With all eyes on Russia's war against journalism, a more quiet assault on media freedom is taking place in Macedonia. In the small, landlocked Western Balkan nation of 2 million, a wiretapping scandal is compounding the challenges facing an already embattled press.
In February, Macedonia’s opposition Social Democrats (SDSM) accused the ruling party of a far-reaching illegal surveillance program. They said they had evidence the party ordered the recording of phone conversations of over 100 journalists, as well as those of up to 20,000 other citizens, including social activists, religious leaders, and political opponents.
SDSM leader Zoran Zaev says the recordings were provided by a whistleblower within the Interior Ministry. Prime Minster Nikola Gruevski of the ruling party VMRO-DPMNE (or simply VMRO) says the recordings were fabricated with the help of a foreign intelligence service for the purpose of destabilizing the country. Zaev went so far as to charge that the surveillance of journalists was orchestrated directly by Gruevski, whose party has been in power since 2006, and the head of Macedonia’s security services, Saso Mijalkov, who is also Gruevski’s cousin.
Director of RFE/RL’s Macedonia Unit Zoran Kuka calls the scandal “the worst crisis Macedonia has seen since the inter-ethnic conflict in 2001.”
While the existence of such recordings may fail to shock in the post-Edward Snowden era, the content of recordings made public by SDSM so far paints a distressing picture of media suppression in Macedonia.
Though the voices on the recordings have not been independently verified, journalists confirm their own interviews among the wiretap disclosures.
"Each report on one of my wiretapped conversations was true: the date, the story I was working on and the sources I was getting briefed by. Everything was correct," prominent investigative journalist Meri Jordanovska wrote in an editorial for Balkan Insight.
Another of the journalists targeted for surveillance was Mirjana Spasovska of RFE/RL’s Skopje bureau.
“It’s not a good feeling to be a part of something like this, but I don’t think it will affect my own work as a journalist,” she said. “Though in general this case can be described as an attack on freedom of expression and democracy in Macedonian society.”
In several of the published recordings, SDSM says the voices heard are those of high-ranking government officials ordering up a-la-cart favorable news stories and killing critical ones in conversations with compliant editors and producers at national TV channels, RFE/RL’s Balkan Service Macedonia Unit reports.
Zaev has published several other recordings he says contain the voices of government officials in which the speakers pre-arrange the outcome of court cases and discuss placing certain judges in senior positions.
The revelations have drawn some public protests. Gathering in front of the public broadcaster MRTV on March 21, demonstrators decried the lack of coverage of the scandal by national media, and the failure of the publicly funded MRTV in particular to report on it.
Data from international watchdogs suggests media freedom in Macedonia has taken a beating in recent years. The country’s ranking in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index fell from 34th place in 2009 to 117th in 2015. RSF cited misuse of defamation legislation and the politically motivated allocation of state advertising to explain the drop in the rating. The decline in media freedom has coincided with an increase in perceived corruption, according to a 2014 survey by Transparency International.
Other recent measures restricting the media include the bankruptcy of pro-opposition television station A1 in 2011 under a mountain of tax debt that critics say was selectively pursued in order force the station off the air; the creation in 2014 of a new media regulatory authority, the Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Services, which holds vague powers journalists fear could be used to silence them; and the continued house arrest of journalist Tomislav Kezarovski on charges dating from 2013 that are widely believed to be politically motivated.
In a March 9 guest blog post for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) titled “Press Apathy Over Macedonian Wiretaps Is Symptom Of Failing Democracy,” Belgo-Macedonian freelance journalist Tanja Milevska described the stark disparity between the aggressively funded pro-government media and the critical voices that struggle to be heard.
“Since 2006 journalists have been living in parallel worlds: the pro-governmental one and the critical one,” she wrote. “But while the former have access to traditional print and broadcast media, the only outlet for the latter is a multitude of often poorly designed and poorly managed websites.”
RFE/RL’s Macedonian Unit website, which Kuka reports has grown steadily in visits over the last two years, registered a surge of 375,000 visits in February, he says, as the wiretapping scandal unfolded and readers searched for reliable information.
With Macedonia’s EU candidacy stalled over an intractable name dispute with Greece, simmering ethnic tensions with the minority Albanian population, and the living memory of the tragic consequences instability has brought to the region before, journalists like Milevska are warning against complacence on the part of the international community.
“The apathy over revelations of surveillance in Macedonia suggests its journalism and democracy are inexorably sinking and will be saved only if the outside world starts paying attention,” she wrote. “It is now long overdue.”