Flash report 2: Macedonia

Flash report 2: Macedonia
Towards EU standards or media blackout
The drafting of new media legislation has prompted new concerns and disputes regarding media freedom in Macedonia.
Since April 2013 when it was presented by the Ministry of Information Society and Administration, for more than six months the draft of new media legislation has incited a burning debate in the media community in Macedonia. Despite the fact that harmonization of the legislation with the European Audiovisual Media Services Directive is an obligation of Macedonia as a potential EU candidate, the draft has raised concerns of further erosion of media freedoms and divided the media community. The key disputed issue is that the Government has been trying to introduce media legislation for all types of media – broadcast, print and online, which is opposite not only to the European tradition, but also to domestic legislative practice. 
Through the whole process, the Government demonstrated a strong determination to adopt the legislation, ignoring critical opinions and essential suggestions coming from the international and domestic media community. After presenting four versions, the media legislation entered parliamentary procedure in July 2013 in the form of two mechanically divided laws – one on media and one on audiovisual services. While media organizations (1) strongly reacted that the Ministry had made only “cosmetic” changes in the laws, the Government defended itself saying that it had accepted around 300 suggestions. 
Further derogation of media sphere
The concerns of the media community that the law could further derogate the media sphere must be seen in the context of the political momentum in Macedonia. The country’s rankings regarding media freedoms have significantly worsened in the past years. The media continue to suffer heavy political and economic influences that reflect as biased editorial policy, deterioration of professional standards, self-censorship of journalists or restricted access to balanced reporting and a wide variety of views for the public. The Government is the biggest advertiser on commercial TV stations (2),  as claimed by many – giving a significant financial advantage especially to pro-government media (3).  In the past several years, seven media outlets ceased working, while most debate shows have been pulled off the program, all together resulting in silencing important critical voices. However, one of the most controversial events happened on 24 December 2012 when journalists were forcibly expelled from the parliamentary gallery and prevented from reporting on the Parliament’ session, which damaged relations and trust between the Government and media.
The latest event that shocked the international and domestic media community was a court verdict pronouncing a four and a half year prison sentence for the journalist Tomislav Kezarovski. He was convicted of revealing the identity of an alleged protected witness in a murder case in an article he wrote in 2008, although the witness recently testified that he had given false evidence against the accused killers. International media organizations reacted that the verdict was not according to European standards, that it sent a clear message of censorship to other journalists and that it would have serious repercussions for free expression and media freedoms in the country (4).  The verdict makes Macedonia the only country in South-Eastern Europe having a journalist in prison. 
All these events stirred the fears of the media community that more regulation will reduce the freedom of media, especially having in mind possibilities for political misuse in some provisions of the law and selective application of the legislation in practice. 
Key disputed issues in the media laws
A major problem in the proposed media legislation that lingered through the first three drafts was an attempt to establish a common legal framework for all mass media - the traditional electronic media, as well as print and internet media. An additional concern is the concentration of political power in the new Agency for Media and Audiovisual Media Services, which is foreseen to have competences over all types of media. Having in mind procedures for the nomination and appointment of the Agency’s members, the law fails to meet requirements for the body’s independence. 
  • The major issue in the Government’ proposal is an attempt to establish legislation for all types of media – broadcast, print and online, which is opposite not only to the European tradition, but also to domestic legislative practice.
During the public discussion process, different international media organizations provided consultations and participated in reviewing the draft law, including TAIEX missions and Council of Europe and OSCE experts. The CoE warned that regulation of all mass media in one law “entails the danger of inconsistencies, overregulation and lack of clarity for the addressees of such a comprehensive law. (5)”  In this respect, a CoE expert recommended splitting the draft into two separate laws – one for the printed press and its electronic versions and one for audio and audiovisual media services. This was ultimately done in the fourth version of the legislation – the text was mechanically divided, but print and internet media still remained regulated. The fact that the Government ignored the crucial suggestions of the local media community left the impression that by dividing the laws, it just tried to please the international organizations.
The dominant part of the local media community, represented by the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM), Macedonian Institute for Media (MIM), Media Development Center (MDC) and Independent Union of Journalists and Media Workers (IUJMW), took the stance that Macedonia only needs harmonization of its legislation with the AVMS Directive incorporated into the law on audiovisual media services, excluding the possibility of any regulation of print and Internet media. After the legislation was split into two laws, the media organizations rejected the draft law on media as unnecessary.
“We are convinced that these laws will not decrease the political and economic pressures on the media, but on the contrary – will strengthen them. We suggest withdrawal of the law on media because it does not provide solutions, while some of its parts leave room for misuse that could seriously endanger media freedoms. The Government should accept journalists’ crucial suggestions that will help strengthen the independence of the regulator and the PBS, enable their sustainable financing and drastically reduce penalties”, says Naser Selmani, president of the AJM. 
The media community had also reacted on the issue of effectiveness of the public consultation process. While the Government, on one hand, claimed that it was transparent and all-inclusive, the local media community, on the other hand, perceived it as disregarding towards crucial arguments and critical opinions. The fact that the Ministry defended its cooperativeness in a “quantitative” fashion – stating that over 300 suggestions from the media community had been included in the law, while ignoring the qualitative content of the objections – is perceived as an attempt of “legalization of total control over the media system. (6)” 
An additional symptomatic element in the public consultation process was the way Government officials interpreted the opinions coming from international institutions. An explicit example was a claim that two expert reports – of the Council of Europe and OSCE, were different. After a careful analysis, this proved to be incorrect since the remarks of both organizations referred to the same problematic issues in the law. 
There were also cases when certain journalists and media tried to discredit other representatives of the media community just because they had objections regarding the draft law. The presidents of the Journalist Union (IUJMW) and AJM who criticised the law in front of the parliamentary Committee (7) were publicly discredited in some pro-government media. While the AJM president was mocked on the front page of one newspaper, the president of the Union was verbally “attacked” by a pro-government journalist on his Facebook page who used abusive language, inciting his FB followers to continue in a worse manner – even with life-threatening statements. 
Installing too much political power in crucial regulatory bodies
Another highly disputed issue in the draft laws is an attempt to install too much (political) power in crucial bodies, such as the new Agency for Media and Audiovisual Media Services and the Council of PBS MRTV, through the manner of nomination and appointment of their members. These remarks were underlined by OSCE and the CoE, as well as local media organizations (8).  The draft law foresees an extension of the scope of the Agency’s competencies to all media – broadcast, print and electronic. The remarks are related to the fact that it would conduct “administrative supervision” over the work of print media and online publications and initiate misdemeanor procedures. 
  • The draft versions failed to address important issues such as the Government’s advertising spending in media which has represented one of the dominant ways of exertion of political and economic influence, effective sanctioning of hate speech, or distribution of print media. 
Regarding the manner of appointment of members of the Agency and the Council of PBS MRTV, the draft laws failed to meet the requirement for securing the independence of these bodies. The CoE was concerned that the ruling party is able to exert dominant political influence on the nomination process conducted by the parliamentary Committee for Elections and Appointments, which nominates its members in the Agency and in the Program Council of PBS. Influence could be also enabled through the appointment of candidates by the Assembly, since only a simple majority in both bodies is necessary for decisions (9).  
“The independence of the Agency is put under question, having in mind that its members would be nominated by institutions in which the government has dominant influence. If we want to secure independence, changes must be made in the composition of the authorised nominators, while the Agency’s members should be chosen with 2/3 in Parliament”, says Mirce Adamcevski, experienced editor and former president of the Broadcasting Council.
Another debatable matter in the laws is which of the two existing associations of journalists is the major one and thus eligible to nominate a member in the Agency. The Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) is the older one, working continuously since 1946, while the Macedonian Association of Journalists (MAN), dating back to 2002, was reactivated just before the public consultations on the media law began. The latter did not submit crucial objections to the laws or support any of the critiques that international organizations and the dominant media community pointed out as problematic. MAN, which is known as being close to the ruling party, is struggling to attract more members in order to grow into a major association. The fact that the law stipulates the Ministry to determine which journalist association is the major one stirs additional fears of political influence.
Finally, when the laws entered parliamentary procedure, on the proposal of the ruling party’s MPs another disputable amendment was inserted into the separate Draft Law on Audiovisual Services. According to the amendment, national TV broadcasters will have the right to receive funding in the amount of 50% of the costs needed for production of domestic documentary and movie programs from the state budget (Art. 92). MIM reacted by saying that with such proposals the Government consciously introduces retrograde measures that may lead to total distortion of the media market and the democratic and critical role of media (10).
Important issues missing from the legislation
  • The concerns of the media community regarding the media laws must also be seen in light of the political momentum in Macedonia which creates an unfavorable environment for media, resulting in actions such as a verdict carrying a four and a half year prison sentence for the journalist Tomislav Kezarovski.
The draft versions failed to address the Government’s advertising spending in media, which has represented one of the dominant ways of exertion of political and economic influence; effective sanctioning of hate speech, which has been a growing phenomenon in the media sphere lately; or distribution of print media which is a pretty unregulated sphere. 
The opinions of the local media community on the necessity of introducing legal provisions on self-regulation, professional matters and regulation of relations in the newsroom were divided. CoE recommended that more space for self-regulation should be left at least for the press; AJM and MIM (11) took the stance that ethical and professional issues, as well as relations in the newsroom, should be left to self-regulation mechanisms; while MAN welcomed these provisions as a guarantee of further professionalization of media.
The adoption of the media laws was delayed in October 2013 since the Government was waiting for the EC’s opinion in the country’s Progress Report. After the report containing many remarks on media freedoms was presented, the minister for information society and administration called on media organizations to agree on by-laws.
(1) MIM reaction, 12 August 2013, and The opinion of media organizations on the new version of the draft law, 5 June 2013. Accessed through: www.mim.org.mk
(2) Broadcasting Council (2013). Analysis of the market of broadcasting media for 2012. Skopje: BC. 
(3) European Commission (2013). Progress Report on Macedonia. Accessed through:
(4) Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, statement
(5) Department of Information Society (2013). Opinion of the Directorate General Human Rights and Rule of Law Department. Accessed through: www.ener.gov.mk
(6) MIM reaction, 23 August 2013, and The opinion of media organizations on the new version of the draft law, 5 June 2013. Accessed through: www.mim.org.mk
(7) “The journalists divided along the question of who can be a journalist”, 30 July 2013. Accessed through: http://www.telegraf.mk
(8) The opinions of AJM, the Union, MDC and MIM can be found on the website of the single National Electronic Register of Legislation of RM (Edinstven nacionalen elektronski registar na propisi na RM). Accessed through: www.ener.gov.mk
(9) Department of Information Society (2013). Opinion of the Directorate General Human Rights and Rule of Law Department. Accessed through: www.ener.gov.mk
(10) MIM reaction on amendments to the media laws, 23 August 2013. Accessed through: www.mim.org.mk 
(11) MIM reaction: Zabeleski kon nacrt zakonot za mediumi i AVMS (29 May 2013), accessed through www.mim.org.mk, and AJM Remarks on the Law on Media and Audiovisual Services (May 2013). Accessed through: www.ener.gov.mk 
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