued to be in positions of power and to enjoy access to public resources, and that few of the "crony companies" had been subject to legal action, despite promises by post-Milosevic reformers. The district court concluded that a reasonable reader could construe the statements as saying that Zepter was a crony of Milosevic and supported the regime in exchange for favorable treatment.
As an initial matter, the D.C. Circuit applied its three-part rule and concluded that Zepter was a limited-purpose public figure. The court said that (1) the controversy was public, (2) Zepter played a significant role in it, and (3) the defamatory statement was germane to Zepter's participation. As to (2), the court said that "[t]he evidence . . . shows that [Zepter] was an outspoken supporter, financial backer, and advisor of Prime Minister Djindjic [who] paid over $100,000 to a lobbyist to support [Djindjic's] effort to improve relations between the United States and Serbia." "The evidence shows that Zepter had voluntarily thrust himself into ensuring that Serbia underwent reforms in the post-Milosevic era."
If there seems to be a disconnect between Zepter's role as a Djindjic supporter and a Milosevic crony, here's what the court said: "Yet even if Zepter was an important figure in the Serbian reform effort mainly due to his relationship with Prime Minister Djindjic, his relationship to Milosevic is relevant to Zepter's role in the controversy. Linking Zepter to Milosevic would be relevant to understanding Zepter's role and why he wanted to be involved in the reform effort led by Prime Minister Djindjic."
The court went on to say that Zepter failed to show evidence of actual malice. "What is still missing is evidence that ICG had 'serious doubts' about the truth of the defamatory statement or that it published the statement with a high degree of awareness of its probable falsity, such that ICG acted with reckless disregard for the statement's truth."
The ruling ends Zepter's case against the ICG.