Long road ahead of Macedonian media workers

by Ilcho Cvetanoski

Mass media, as one of the pillars and watchdog of democracy, were heavily influenced and crippled during the eight years ruling of the previous VMRO–DPMNE-DUI government in the Republic of Macedonia. With the new government in power the media sector is expecting major changes.

Sasho Ordanovski Renowned Macedonian journalist Sasho Ordanovski

So far the new SDSM-DUI government, more than 90 days in office, has introduced only a small number of reforms in the media sector. Two minor amendments in the existing media related laws and a major one in progress.  

The Law on Free Access to Public Information, as one of the few media-related laws, has faced minor changes, but by the end of the year it should be deeply amended. Also, the new government has abolished the broadcasting fee for the public broadcaster MRT. Instead of that, the broadcaster will be financed from the state budget.

But, regardless of the small cosmetic modifications, the major changes are announced with the amendments to the Law on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services. The key changes will be applied in the Agency for Audio and Audio-Visual Media Services, the chief media regulator, and the public broadcaster MRT.

One of the critical voices that advocates for more profound changes in the media sphere is Sasho Ordanovski. Together with several other interviewees Ordanovski, an award-winning journalist with a professional career that spans over 30 years, during the ECPMF’s fact finding mission in the Republic of Macedonia voiced huge expectations from the new government. Being an editor-in-chief and director of the public broadcaster MRT in the past, co-founder of a weekly news magazine and a research-oriented NGO, Ordanovski is more prominent nowadays as a columnist and political analyst then as journalist.

As someone who is well informed about the political situation he analysed the media landscape in the country with his main focus on the techniques and tools that the previous coalition Government (VMRO – DPMNE and DUI) used to alter the system and to establish tight control on vast part of the media.

"Journalists are confused"

“Journalists here are confused, they are in a bad social situation, and they are subject to various kinds of pressures and bad treatment,” Ordanovski said at the very start of the interview.  

Just like the other interviewees he pointed out that the sharp decline of media freedom coincides with the reign (from 2008 till beginning of 2017) of the previous coalition Government. This is a conclusion that can also be reinforced by analysing the yearly rankings or reports from international governmental and non-governmental organisations like the World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters without Borders (RSF). According to RSF’s index Republic of Macedonia has fallen 77 places in the period 2009 – 2017. In 2009 it was ranked 34th – that was the all-time best ranking - and in 2017 it is at 111th place out of 180 countries.   

Evaluating the situation Ordanovski says that Macedonian media system is falling apart due to the total misuse of state of affairs by the previous ruling parties. They captured the state and completely politicized the administration. Ordanovski adds that the previous government also worked on total control of the public narrative. And for that to be successfully achieved they needed to control the media. If it was impossible to control influential journalists, columnists and political analysts with money than they used more blatant techniques such as intimidation and threats.   

“I will illustrate this through a nice story. In May 2015 in the middle of the night they put a bomb under my car. Everyone knows who did it, I know who did it, but you cannot prove it. My car is one of the dozens of burnt-out cars in Macedonia. Many of them were owned by journalists,” Ordanovski said and went on to explain how it is done.  

“They have people in the jail, younger people, in their twenties or thirties, who are there with several charges or let’s say convictions for possessing drugs... So, they say to them: “This weekend a car will come and three of you will go and burn this car. If you do that one of your charges will be deleted.”

This is a typical secret police operation and I know the people who did it, because you know, I also have sources. You can never prove it, it’s impossible. Eventually one day if the state decides to deal with this, maybe then somebody will choose to speak to the media,” Ordanovski said. 

"The media system is falling apart"

And this is not the only tactic they use to pressure media workers. Vilification and portraying critical media workers as traitors and foreign mercenaries was one of their widely-used tools, together with pressures on journalists’ close family members.

“The media system is falling apart. When I say falling apart I refer to the market, regulations, education, ethical standards, and business as such,” Ordanovski said, adding that the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (ZNM) will try to consolidate the situation through transparent discussions with the new Government. But he also adds that the media workers, and the general public, should be fully aware that the situation cannot be fixed in a day, and that it will take years to achieve some change.

To break the present deadlock one of the first measures Ordanovski recommends to his fellow journalists is to be united and become members of ZNM. The organisation, as the oldest and most respected association among media workers, was targeted by the previous Government. They tried to undermine its reputation and introduce disunity. They partly succeeded, by creating, together with their proxy media workers, a parallel organisation. According to Ordanovski being member of ZNM is crucial because it is the organisation that has established and is further developing all its international contacts with the international stakeholders. In any incident that involves media workers, Ordanovski advises his fellow journalists to always inform ZNM because as an organisation that represents media workers it can spread the word to all international associations more easily.  

As a vivid example of how bad the situation is, especially regarding the public trust in media, Ordanovski emphasised the fact that in the recent years at the journalism department at the Law faculty in the capital Skopje there are no new enrolled students. Full of optimism, but also cautious, Ordanovski believes that the new government will be much better than the previous one, at least concerning the freedom of expression issues. But again, “Nothing can be fixed in month or two,” he adds. Ordanovski leaves us with the impression that if the Republic of Macedonia was able to fall 77 place in eight years, than it is possible to reverse the situation and start climbing slowly back up the chart countries where the media are free. 

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