Flash report 4: Macedonia

Flash report 4: Macedonia
The issue of self-regulation is not about the form, the manner of organizing, or the funding of the body in charge of self-regulation.
A worsening media situation undermines any self-regulation attempt 
Macedonian journalism nowadays operates in the atmosphere of outright calls for lynch of journalists with a critical eye. They are labelled as “ulcers”, in need of the “surgical incision, with a sharp blade” for the fester to be squeezed out. The unique feature of the call for “surgery interventions” in the “patriotic tissue” of society – the act which is not unknown in the Balkan region – is the fact that it comes from a person who has the rare privilege of hosting the prime minister of Macedonia and the entire line of ministers on his TV show who, on the other hand, regularly ignore issues raised by the critical media.   
A conclusion that in the continuously worsening media environment, every attempt at self-regulation could achieve little, sounds faint and inadequate to the complexity of the situation. 
On a daily basis, the audiences are facing an avalanche of open verbal assaults, unprofessional behaviour, propaganda accompanied by instigations of fear and hatred towards all those who, this way or the other, are considered to be different, with respect to ethnic, party, political, sexual or any other basis. While certain events are not reported at all, in contrast, one and the same text - often with the same headline, same unidentified sources, same wording - is circulated simultaneously through many different outlets.
Impartiality, professionalism, principles and transparency have become a luxury to many journalists, which they cannot afford if they want to keep their jobs. Journalists who adhere to professional ethics are targeted and fired, simply to be replaced by inexperienced young journalists who are not prepared to challenge the pressure.  
In such a situation, any attempt at self-regulation turns into a horribly painstaking and undignified mission.  
Self-regulation attempts
Macedonian journalists adopted the Journalists’ Code of Ethics in 2001. It was upheld by all relevant media nationwide. It was conducive to the formation of the first self-regulatory body, the Council of Honour at the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM), in charge of promoting and defending journalist principles and standards. It comprises seven journalists, elected by fellow journalists, at the AJM Assembly. Their work is voluntary and the decisions they reach are publicly announced. 
The Council of Honour was most active in the period from 2007 to 2009. It raised a wide debate among peers about the need for responsible and professional journalism. The Council members raised cases and publicly identified breaches of professional standards at their own initiative. However, the enthusiasm of members of the Council of Honour encountered resistance. They were even brought before court on account of defamation due to an announcement in which they accused one journalist of manipulative and inaccurate reporting. Finally, their energy withered - not because of the defamation charges and the smear campaigns against the members, but because of the indifference shown towards the problems they addressed by almost the entire media community.  
Today, the Council of Honour still exists, but it is invisible. It reacts rarely and feebly, only if publicly called upon.  
A new attempt to establish a separate self-regulatory body that will unite media representatives, media owners and the public was launched three years ago by the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, with the support of other media organizations, above all the Macedonian Institute for the Media. The establishment of a specialized self-regulatory body was preceded by meetings and discussions under the helm of AJM attended by 260 journalists and media owners. According to AJM, 23 meetings were held with owners and managers of electronic and print media, as well as with directors and editors of the public service broadcaster, the Macedonian Radio Television. 
The self-regulatory body, the Council of Ethics of the Media in Macedonia (CEMM), was established on December 19, 2013. Within the CEMM, a separate Complaints Commission was set up, comprising seven members meant to decide on all cases of disruption of ethical standards. In addition to media representatives, journalists and editors, the Commission includes citizens’ representatives as well. This body is to consider any complaints from citizens, legal entities, and other public representatives with regards to published media content.   
Five months after it was set up, the Complaints Commission still has not started working. 
The tardiness in action, as well as the composition of the CEMM, nourishes the scepticism that this body is yet another attempt doomed to fail. Namely, the CEEM’s board includes some media representatives who, by way of their work, have become the epitome of unprofessional, biased, and propagandistic journalism.  
“Some members of the Council are people who brutally take part in the creation and dissemination of propaganda, who lie shamelessly. I perceive their participation in a self-regulation body as a great insult and have no confidence whatsoever in their impartiality,” says Saška Cvetkovska, award-winning investigative journalist from the Nova internet TV outlet. 
Cvetkovska initiated the creation of the Facebook group “The wall of shame, or All journalist writings that must not be forgotten” a year ago. It is a closed group, with about 150 members - journalists who post media products they think deserve to be placed on the “wall of shame”. It already contains hundreds of posts and each one raises an online debate among members. This authentic grassroots initiative rests on the belief of the founder that journalists are the key stakeholders in promoting and conceptualizing professional ethics.  
“I came to realize after a short while that fellow journalists are not indifferent at all when their first and last names appear on that page, as target of criticism by other colleagues,” says Cvetkovska. 
The popularity of the Facebook group “The wall of shame” indicates that in spite of the fact that Macedonian journalism functions against the backdrop of contaminated public discourse, it has not lost its moral imperative after all. The authentic need for self-regulated professional standards does exist.  
Behind self-regulation
The problem of institutionalization of journalism self-regulation does not have anything to do with the ignorance of ethical standards by journalists, but with the institutional setting of Macedonian journalism. 
The media operate under poor economic conditions which strongly affect their economic sustainability and independence. The available data indicate that the state is the most important source of media finances. The government takes influence on media by allocating lucrative advertising of government actions.    
Media laws do not address the issue of state advertising at all. There is no regulation of the conditions of advertising by state institutions, or the transparency of fund allocation. By ignoring this issue, the ruling party shows a lack of any sincere wish to get rid of the system of corruption that is embedded in the media business. 
As a result, the media pretend to practice journalism, while they engage in activities whose main goal is to please particular interests of media owners; the owners, in turn, have a clientelistic relationship with the government, who serves as the main source of media finances. 
Ethical journalism can develop only in a setting of guaranteed freedom. The issue of self-regulation thus is not about the form, the manner of organizing, or the funding of the body in charge of self-regulation. It is about the self-organization of free media and free journalists. 
As long as media outlets are shut down overnight, political and economic power centres govern editorial policies, journalists are punished for a “breach of secrecy” on issues of utmost public importance, nonsensically high penalties for defamation and insult are issued, hate speech not only gets away unpunished but is even stimulated, and lynch of critical journalists is openly advocated, self-regulation does not stand a chance to improve the quality of Macedonian journalism.
Media Policy and Reforms