The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, but government pressure on the media continued to be a problem. There were multiple claims that the government selectively prosecuted opposition and media figures and interfered in defamation cases initiated by high-ranking government officials. International media watchdog Reporters Without Borders noted a decline in media freedom during the year, particularly with respect to the government’s allocation of state advertising resources in order to exercise control over the media. International human rights organization Freedom House shared similar observations, characterizing the media landscape as “not free.”
Many members of the media community, including the AJM, frequently accused the government of failing to respect freedom of speech and the press. In a series of media monitoring reports early in the year, the Macedonian Democracy Watch program of the Institute for Communications Studies stated that four of the five national television broadcast outlets (Sitel, Kanal 5, Alfa, and MTV 1) synchronized their reporting to benefit VMRO-DPMNE. They did so by highlighting the party’s projects and achievements in their reporting and supporting the party’s attacks against the Special Prosecutor’s Office. The monitoring reports also noted a high incidence of cases of editorial convergence between the four broadcast outlets, which they alleged indicated a coordination of messaging supporting the ruling party’s agenda.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: The law prohibits speech that incites national, religious, or ethnic hatred and provides penalties for violations. Individuals may criticize the government publicly or privately. Although most government advertising was suspended in summer 2015, there were reports that the government attempted to impede media criticism by directing political advertising purchases toward progovernment outlets.
On July 20, an agreement between the country’s four largest political parties established a five-member Ad Hoc Committee for Elections Media Monitoring to monitor compliance with media provisions of the electoral code. In September the committee determined that the public service broadcaster Macedonian Radio Television (MRT) had violated the electoral code by broadcasting government advertisements between September 2 and September 5 that amounted to free political advertising for the ruling party. The advertisements promoted various government programs, including in employment, education, and entertainment. In response to the committee’s determination, the Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services initiated misdemeanor infringement proceedings against MRT, asking the Administrative Court to issue a warning, the lowest penalty available.
At the end of September, the ad hoc committee voted to initiate misdemeanor criminal proceedings against the television stations Sitel and TV Nova for unbalanced reporting in favor of VMRO-DPMNE, in violation of the electoral code. VMRO-DPMNE members of the committee and the progovernment Macedonian Association of Journalists criticized the decision, claiming the methodology used was based on subjective analysis and could lead to censorship.
Press and Media Freedoms: Individuals or organizations that appeared close to the government owned most of the national media outlets. According to the AJM’s June Summary of the Media Situation in Macedonia report, an estimated 200 media outlets competed in a small, distorted market where their financial survival depended on their ability to align themselves with the governing parties and politically connected large businesses. A limited number of independent media voices actively expressed a variety of views without explicit restriction. Media outlets and reporting continued to be divided along ethnic and political lines. Laws that restrict speech inciting national, religious, or ethnic hatred also cover print and broadcast media, publication of books, and online newspapers and journals.
Many national media outlets rarely criticized the government. As the government has traditionally been one of the largest purchasers of advertising in the country, many media outlets remained financially dependent on its spending and therefore subject to pressure to avoid criticizing it. In its 2015 enlargement progress report, the European Commission noted that government advertising provided the largest single source of funding for media outlets and had a major influence on the media market at both the national and local level. There were credible reports the government abused its market power in this manner. In summer 2015, the government suspended state spending on official advertising, although the measure did not extend to all public institutions or to private institutions affiliated with VMRO-DPMNE. The government has not disclosed relevant data on official government advertising since 2014, including funds spent, the content of the advertisements, the recipients of advertising expenditures, or the criteria for awarding advertising contracts to broadcasters.
According to a June 2015 report by the European Commission Senior Experts’ Group, the media environment deprived journalists of their ability to perform professionally and without fear. Media experts reported that a chilling effect dominated the media environment, as intimidation, absence of good labor conditions for journalists, and financial instability for media companies made them vulnerable to government pressure and reliant on government advertising. Experts reported an environment of fear surrounding the media that encouraged self-censorship. In response to serious concerns over selective reporting and lack of editorial independence on the part of the public service broadcaster MRT, the leaders of the four largest political parties on July 20 agreed that the opposition party SDSM would nominate the chief editor of the news service on MRT’s first channel, MTV 1, to serve until the end of election day, December 11.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists reported pressure to adopt progovernment viewpoints or risk losing their jobs. Several journalists reported threats and intimidation directed against them, allegedly including by government officials.
In June the Administrative Court annulled the March 2015 Lustration Commission decision naming the editor in chief of the independent weekly newspaper Fokus, Jadranka Kostova, as a collaborator of the former secret services during the 1990s, when she worked as a journalist for MRT. As in a number of other cases, the Administrative Court found that Kostova’s right to a fair hearing before the commission was violated because she was not granted her right to defense. The original Lustration Commission ruling banned her from running for or holding public office. Kostova claimed she was selectively targeted for lustration as revenge for Fokus’ criticism of the government.
Santa Argirova, the opposition-nominated interim editor in chief of the news program on MTV 1 during the pre-election period, reported constant pressure from government supporters since the four largest political parties agreed to her appointment on August 31. On September 20, the progovernment internet portal Republika published a full and unedited version of the previous evening’s interview of Special Prosecutor Katica Janeva on MTV 1, which appeared to cast Janeva in a poor light. Republika claimed to have received the tape anonymously. The board of MRT blamed Argirova for the disparities between the edited and unedited version, claiming that she acted without the necessary preparedness, professionalism, or permission from the board to produce and broadcast the interview. Argirova stated that Republika’s release of the unedited version violated professional media ethics and threatened the integrity of the media, and she asked the public service broadcaster to conduct an inquiry into the incident to ensure a similar situation did not happen again.
In June the AJM released a report, The Cases of Violations of Rights of Journalists and the Reactions of Institutions in Macedonia. The report highlighted over 30 separate incidents of violent behavior by representatives of public institutions against journalists. These incidents ranged from physical assaults to death threats to the confiscation/destruction of media equipment.
During the year, in numerous incidents members of the press and media were physically assaulted or denied the ability to report on protests. For example, on April 21 and 22, supporters of the progovernment Civil Movement for the Defense of Macedonia assaulted a cameraman and a reporter reporting live during a protest against Bitola Mayor Vladimir Taleski. Police intervened to stop the April 22 attack, but did not arrest or charge the perpetrators. On April 17, a group of antigovernment protesters ransacked and vandalized the offices of Radio Free Macedonia.
In Stip, Kanal 77 journalist Vanja Micevska reported GDOM members harassed and threatened hers when she attempted to cover one of its protests in early May. She reported the incident to police who, despite showing her press credentials, instructed her to leave the city.
In addition to acts of violence and harassment, there were credible reports that journalist encountered other obstructions as they attempted to inform the public of breaking news events. For example, on April 4, the mayor ordered a journalist from Berovo to leave the Municipal Council session on which he was reporting. The same journalist reported damage to his car following his dismissal from the session.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were reports that the government pressured journalists into self-censorship. Journalists reported far greater official interference when covering topics sensitive to the government. Privately owned media claimed they routinely received calls from authorities at the highest levels of government dictating how and what to report with regard to political issues.
Libel/Slander Laws: Persons found guilty of defamation, libel, and slander were subject to fines according to a schedule based on nonmaterial damage. Some editors and media owners expressed concern that the steep fines would promote further self-censorship. There were also claims that the government used the statute as a tool to target political opponents.
According to the AJM, as of October, there were approximately 35 defamation cases involving journalists pending before the courts. The association previously reported that 39 defamation lawsuits involving journalists were filed between October 2014 and October 2015. A total of eight such cases were adjudicated in 2016, with the court dismissing seven cases and partially upholding the plaintiff’s claim in the eighth. Information about pending cases from previous years was incomplete.
In October the ethnic Albanian junior coalition partner, DUI, pressed charges against the daily newspaper Lajm and its chief editor, Isen Saliu, “for insinuations of crime committed by the plaintiff while the party was in coalition with VMRO-DPMNE.” The party requested damages of 25,000 euros ($27,500) for a front-page article on February 3 under the headline, “Don’t Be Like DUI.” According to party officials, the article was libelous of the party. The case was still pending at year’s end.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. There were no official reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. In the wake of the 2015 wiretapping scandal, however, there was widespread public sentiment that the government was monitoring internet traffic on a regular basis. This belief prompted many citizens to use messaging applications that offer end-to-end encryption, including Viber, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Telegram. The State Statistical Office estimated that 69.4 percent of households had access to the internet in the first quarter of the year, up from 68 percent in 2014.
In January the Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services adopted a methodology for monitoring election coverage on television and the radio, but not on internet portals, a gap criticized by television and radio stations. The agency stated that, although the electoral code passed in November 2015 put it in charge of monitoring internet portals, nowhere in that law, or any other law, was there a definition of “internet portal” or a description of the scope of such portals subject to monitoring. It also asserted that there was no official registry of internet portals in the country that would enable it to identify which portals would be subject to monitoring. In August the agency again declined to include internet portals in its monitoring methodology, citing a continuing lack of clarity on which portals should be monitored. The agency also stated that it could not find examples of monitoring of internet portals by other regulatory bodies across Europe. Several media associations, including the AJM, the Independent Union of Journalists and Media Workers, and the Council for Ethics in the Media, expressed the view that regulation of internet portals would discourage freedom of opinion and extend the ability of the government to influence and control the media. The final methodology approved by the agency in August omitted internet portal monitoring.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. There were incidents, however, in which members of VMRO-DPMNE intervened in institutions of higher learning for allegedly political reasons.
On June 30, members of the student parliament at Sts. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, accompanied by persons identified as nonstudents and members of VMRO-DPMNE forcibly entered the faculty of law to interfere with elections for a new student parliament president. The individuals took the ballot boxes and locked themselves in the offices of the student parliament contrary to the association’s statutes requiring the ballots be counted in the polling places. Members of the police Rapid Deployment Unit arrived in armored vehicles and used force to block protesters from an informal student organization, Student Plenum, and allow other members of the student parliament to arrive with other ballot boxes. Police blocked the entrance to the student parliament’s offices for the rest of the night, during which time there were several other violent confrontations, including physical assaults and removals. Early in the morning of July 1, the student parliament announced a winner and claimed a turnout of 5,264 student voters, although turnout estimates by monitors from the Student Plenum were much lower. In early July, the university held an emergency session and established a committee to review the election; there was no information that the committee had met by year’s end.