Over the past five years, Macedonia has fallen from 34th on the World PressFreedom Indext to 123rd and the decline shows no sign of slowing.
Part of the problem was the shutting down of the most viewed TV station (A1 TV) and three associated newspapers, following the questionable arrest, conviction and incarceration of the owner. However, the problems of press independence run deeper, with heavy spending by the government on the country’s TV stations in a manner which has been accused of buying the loyalty of these media outlets. This approach has been reinforced by the way in which Macedonia has transposed EU legislation on audiovisual media services – a transposition that was subject to severe international criticism, including from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The situation of journalists is also a cause for concern. Ironically, part of the problem is a measure that should be positive for freedom of expression – the decriminalisation of libel and slander. However, this has meant a flood of frequently frivolous civil prosecutions (as there is no legislation to prevent this) and frequently very high fines that can be imposed on the owners of the media in question. There are currently 150 court cases against journalists for libel and slander and fines of up to 10,000 Euro to “compensate” politicians for “emotional pain” are not rare. This has, unsurprisingly, led a strong chilling effect on journalism and self-censorship by journalists.
More serious restrictions are also taking place. Tomislav Kezarovski, a journalist at Nova Makedonija newspaper was convicted and sentenced to 4.5 years in prison for allegedly revealing the name of a protected witness – even though only the very common first name of the witness was published . He had decided to stop being a witness and gave statements against the police. Kezarovski is now in house arrest.
A further problem is that the journalists working on internet portals are often not even considered as journalists because the new Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Services is not in charge of internet media under the new law and online journalists therefore do not need to register. While this would normally be a positive development, the new institutional framework means that this non-registration can be abused. Since people working in the news portals are not officially “journalists”, they can easily be denied accreditation. This means that they may not be invited or even not allowed to attend press conferences or government events. There were already instances of public events and government meetings where only the pro-government media were invited to attend. In the absence of critical voices from television journalists, there is little opportunity to highlight such abuses.
The situation appears unlikely to improve in the online news environment. According to the Grid news aggregator, there are over 120 online news outlets serving a population of only 2 million. A combination of the heavy government funding for certain outlets and plagiarism makes it exceptionally difficult to run a successful and independent news outlet.
From the side of the European Union, a revision of the deeply problematic Audiovisual Media Services Directive will be proposed for at least the next 12 months, meaning that a revised Directive will not enter into force before 2017, at the very earliest. EDRi has urged the European Commission to liase closely with NGOs in EU accession countries to minimise the damage done by the Directive until the underlying problems of the legislation can be addressed more comprehensively.
Call for imprisoned journalist’s immediate and unconditional release (20.06.13)
(Contribution by Vladimir Petrevski – Metamorphosis Foundation)