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02.06.2017

Ongoing violations against journalists in the Republic of Macedonia

by Ilcho Cvetanoski (guest contributor)

Two journalists were injured whilst 21 more were assaulted, threatened, and barred, or their equipment seized, during the storming of the Assembly of the Republic of Macedonia. The incidents took place in the capital, Skopje, on Thursday, 27 April 2017.

The Association of Journalists of Macedonia (ZNM) told the ECPMF fact-finding delegation on the spot that the injured journalists were Dimitar Tanurov, a reporter for the online Meta news agency, and Nikola Ordevski, a cameraman with the Makfax news agency. Ordevski was even treated and hospitalised with a concussion, according to local media.

The incident in the parliament, which occurred during the fact-finding mission, is a sad highlight and a prime example of the pressure and violence that journalists are facing in Macedonia (*).

Motivated by recent incidents (preceding the one on 27 April), the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (ZNM) and the Western Balkan's Regional Platform for Advocating Media Freedom and Journalists Safety invited the ECPMF to conduct an on-site mission and examine the increased violence against journalists in Macedonia. During the four-day mission, from 25 to 28 April 2017, the ECPMF and its partner delegates conducted 15 interviews with 18 representatives of several media outlets, NGOs, the Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services, and the Media Ethics Council.

Additionally, the delegation met Sanja Frkovic-Gelevska, Programme Manager for Freedom of Media, Information Society and Culture at the Delegation of the European, as well as the Minister of the Interior, Agim Nuhiu. The delegation included two representatives from the ECPMF and one from the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) and Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT).

In-depth coverage of Macedonia

Tanurov Macedonian Parliament violence2

 

For a personal account by a journalist attacked in the Macedonian parliament and his reflections on the political and media-related situation in the country, read this article. For more on the ECPMF's fact-finding mission in Macedonia, read the delegation's statement. Also, watch this space for the full mission report in June!

Politically motivated violence  

Politically motivated anti-media rhetoric and the lack of political will to ensure conditions for free and independent journalism are among the main reasons for the increased violence, according to most of the interviewees for the fact-finding mission. During the delegation’s interviews, Tamara Chausidis, president of the Independent Union of Journalists and Media Workers (SSNM), underlined that the establishment was ruling through the media and with selective use of the law. "Impunity culture has to be stopped," Chausidis said.

Petrit Saracini, programme coordinator and content producer for the NGO Civil from Skopje, said that impunity and lack of fair implementation of legislation are amongst the main problems undermining media freedom in the country.

The attack on journalist Aleksandar Todevski and cameraperson Vladimir Zelceski, who work for the news website A1on, was also fueled by politicians. Two protesters assaulted them during a pro-government demonstration, on 28 February 2017, in front of the Assembly of the Republic of Macedonia in Skopje. During the incident, their camera was destroyed.

The assault followed months of vilification and hate speech towards critical voices, often portrayed as traitors or foreign mercenaries, by the then-ruling DPMNE – DUI coalition. This is just one in a series of politically motivated incidents this year. As they both emphasised during the interviews with the delegation, they were attacked because the outlet they are working for is critical towards the government.

Todevski and Zelceski told the fact-finding delegates:

While we were shooting, one protester approached us and asked: whom do you work for? A few seconds after we told him, we were attacked with fists."

Their incident is amongst the few cases where the police have identified perpetrators. Therefore, the delegation met with the Minister of Interior to get a first-hand statement regarding the situation. During the meeting, Minister Nuhiu clearly stated that the "intentional lack of political will" for further and deeper proceedings regarding the attacks is a major issue – along with providing greater protection and putting an end to the impunity observed in Macedonia. 

Imprisoned journalists

The Republic of Macedonia, together with Montenegro, Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, is one of the five member states of the Council of Europe that have arrested and kept journalists in prison for doing their jobs. According to the European Federation of Journalists, there is one each in Macedonia, Montenegro and Russia, five in Azerbaijan, and 145 imprisoned journalists in Turkey.  

The most famous case of a journalist imprisoned in Macedonia was that of Tomislav Kezarovski, who, whilst a reporter for the daily Nova Makedonija, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for revealing the identity of a protected witness in a journalistic text back in 2008. During the retrial, the witness confirmed Kezarovski's findings and testified that he gave false evidence against the accused.

Regardless of that, the journalist was sentenced in October 2013. After massive internal and external pressure, Kezarovski was freed after serving a sentence of 1 year and 10 months in total.

The delegation also spoke with Kezarovski. Describing his case and all he went through, he said that his wish is for his case to be the last one where a journalist is imprisoned. This unfortunately has not been fulfilled.

Zoran Bozhinovski is the journalist currently imprisoned in Macedonia. In 2012, he was accused of being part of a high-profile spy ring of 18 people who worked for an unnamed secret service. The group was charged with criminal conspiracy, espionage and extortion.

In late 2014, 17 out of 18 people were convicted in the case. Eight of them were convicted for espionage, whilst the others were found guilty of lesser charges. Sentences ranged from probation to 15 years in prison. The case against Bozhinovski is ongoing.

FFM-Macedonia-teaser

Primary findings

According to the mission’s primary findings, the politically motivated anti-media rhetoric and the lack of will to ensure conditions for free and independent journalism are the main reasons for increased violence against the media workers.

"State institutions and political stakeholders undertake no responsibility for the protection of journalists. The criminal and civil justice systems do not deal effectively with threats and violence against journalists. No implementation of media protection laws and no prosecution of the perpetrators make journalists an easy target," the delegates stated.

They also call on all journalists to take their role as watchdogs seriously:

We encourage them to report and file complains if they are attacked, intimidated or harassed. They should stand in solidarity with their colleagues, cooperate and support each other."

Background

According to ZNM’s data, from the beginning of 2016 until the Assembly storming on 27 April 2017, there had been at least 21 attacks against media workers in the Republic of Macedonia. The Mapping Media Freedom project estimates that in 2017 alone in Macedonia, there have been 12 incidents where journalists and media workers were targeted, with more than 30 professionals directly affected.

All this clearly demonstrates a rising trend in violence against journalists – a trend that is proportionally growing with the rise of political turmoil in the country.

FYROM flag_900X600 Dark days for Republic of Macedonia: Political and ethnic tensions are flaring back up, and journalists are being increasingly targeted while doing their job. (Public domain photo)

During the last two years of the VMRO - DPMNE and DUI party coalition, Macedonia has been in a state of constant political crisis. What started some years ago with students' protests against the coalition's undemocratic practices has recently culminated into the revelation of wiretapped materials by the oppositional party SDSM. They have accused the government of committing a series of wrongdoings, amongst which is the illegal surveillance of up to 20,000 people over a four-year period. In addition, as the opposition has publicized, the government eavesdropped on some 100 journalists in order to try to control the media.

This was followed with political negotiations and the double postponement of the snap elections that eventually took place in December 2016. The scenario later progressed into a real-life thriller on who will form the majority in Parliament, just to hit its current climax with the MPs' bloody faces after the storming of the Parliament on 27 April.

According to international organisations such as Reporters without Borders (RSF) and the US-funded Freedom House, in the last eight years media freedom in Macedonia has been constantly deteriorating, while the country is categorized as "not free" or as a country with a hybrid regime.

According to the RSF's World Press Freedom Index 2017, the country has fallen 77 places on the chart over the period. In 2009 it ranked 34th, its all-time best standing, and today it ranks at 111.

The IREX Media Sustainability Report 2016 notes that the "prolonged political crisis has fortified the existing divisions in Macedonia's media sector, primarily along political lines, into pro-government and critical/independent/pro-opposition media." Having in mind these recent reports, Macedonia is on the last position among all Balkan states regarding media freedom.


(*) Note: Instead of using the UN’s provisional appellation "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" (FYROM), in coordination with our partners EJF, SEEMO and OBCT, and in line with most European NGOs, in this article the country is addressed by its constitutional name – Republic of Macedonia, or simply Macedonia.





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