The International Partnership Group of freedom of expression organisations visited Macedonia last month to assess the state of media freedom in the country. Mike Harris reports on the findings
In Macedonia a popular joke recounts they no longer get progress reports from the EU, but stagnation reports. The country’s name has been a roadblock to EU membership since 2005; the Greeks fear ‘Macedonia’ implies territorial ambitions on its northern territories, for ordinary Macedonians it is a matter of intense anger their southern neighbour blocks their entry into NATO and, more importantly, the EU. The Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski channels this anger into nationalist fervour. A new 92-foot statue of Alexander the Great dominates the centre of Skopje. Neo-classical buildings rise from Skopje’s particularly bleak architecture – the old town was flattened in an earthquake in 1963. Amidst this change, the Prime Minister has started his third term. Ordinary Macedonians identify with his ordinary man who lives in a small flat rather than his official residence, and rejects ostentatious shows of wealth.
Yet, in his third term, Gruevski is turning stagnation into regression according to the 2011 EU Progress Report on media freedom and the report of the OSCE Special Representative on Freedom of the Media. On 17 – 18 November, Index on Censorship joined an International Partnership Group on Macedonia to investigate these concerns.
Straight after the election, a new broadcasting law was rushed through that added 6 new members to the broadcasting council. There was no consultation. The president of the council, Zoran Stefanovski, only found out when the bill was in parliament. In all it took 70 hours for the law to pass. Every single one of the new members of the council were selected by the ruling coalition group in Parliament (VMRO-DPMNE). We spoke to the president of the broadcasting council in Skopje. He is furious and thinks the new members were added to block any decisions adverse to the government. Since these changes were made, the council is in deadlock.
Beyond rewriting laws, the government uses its influence in other ways. The Macedonian government is one of the largest spenders on advertising in the country. One estimate is the state spends an estimated 0.4 – 1.5 per cent of its budget on advertising, which if applied to the UK would be the total cost of Accident and Emergency hospital care or as much as Child Benefit. This huge purchasing power unfairly distorts the media market. There was evidence that it serves to disadvantage media outlets critical of the government. Whilst some of the advertising could be deemed in the public interest, a number of commercials feature the symbols or flags of the government parties according to Stefanovski.
Whilst private media continues to benefit from government largesse, “Macedonian television” the public broadcaster is under-resourced and almost entirely reliant on parliamentarians for its income. Macedonian householders pay two Euros per month for their television licenses, around 11 per cent of its total income. Private advertising, limited to outside ‘prime time’ (thus much less valuable) accounts for a further eight per cent, with 72 per cent coming directly from an annually-renewable grant from Parliament. (p.22, ). The socialist opposition have proposed increasing the monthly fee to five to eight Euros, but this would still leave the broadcaster reliant on an annual grant from Parliament for over half of its income. That Parliament can effectively bankrupt the broadcaster at will, has an impact on its ability to challenge the government and opposition. From 2008 – 9 its budget fell by 4 per cent. The government should fix the licence fee to wages with the majority of the broadcaster’s income from this fee, if a top-up from Parliament is necessary it should be a fixed grant over the entire parliamentary term, rather than renewed annually. Macedonians told us about the blandness of state TV. And viewers are switching over: its market share has deteriorated from 16 percent in 2004 to just eight per cent now.
One law that does need rewriting is Macedonia’s defamation code. The country is highly unusual in Europe, not just that it still has criminal defamation on its statute books (France does too), but that it actually uses these draconian laws. In October, Focus journalist Jadranka Kostova was fined 18,000 Euros (five to six years’ wages for a journalist) for libel after she made supposedly defamatory statements about former Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki. Incredibly, more defamation cases reached court in Macedonia in 2010 than in England and Wales, which has a population 25 times greater. The majority of lawsuits were filed by politicians. MPs from the governing coalition were keen to suggest that the opposition were behind most of these (we received no evidence this was the case). MP Ilija Dimovski told us that his governing party would put in place a moratorium of defamation cases.
In meetings with our mission, the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs and Chief of Communications, all stated they were committed to action on criminal defamation by the end of this year. Yet, it was also clear that criminal defamation and the heavy fines of civil defamation are useful tools for politicians from all parties in silencing criticism they don’t wish to hear.
International pressure is moving the government on reform. The founding of a working party to discuss media issues in partnership with the Association of Journalists has at least opened dialogue. Macedonia is not the only European country where journalists are feeling the chill. From our meeting, the strong impression lingered that the Prime Minister Gruevski feels his country is being singled out. As reported last month, Hungary has a new media law, again passed by a new government with a large majority, which stifles press freedom. Worse still, the Hungarians wish to export their model. The European Commission is beginning to see there may be a problem – to stop contagion it must act on Hungary and remind Macedonia that entering the European Union is a privilege not a right.
The International Partnership Mission consisted of:
Index on Censorship, ARTICLE 19, Freedom House, International Press Institute, Global Forum for Media Development, Media Diversity Institute, Open Society Media Program, South East Europe Media Organisation and South East European Network for Professionalization of Media