Illegal surveillance against civil society continues in Macedonia

By EDRi · February 22, 2017

Macedonian civil society organisations advocating for human rights and democracy have come under increasing pressure by the authorities. They have previously been caught up in use of the state apparatus for massive illegal surveillance, including wiretapping of activists.

An  open letter signed by 127 civil society organisations was published on 9 February 2017. It appeals to all stakeholders to help “protect, maintain, and promote the civil society from all threats targeting this sector and to reject any and all ungrounded attacks and lies this sector has been exposed to”.

The activities undermining civil society are a culmination of the political crisis resulting from revelations of systemic corruption. As noted by the EU country report for 2016: “Democracy and rule of law have been constantly challenged, in particular due to state capture affecting the functioning of democratic institutions and key areas of society. The country suffers from a divisive political culture and a lack of capacity for compromise.”

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After the parliamentary elections on 11 December 2016, the leader of the incumbent ruling party Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) Nikola Gruevski openly peddled conspiracy theories of collusion between “foreign forces”, the opposition, and the civil society organisations, and announced a final showdown with the NGOs, promising to “cleanse” the civil sector (read more here, here and here).

In parallel with intensifying continuous defamation campaign against civil society organisations by pro-government media and surrogate groups, state institutions such as Public Revenue Service started selective inspections placing additional administrative burdens on the organisations. This increased the fears amongst activists because, in the course of 2016, their personal data and some financial data controlled by state institutions were illegally disclosed by pro-government media. Such confidential data were also distributed via flyers ahead of the elections, apparently in order to cause distrust against them as “foreign mercenaries”.

The 21 civil society organisations which were direct subjects to these inspections, including EDRi member Metamorphosis, all participated in a campaign entitled “We decide” that took place before the elections. The campaign included citizen education and awareness raising about the right to vote, the legal provisions against election fraud, and in particular addressed the issue of confidentiality of the vote. Due to fear of surveillance, a large percentage of Macedonian citizens think their ballot is not secret, and that political parties can find out how they’ve voted. One of the goals of the campaign was to encourage them to vote according to their own preferences, despite their fears.

On at least two occasions, pro-government media has published screenshots or copies of e-mails sent between some of these organisations. Such intimidation tactics suggest that malicious hacking or other forms of illegal surveillance are being used.

On 7 February 2017, the affected civil society organisations held a press conference stating that the allegations of wrongdoing are untrue and intended to intimidate and silence the civil society sector and independent media, and demanding retractions and apologies.

The authorities have not provided an official response to the publicly stated concerns of the civil society organisations.

Independent research indicates that Macedonia has been backsliding from democracy since 2008. It keeps getting lower ratings at international indices of democratic development. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2016 report designates the country as “partly free”, while its Freedom of the Press 2016 report listed Macedonia as “not free”. Only other European countries with similar rankings include Belarus, Russia, and Turkey. Reporters without Borders lowered Macedonia’s rank to 188th place in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index (down from 34th in 2009).

The country entered an open political crisis in February 2015 as the opposition disclosed evidence of mass surveillance and systemic corruption. In September 2015, as part of the urgent reforms enacted with mediation of the EU and NATO, a Special Prosecution Office (SPO) was established to investigate the criminal activity related to illegal surveillance.

In September 2016, after a video showing browsing through an SPO inbox was published on YouTube by an anonymous user, the SPO confirmed that their email had been subject to hacking in December 2015. No further information is available about whether the case was resolved.

According to the SPO statement from 18 November 2016, they have a reasonable suspicion that massive illegal interception of communications by the state services without a necessary court warrant has taken place since 2008, including during 2015 and 2016. The SPO gathered evidence indicating that ten high-ranking “suspects took advantage of their official position and authority to the detriment of the resources of the state by misusing the systems for interception of communications, thereby seriously violating the basic human right of the citizens who were wiretapped illegally.”

Confirming the conclusions of the report by Senior Expert Group, led by former EU Commission Director Reinhard Priebe from June 2015, the SPO gathered evidence suggesting that the massive illegal surveillance was conducted using the systems of the Administration for Security and Counterintelligence, a part of the Ministry of Interior. They noted the use of three different surveillance systems for warrantless wiretapping of thousands of phone numbers. Two of these systems were destroyed after the revelation of illegal wiretapping operations by the opposition in early 2015. The third one is still in use, without independent oversight. The SPO is conducting a separate investigation regarding the unlawful destruction of evidence.

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European Commission: The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia 2016 Report (09.11.2016)

SOS: An unregistered NGO, GONGO or PONGO? (15.02.2017)

“SOS” wants to harm civil society organizations with lies, slander and manipulation (07.02.2017)

“SOS” and its order-givers cannot silence the free-minded civil society (08.02.2017)

Recommendations of the Senior Experts’ Group on systemic Rule of Law issues relating to the communications interception revealed in Spring 2015 (08.06.2015)

In Sweeping Effort to Spy on Civil Society, Macedonia Broke Its Own Privacy Laws (17.07.2015)

Statement on Civil Society Situation in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (07.02.2017)

(Contribution by Filip Stojanovski, EDRi member Metamorphosis, Macedonia)