The Decline of Media Freedoms in Macedonia

by Mateja Stankovic

In recent years, the inability of Macedonia to position itself on the road to the European Union has started causing internal problems in the country and reversing the democratization processes. This is probably most visible when it comes to the media situation in Macedonia, as the country is performing worse every year. It could be said that the decline in media freedom is just mirroring the overall decline of freedoms and the rise of populist and autocratic rule of Prime Minister Nikola Grueski. The exception to the bleak picture painted in this post is alternative media such as online portals and various social networks, but it is the traditional media that remains the main source of information for most people.

In the last report on media freedoms by Reporters without Borders, Macedonia is ranked 116 out of 179 countries. Compared to 2011, when it was ranked 94th, the country has dropped 22 positions. It is only ahead of Ukraine and Russia in Europe and the fact that it is the last on the list of the countries that are aiming to join the EU is very concerning. The most recent Nations in Transit report by Freedom House has lowered the overall rating of Macedonian democracy (3.89), which is close to reaching the point at which Macedonia will move to the lower classification group. The biggest decline was in the independent media section, which ultimately lowered the overall score of Macedonian democracy.

The decline was caused by the arbitrary withdrawal of media licences and deterioration in the environment for journalists, according to Reporters without Borders. In early 2012 the new media law was adopted, introducing control of foreign correspondents and shifting a lot of arbitrary power to the Macedonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was given a controversial new authority to accredit foreign journalists and media. Also, any accreditation granted would be eligible for only one renewal, which in practice means that no foreign journalist could stay in the country for more than two years. Failure to adhere to these new regulations could lead to judicial proceedings and to up to six months in prison. Foreign journalists could also have a hard time interviewing people as the new law vaguely prohibits them from “gathering personal opinions and data from citizens by means of investigation.”

As for domestic journalists, the law also introduced heavy financial sanctions for breaching the law. Even before the latest economic crisis, journalists had already been living in economically uncertain conditions in a small market of only 2 million people. Journalists are often forced to self-censor, while with the new harsh regulations investigative journalism is becoming almost impossible. Most of the self-censorship comes from fear of losing jobs because everyone knows that getting a new one will be difficult. With most editors connected to the ruling parties, journalists are careful not to rock the boat. The media is also divided between the two major ethnic communities – Albanian and Macedonian. For years now there have been two parallel media systems with that cater to these separate communities. The Albanian community mostly minds its own business and does not interfere with broader political issues concerning the democratization of the country. This leaves the media catering to the ethnic Macedonians as the only one occasionally standing against media repression.

During 2012 some of the opposition-controlled media outlets were closed, allegedly because they failed to fulfill financial obligations to the state. Several newspaper dailies and one national television station were closed, making the media situation in Macedonia even more uniform. This caused protests by opposition and randomly organized groups via social networks, but this was short lived and it did not affect the government’s position. Nonetheless, the government of Nikola Grueski enjoys great popularity, most likely because its popular moves such as the massive project “Skopje 2014,” which is a plan to build ancient Skopje. In the last three years, the city of Skopje got a completely new look. Almost nobody believed that in such a short time Skopje would get a Triumphal Arch, more than 50 statues and new facades representing ancient ones on its buildings. Obviously these moves, no matter how ridiculous they may seem to outsiders and some Macedonians, have been successful in gaining popular support. The opposition is too weak to battle these issues. According to the most recent poll data before the forthcoming local elections, ruling VMRO –DPMNE will get 48.5% of the popular vote and thus it might completely overshadow the opposition.

With media freedoms being limited at this pace, it is possible that other freedoms in Macedonia might start to worsen. Mr. Grueski’s efforts to stay in power at any cost could easily limit aspects of social life other than media, as well. Of even greater concern is how these developments are going to affect the fragile peace between the two ethnic communities in Macedonia, as media is taking a passive role when it comes to the recent deterioration of relations between two groups.