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Big Censorship Fears In Little Macedonia

Macedonia - The monument of Alexander the Great in Skopje seen in whirlpool on the main square after the rain. June 10, 2013.
Macedonia - The monument of Alexander the Great in Skopje seen in whirlpool on the main square after the rain. June 10, 2013.

The “warrior on a horse,” as the statue is called officially, cuts an imposing figure from atop his pedestal in the Macedonian capital.

The warrior is widely believed to depict Alexander the Great, only is not named as such because of the country’s dispute with Greece over cultural ownership of the ancient king. It is the piece de resistance of “Skopje 2014,” a massive government campaign to revitalize a city that was leveled by an earthquake in the 1960s.

But 22 meters below in Skopje’s smoke-filled terrace cafés, he’s scoffed at by some among the country’s cosmopolitan youth. For them, frustrated by their paltry salaries, high unemployment, and a lack of professional opportunities, the city’s facelift signifies a monumental mismanagement of government spending. For the country’s young journalists, it is a reminder of the powerlessness they feel to influence the course their country takes in a media environment where these and other tough issues are increasingly avoided.

“It has been getting worse over time,” said freelance journalist Kristina Ozimec, straining to be heard above the din of the waterworks that surround the statue. “There is a policy of suffocating independent media and independent thought.”

Ozimec’s impression of the chilling media climate inside her country is documented in the freefall it has taken in international rankings in recent years. Macedonia has plummeted from 34th place out of 175 countries surveyed in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, to 123rd out of 180 countries in 2014. Freedom House ranked press freedom in Macedonia at 122/197 this year, barely passing the bar for “partially free,” down from 94/196 in 2010.

Among the signs of media retrenchment cited by the watchdogs are the closure on tax evasion charges of pro-opposition television channel A1 in 2011, and the revoking of the broadcast license of its sister channel A2 in 2012. Steep new fines have been introduced for defamation (although it has been decriminalized), and this year a new media regulatory authority was created. It has the power to revoke broadcast licenses to protect “citizen interests,” vague wording that many journalists fear could be used to silence them.

Macedonia - A woman with a sticker on her mouth reading "Freedom" stands in front a police cordon during a protest in the center of Skopje on October 23, 2013. Journalists gathered there to protest the prison sentence of their colleague Tomislav Kezarovski.
Macedonia - A woman with a sticker on her mouth reading "Freedom" stands in front a police cordon during a protest in the center of Skopje on October 23, 2013. Journalists gathered there to protest the prison sentence of their colleague Tomislav Kezarovski.

In addition, the high-profile prosecution of journalist Tomislav Kezarovski last year sent a chill through the country’s media community. Kezarovski was tried and given a 4.5-year prison sentence (later reduced to house arrest) for revealing the identity of a witness in an ongoing murder investigation in an article he wrote in 2008, a punishment criticized by press advocates as disproportionate and potentially intimidating to other investigative journalists.

While the government has placed strictures on the independent press, the intermingling of politics, business, and media in Macedonia has also influenced the calculus of what gets reported and published.

“Journalists are under siege,” one member of the Macedonian Independent Union of Journalists and Media Workers wrote anonymously in the organization’s 2014 White Book report. “On one side, there is the editor in chief, on the other the owner, and they are surrounded by the government, advertisers, [and political] parties. From talks with my colleagues, I am under the impression that they are forced to cover up information on a daily basis, to turn a blind eye on events, to keep silent about topics since it is clear to them that even proposing to write about them would simply not go past the editor's sieve, or that if they do get published they may lose their job.”

According to a recent poll of journalists commissioned by the union, this respondent’s experience is not unique. In this study, 65 percent of 300 respondents interviewed said they had been subject to censorship, and 53 percent said they practice self-censorship.

Union head Tamara Causidis says the increasing practice of self-censorship is in part the result of patronage networks built over time between major political parties and media outlets. The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, known as “VMRO,” the country’s ruling party, is currently the overwhelming beneficiary of such arrangements.

VMRO, which came to power in 2006, has been a popular but polarizing force in Macedonian politics. Its supporters laud the party’s effort to construct a national identity through links to an ancient past, and point to the country’s relative economic stability under their leadership. But rights groups and independent journalists say media freedom has suffered badly under VMRO.

A 2013 European Commission Report on media freedom in the Balkans found that the government of Macedonia was by far the biggest advertiser in the country, spending more than 20 million euros annually. Such an imbalance is not unique among economies struggling with the legacy of centralized, state control, but as Causidis explains, “Government advertising is a powerful incentive that affects media competitiveness and influences editorial policy directly.”

“The cohabitation of media owners and political elites is made possible by having obedient journalists who don’t ask uncomfortable questions and don’t open uncomfortable investigative stories,” she said.

IN PICTURES: The May ethnic riots in Macedonia, which some journalists say were not covered properly as a result of state censorship.

Whether or not journalists’ concerns about the new regulatory body, the Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Services, are valid remains to be seen. Spokesperson for the agency Maja Damevska says the fears of censorship expressed by some journalists are baseless, and that, on the contrary, the agency helps promote media freedom.

“The suspicion for censorship is ill-founded, since, according to the constitution of the Republic of Macedonia, censorship is forbidden,” said Damevska. “The regulatory body takes care only of proper implementation of the media legislation and therefore has never undertaken a measure or an action that can be considered censorship.”

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic, has applauded the new media laws that came into effect this year, including the creation of the new regulatory agency. In an interview with the Macedonian daily Utrinski Vesnik in February, she said the laws were in compliance with EU norms and the OSCE’s expectations, though she strongly criticized government spending on advertising and the high fines for defamation, which journalists say are another driver of self-censorship.

“If you’re a media outlet and you get sued for 27,000 euros, it’s logical that the next time you’ll either avoid that issue altogether or you’ll be very careful about criticizing,” said Ozimec. “It’s the politicians’ way of preventing journalists from writing anything critical.”

Marija Mitevska, a staff reporter in Macedonia with RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, agrees that a climate of fear now prevails among journalists.

“Everybody from critical media is afraid now--either that they’ll end up in jail or facing a huge lawsuit,” she said.

The OSCE tempered its praise of the new laws by cautioning about the need for proper implementation, but Mitevska says the lack of an independent judiciary and transparent public institutions makes it unlikely that protections for critical journalists will be enforced.

Mitevska cited her own experience covering the ethnic riots that erupted in May after the alleged murder of a Macedonian man by an ethnic Albanian.

In the suburb of Gjorce Petrov, not far from Skopje’s stately new monuments, she says police initially tried to confiscate video equipment belonging to her and her colleagues, and later forced them to erase their footage of the confrontations between rioters and police. Mitevska says she filed a complaint with the Interior Ministry, and that a decision was issued within 24 hours declaring there was no wrongdoing on the part of the police.

“The officials didn’t want us to show why people are angry--they’re angry at the police and politicians for not doing enough to protect them,” said Mitevska. “I have to say that the people of Macedonia were not well-informed about what happened that night. And that’s a pity, because that’s why I’m a journalist.”

--Emily Thompson