The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, but government pressure on the media, impunity for perpetrators of violence against journalists and other members of media, and a media market divided along political party lines continued to be a problem.
The international human rights organization Freedom House characterized the media landscape as “not free” for the second year in a row. A 2016-17 Metamorphosis Foundation survey published August 10 found that only 5 percent of citizens claimed they fully trusted the media.
On April 28, six media organizations, including the European Center for Press and Media Freedom and the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM), released a statement that expressed concerns about the rising trend in violence against journalists. Members of the national and international media community, including the AJM and the European Federation of Journalists, accused the previous government of failing to respect freedom of speech and the press and of taking no responsibility for the protection of journalists.
Freedom of 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 2015, there were reports that the previous government attempted to impede media criticism during the year by directing political advertising purchases toward progovernment outlets prior to the formation of the new government in May.
Press and Media Freedom: 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 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.
Freedom House reported on February 2, “Many private outlets are owned by businesspeople who used their media holdings as tools to promote commercial interests or curry favor with the government.” According to the April edition of AJM’s Summary of the Media Situation in Macedonia, which evaluated the media landscape prior to the formation of the new government, both central and local government entities spent public funds on media. The Ministry of Information Society and Administration reportedly spent the greatest amount, mainly by subsidizing national television stations to produce local programming.
As the government was traditionally 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 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 that the former government abused its market power to influence media content.
On August 22, the government terminated all government-paid advertisements in commercial media, including broadcast, print, billboards and internet portals, with the exception of social media. This policy became mandatory for all state agencies and was encouraged for local governments as well.
On September 19, the parliament abolished the monthly public broadcasting fee of 190 denars (four dollars) paid by every household. The fee was used to help fund the public broadcaster, Macedonia Radio Television (MRTV). Under the new law, MRTV will receive direct funding amounting to 0.5 percent of the annual state budget.
A September 14 report by the European Commission’s Senior Experts Group noted journalists often failed to meet ethical standards. The group further reported there were allegations of self-censorship and selective reporting among some journalists, which resulted from corrupt practices and a lack of necessary professional skills. Media experts reported that intimidation, absence of good labor conditions for journalists, and financial instability of media companies made them vulnerable to government pressure and reliant on government advertising.
The OSCE observation mission’s final report on the December 2016 elections noted concerns regarding the independence of public broadcaster MRTV and the Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services, intimidation and threats against journalists, and the failure of media outlets to provide balanced and impartial coverage of the election.
Beginning August 7, the Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media released reports on media coverage of the October local elections every 10 days during the campaign period. In a December 15 report summarizing its findings, the agency asserted that seven stations committed 14 violations of the electoral code, including exceeding the allowable time for paid political advertising, broadcasting an unsourced poll, and not providing balanced coverage in their daily news shows.
Violence and Harassment: Several journalists reported threats and intimidation directed against them, allegedly including by government officials.
In June the AJM released a report, The Cases of Violations of Rights of Journalists and the Reactions of Institutions in Macedonia. The report documented 14 incidents of violent behavior against journalists or damage to their property since the beginning of the year.
On June 7, unidentified individuals threatened the editor in chief of an Albanian language news website, Elida Zylbeari, after she published an article on alleged misconduct by Blerim Bexheti during his time as mayor of Saraj. An investigation into the case had not been completed by September. The AJM claimed the attack and harassment of Zylbeari was indicative of an environment in which aggression was used to silence journalists.
According to the AJM and the NGO Civicus, continued threats against critics of the former ruling party, VMRO-DPMNE, were reported during the year. On June 16, journalist Branko Trichkovski received a death threat online from actor Toni Mihajlovski. The actor told followers on Facebook he would kill Trichkovski “without blinking an eye.” Trichkovski previously suffered harassment and intimidation by activists affiliated with the former ruling party and individuals purportedly affiliated with the former ruling party accosted him at his home in March.
In addition to acts of violence and harassment, there were credible reports that journalists encountered other obstructions as they attempted to inform the public of breaking news events. For example, 21 journalists were threated or barred from reporting, and six journalists were beaten while covering a demonstration that later resulted in the storming of the parliament building on April 27. Dimitar Tanurov, a reporter for the independent Meta news agency told the Committee to Protect Journalists that angry protesters threatened him and instructed him to stop taking pictures during the April 27 demonstration at the parliament. According to Tanurov, “when they saw my press card and the outlet I worked for, they called me a traitor, took my phone, and continued to beat and kick me while I was lying on the floor.”
On February 27 and March 10, unknown perpetrators attacked journalists reporting from “For a United Macedonia” protests.
Media watchdog groups stated the authorities did not properly investigate, charge, or convict perpetrators of violence against journalists. This created an overall environment of impunity.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were reports that the previous government pressured journalists into self-censorship. Journalists reported far greater official interference when covering topics sensitive to the previous 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 the steep fines would promote further self-censorship. There were also claims the former government used the statute as a tool to target political opponents.
According to the AJM, as of November 23, there were approximately 39 defamation cases involving journalists, editors, and/or media managers or owners pending before the courts. Information about pending cases from previous years was incomplete.
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 offered end-to-end encryption, including Viber, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Signal, and Telegram. The State Statistical Office estimated that 75 percent of households had access to the internet in the first quarter of the year, up from 69 percent in 2016.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.