Tuesday

21st May 2019

Freedom of expression threatened in Macedonia

  • Journalists face lawsuits in Macedonia for publishing critical articles. (Photo: Wim Mulder)

Freedom of speech is in a sorry state in Macedonia where journalists and experts face death threats, insults and lawsuits.

Some reporters have been made to appear on lists of undesirable persons while the prime minister openly recommends distrust of certain media. People who dissent from the government's line or disagree with the ruling party are publicly declared traitors and pressurised to keep silent.

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Conditions have been bleak for years and are evidently getting worse. For the first time since the EU has issued annual progress reports, the European Commission directly criticised the country's lack of freedom of expression. "Libel charges which target individual journalists with heavy fines remain a concern. Intimidation of journalists, who face political pressure and threats, is a serious concern," said commission experts.

Days before the paper was presented, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy took a similar message to Skopje, clearly stating that Macedonia must ensure that freedom of expression is an important element in the European integration process.

The drastic decline of media freedom in Macedonia is also reflected in Reporters Without Borders' latest report on the country. The journalists' association ranked Macedonia 68th in a list of 178 countries, sliding down from 34th place within just twelve months.

Journalists, civil society activists and experts blamed as 'traitors' are often those calling for a compromise with Greece in the long-running conflict over the country's name, sometimes even advocating a change of name as requested by Athens.

Greece denies Macedonia the right to use the name because it fears territorial pretensions from its small northern neighbour, and is blocking its entry into Nato and the EU. There is little hope for a change of course until the conflict, which started in 1991 after Macedonia became independent, is resolved.

The government, led by conservative nationalist party VMRO-DPMNE, says it wants a compromise with Greece but critics have not yet detected serious political will to that effect.

Branke Geroski, chief editor of Macedonian daily newspaper Spic, has been regularly threatened for criticising the government and believes that freedom of speech, not just media freedom, is at stake.

"I can attest that fear in Macedonia systematically kills critical thinking," he said. "Macedonian journalism suffers from a serious heart condition. We lack oxygen. The freedom of a journalist is like oxygen. Therefore everything should be done to increase international pressure on the government of [prime minister] Nikola Gruevski."

Zarko Trajanovski, a columnist for Macedonian daily Dnevnik and a human rights activist, is another journalist to face a lawsuit for defamation. In one of his articles he responded to a call for the liquidation of a dozen journalists issued by a reporter close to the governing party.

This scandalous call was condemned by the European Federation of Journalists and the European Commission, but the author of the original report has nevertheless sued Mr Trajanovski in court and continues to publicly claim that "traitors" deserve liquidation.

"Although this is a private lawsuit, I do not consider it private because I see it as an instrument in the hands of the authorities. It is an attempt to silence the public," Mr Trajanovski said. As evidence, he pointed to the director of the communications centre of the governing party, Ilija Dimovski, who supported the claims on the social networking site Facebook. Mr Trajanovski believes these threats should be taken seriously.

"VMRO-DPMNE is the only party which has decided to recommend to their officials to withdraw all charges against journalists," Mr Dimovski said. This, he claims, testifies to the freedom of the media. He argues that he had just debated an issue on Facebook and had not supported violence. "If [Mr] Trajanovski sees the debate as defamation, it is wrong. I have pointed out that it is not okay to use terms like fascist or pig," he responded.

Whatever the explanations, the battle rages on. Dnevnik editor Katerina Blazevska recently received threats after publishing an opinion piece. "I will continue to write what I think and will not allow persons who cowardly hide behind IP addresses to regulate the media space and to discipline journalism," Ms Blazevska said.

She called on the government to try to solve the problems as soon as possible. "A failure to act will make this government become an accomplice and direct participant in the murder of the freedom of expression," she said.

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