Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press. The government made progress in respecting media freedom and freedom of expression, but problems remained, including weak media independence, and violence toward and intimidation of journalists.
The May 29 EC report on the country noted the “overall situation and political climate for media continued to improve.” The report cited increased government efforts to support media through changes to legislation and financial subsidies for print media. The report also highlighted that professional organizations acknowledged the open dialogue and increased transparency of institutions.
Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2019 report stated that “while the media and civil society are active, journalists and activists face pressure and intimidation.” The report noted the media landscape was “deeply polarized along political lines, and private media outlets were often tied to political or business interests that influenced their content. Some critical and independent outlets operated and were found mainly online.”
As of September the government had not taken measures to address a July 2018 open letter from media stakeholders expressing concern the legal changes to the electoral code, introduced the same month, would permit taxpayer money to be used for political campaigning in commercial media.
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.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: While outlets and reporting continued to be largely divided along political lines, the number of independent media voices actively expressing a variety of views without overt restriction continued to increase. Laws that restrict speech inciting national, religious, or ethnic hatred also cover print and broadcast media, publication of books, and online newspapers and journals.
A National Network against Hate Speech in Media was launched in January, led by the Media Ethics Council and supported by the OSCE. The network is comprised of 17 entities, including media and journalist associations, civil society, government, and other relevant stakeholders. In February an awareness campaign was launched under the motto, “Respect, Do Not Hate.” The government accepted these organizations and did not limit or restrict their activities.
In December 2018 and in February, the government amended its Law on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services (AAVMS). The May EC report noted implementing the law would require “strong political commitment to guarantee professionalism, respect for the principles of transparency, merit-based appointments and equitable representation.” OSCE representative on freedom of the media Harlem Desir welcomed the adoption of the amended law, saying it “is now in general accordance with European and international standards on audiovisual media.”
Government advertising on commercial channels is banned. The May EC report noted concerns the legal changes that permitted public funding of the September 2018 referendum campaign with commercial ad buys risked politicization of editorial policies.
The EC report also noted “further self-regulation efforts are required to improve professional standards and the quality of journalism.” The Media Ethics Council reported that as of August, 78 percent of complaints received were for unethical reports or fake news in online portals.
The Skopje Criminal Court issued a reprimand May 5 against 1TV for violating Electoral Code ad campaign regulations during the first round of presidential elections in April by continuing with political advertising beyond the legal deadline. On July 12, the Skopje Appeals Court upheld the first-instance verdict reprimanding 1TV for the violation.
Violence and Harassment: There were several cases of alleged threats and harassment against journalists during the year.
The head of the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, Mladen Chadikovski, told the Global Conference for Media Freedom on July 10-11 in London that impunity for cases of attacks on journalists remained a major problem and impeded freedom of expression. According to the Association of Journalists, the Ministry of Interior completed all 12 pending investigations of attacks on journalists since 2017, but no further action was taken except in one case. On May 17, Skopje’s Basic Court sentenced VMRO-DPMNE member Toni Mihajlovski to three-months’ probation for his June 2017 threats against journalist Branko Trickovski. The EC report noted the country should “continue paying attention to the swift and effective follow-up by law enforcement and judicial authorities of all instances of physical and verbal attacks against journalists.”
As of August 31, no progress was reported regarding the Basic Prosecution Office investigation into former head of the AJM Naser Selmani’s March 2018 complaint he received threats against his and his family’s lives from an individual affiliated with the Democratic Union for Integration party.
On April 16, journalists reporting on poor infrastructure in the village of Aracinovo said they received threats and verbal attacks from individuals reportedly linked to Mayor Milikije Halimi. The journalists alleged individuals forcibly escorted them to the municipality building after they refused to delete their recorded interviews. In a press release April 18, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir condemned the intimidation, calling it a “blatant attack on freedom of the media.” Additionally, the Association of Journalists and the Audiovisual Media Services Agency condemned the attack. Police did not open an investigation because, according to them, the journalists did not officially report the case to police. The prosecution also did not open an investigation.
On June 4, the AJM and the Media Ethics Council (CMEM) strongly condemned the “explicit hate speech” against ethnic Albanians during the June 3-4 celebration in Skopje of Handball Club Vardar’s European Cup victory. AJM and CMEM expressed concern media failed to condemn the hate speech calling for violence and intolerance. The Helsinki Committee, NGO CIVIL, and ethnic Albanian political parties condemned the inflammatory speech, calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were some reports the government pressured journalists into self-censorship. In its May 29 report on the country, the EC noted, “There was no progress on improving the labor and social rights of journalists whose working conditions are very poor. Consequently, journalists still practice self-censorship. Lengthy negotiations led by the independent union of journalists and media workers did not result in any collective union agreement with any media outlet.”
Libel/Slander Laws: Persons found guilty of defamation, libel, and slander were subject to fines according to a schedule based on nonmaterial damage. The EC noted “preliminary steps have been taken to reduce fines for defamation to a symbolic amount which is expected to improve the sense of balance between freedom of expression and protection of reputation.”
Deputy Prime Minister Bujar Osmani of DUI announced January 29 his party would file slander charges against journalists and media for alleging some DUI officials had abused state pension funds. AJM reacted January 30, urging politicians to refrain from filing slander charges against journalists. On February 7, EC spokesperson Maja Kocijancic noted “threats of legal consequences for media for their reporting,” by political actors, reiterating the EC 2018 recommendation the country should demonstrate “zero tolerance for physical and verbal harassment, and threats against journalists.”
Government General Secretary Dragi Rashkovski announced July 2 slander charges against journalists and media portals for spreading fake news by alleging that he had been illegally involved in a bid for the purchase of an air navigation system. The AJM criticized Rashkovski’s “direct threats” against journalists as “pressure that may result in ‘self-censorship’.”
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. There were no reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and the government generally respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
A “state of crisis” has been in force for border areas adjacent to Greece and Serbia since 2015. It has been extended by the government every six months, including through year’s end. The state of crisis allows government authorities to regulate the entry and transit of migrants. Since the closure of the “Western Balkans Route” in 2016, migrants apprehended in these areas were regularly placed in contained temporary transit centers, near the border, and pushed back to the prior transit country within days. No freedom of movement was ensured for migrants while in the transit centers or the reception center for smuggled foreigners, nor was a formal removal or readmission procedure established.
In-Country Movement: The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that approximately 25,000 persons transited the country from January 1 to August 31, but neither UNHCR nor the International Organization for Migration (IOM) registered any hate crimes against them. UNHCR did not note any in-country movement restrictions for internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, or stateless persons.
According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy (MLSP), 112 persons (26 families) remained displaced from the 2001 internal armed conflict, seven (three families) lived in collective housing centers, and 105 persons (25 families) were in private accommodations or with host families. The government provided protection and assistance, and supported safe, voluntary, and dignified returns, as well as resettlement or local integration of IDPs. There were no reports of IDPs suffering abuses.
Despite having no national policy document, the government generally observed the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with UNHCR, the IOM, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Authorities undertook significant measures to combat and detect cases of migrant smuggling. During the year the government established a task force comprised of representatives from the Ministry of Interior and prosecutors from the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime and Corruption. The May EC report noted the problem of smuggling needed to be continuously addressed, as the country continued to be under severe pressure due to its geographic location.
The 2018 Helsinki Committee for Human Rights Annual Report stated, “The provision limiting the freedom of movement of asylum seekers was retained. Namely, Article 63 prescribes that freedom of movement shall be restricted in extraordinary circumstances, in order to determine the identity and citizenship, and establish the facts and circumstances of the asylum requests, particularly if a risk for escape has been determined, in order to protect the order and national security or when a foreigner is retained for the purposes of initiating a procedure for his return or removal.”
The IOM stressed the movement of migrants through the Western Balkans route was facilitated by smuggling networks, which exposed the migrants to significant risks of abuse and exploitative practices, including trafficking in human beings.
A multisector system and standard operating procedures (SOPs) were in place to ensure protection of the victims of gender-based violence. UNHCR considered the system needed strengthening and a systemic application of SOPs, especially regarding case identification.
Refoulement: UNHCR assessed access to asylum practices had consistently improved since 2016, and that previous concerns regarding the arbitrary practice of denying access to asylum had been addressed. During the year there were no instances of forceful returns of asylum seekers or refugees to unsafe countries recorded, or inappropriate pressure by any countries to return them to their country of origin.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system to provide protection to refugees. UNHCR reported, however, that the mechanism for adjudicating refugee status failed to provide basic procedural guarantees and proper determinations as prescribed in the law. It reported that 252 migrants applied for asylum in the first eight months of the year. No person was granted refugee status or a subsidiary form of protection.
In April 2018 parliament adopted a new Law on International and Temporary Protection. The Macedonian Young Lawyers Association (MYLA) stated the new law addressed some of the shortcomings of the old law pertaining to the right to family reunification and access to asylum, but it unduly limited asylum seekers’ freedom of movement. The IOM expressed similar concerns regarding the new law. On September 14, the Constitutional Court dismissed MYLA’s May 2018 petition challenging articles 63 and 65 of the law.
The government issued identity documents to recognized refugees and persons under subsidiary protection, but authorities frequently delayed or failed to issue identification documents to new asylum seekers.
Migrant populations detained in the Transit Center for Foreigners were impeded from accessing asylum. An asylum application by a person held in the Reception Center for Foreigners (a closed-type facility in Gazi Baba) would only be possible after the person gave a statement before the court, in criminal proceedings, against their smugglers. During the year approximately 50 percent of all asylum requests registered in the country were processed through the Reception Center for Foreigners.
During the year the Administrative and the Higher Administrative Courts continued to avoid ruling on the merit of asylum applications, despite having the requisite authority, according to MYLA. They routinely returned the cases to the Ministry of Interior for further review.
Freedom of Movement: According to UNHCR, authorities detained some individuals intercepted while being smuggled. The grounds for detention decisions are arbitrary. As a rule, persons are supposed to be detained until their identity can be established. They were routinely detained after identification, however, to prevent them from escaping the country prior to providing testimony in court against smugglers. In addition, the majority of asylum seekers who were previously detained reported they were not issued detention decisions, or if they did receive such decisions it was in a language they could not understand, impeding them from exercising their right to judicial review.
MYLA also noted the practice of detaining illegal migrants and asylum seekers to secure their testimony in criminal proceedings continued during the year. Detention orders did not specify the legal grounds for detention, and there was no effective judicial review of the detention decisions. According to MYLA, as of August 28, at least 126 persons were detained as illegal migrants.
The average detention period during the year was 15 days, with the longest period being 45 days and the shortest period one day.
Some improvement was noted compared to previous years, as women, children, or families were generally not detained; alternatives to detention were employed instead. A Safe House, run by an NGO, was rented for these individuals, with international donor funding, so they were not placed in prison or in detention facilities. The individuals were monitored, however, and needed to report to authorities on a weekly basis.
The 2018 Law on International and Temporary Protection introduced the possibility of detaining asylum seekers, referred to in the law as “limitation of freedom of movement.” Under this provision, three asylum seekers were detained in the Reception Center for Foreigners, a closed facility. The law stipulates the “use of limitation of freedom of movement” should be a last resort. The law does not provide for adequate alternatives to detention. Through September 24, unaccompanied children and three women were held in detention.
Employment: There are no restrictions on refugees’ ability to work, and the law allows asylum seekers whose asylum procedure is not completed within nine months to apply for a work permit.
The 2018 Law on International and Temporary Protection also provides the right to work for persons granted subsidiary protection, as well as for asylum seekers, whose asylum request is not completed within nine months. Recognized refugees and persons under subsidiary protection with work permits were able to access the active labor market. Nevertheless, asylum seekers faced restrictions because of conflicting laws. By law, a foreigner needs to have a unique identification number assigned in order to be issued a work permit. Although an asylum seeker has the legal right to apply for a work permit after nine months in procedure, s/he has no right to be assigned a unique identification number, which by the same law is issued once a positive decision is granted. Consequently, an asylum seeker is granted the right to work but is unable to exercise it, a serious gap considering some procedures last for two to three years, including instances of judicial review.
Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers, prior to a final decision on their asylum applications, had the right to basic health services, in accordance with the regulations on health insurance. The same applied to the right to education. To date, however, there were no cases of children coming from outside the region enrolled in state-run educational facilities. Upon recognition of status, persons with refugee status have the right to full health care provided under the same conditions as it is to citizens.
Durable Solutions: According to UNHCR none of the 394 individuals from the 1999 conflict in Kosovo who remained in the country returned to Kosovo during the year. No cases of resettlement were registered.
The law provides for naturalization of refugees residing in the country under preferred conditions, while persons under subsidiary protection may naturalize as any other foreigners do who stay legally in the country for a minimum of eight years. During the year one refugee and one person under subsidiary protection were naturalized.
Under the law the MLSP, in cooperation with the Interior Ministry and UNHCR, should facilitate the voluntary return of asylum seekers to their homes. There were no cases of assisted voluntary repatriation during the year.
UNHCR continued to assist rejected asylum seekers from Kosovo, whom the government allowed to stay in the country. The government issued them provisional identification documents to secure their access to services. The MLSP provided integrated, durable solutions with the support of UNHCR for approximately 274 refugees who had applied for integration into the country. The ministry provided social assistance, housing assistance, and access to education, health care, and the labor market.
Temporary Protection: The government could provide subsidiary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees, but there were no such protections granted during the year.
Some habitual residents were legally stateless, in spite of fulfilling one or more criteria for citizenship. According to consolidated statistics from the government, UNHCR, and NGOs, there were 569 stateless persons registered in the country at the end of the year. They were primarily Roma who lacked civil registration and documentation. Children born in the country to stateless persons are considered nationals and have access to birth registration and certification. A government program to register persons without documents was initiated in late 2018.
Some 281 persons have been recorded as habitual residents with undetermined nationality and at risk of statelessness since the dissolution of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991. The MLSP estimated some 500 children lacked birth certificates or personal name registration in the country. Early in 2018 the government initiated a program to register persons without documents. In July it reissued a public call for persons without birth certificates and personal name registration to apply for birth registry by the end of September.