|Journalists. Archive photo: EPA-EFE/RONALD WITTEK|
Macedonia’s government and the opposition have used the turbulence surrounding the forthcoming ‘name’ referendum to reintroduce state-funded advertising, which was halted a few years ago, and introduce controls over online media – moves that watchdogs and journalists say will curb media freedom and distort the media market again.
Parliament passed these provisions, which are now part of the Electoral Code, on July 25, after the four main political parties in the country agreed on it as part of their talks about the forthcoming referendum on the historic ‘name’ agreement with Greece.
“The amendments enable interference by public authorities in the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas during electoral campaigns and in their editorial independence,” the European Federation of Journalists, EFJ said in a statement on Monday.
On August 9, the Council of Europe’s platform for the protection of journalism also issued a warning to the Macedonian parliament about the provisions.
The country’s leading Journalist’s Association, ZNM, the Independent Trade Union of Journalists and Media Workers, SSNM, the Macedonian Council of Media Ethics, SEEM, and even the state-run Audio and Audio Visual Agency, AVMU, have all criticised the changes.
The first provision allows political parties to use state budget money for their political advertisements during elections.
“This brings back, in a big way, the government advertisement campaigns from the time of the regime of [former Prime Minister Nikola] Gruevski, when the government spent public money on media campaigns about their alleged successes,” said Naser Selmani, the head of the ZNM.
Although the Social Democrat-led government claims this will regulate the financing of political parties and introduce an equal playing field, while in opposition, the Social Democrats spent years harshly criticising their predecessors, the administration led by Gruevski, the former chief of the right-wing VMRO DPMNE party, who spent millions on state-sponsored media campaigns.
The former government halted its controversial ad campaigns in 2015 after widespread criticism that it was using them to control the media and disrupt the media market. It did so after being entangled in a major wiretapping scandal which led to it being ousted in 2017, after a deep and prolonged political crisis.
Another disputed amendment to the Electoral Code empowers the State Election Commission to register and monitor online media reporting on the elections. In addition, Article 181a of the law provides for the imposition of fines of up to 4,000 euros on traditional and online media if they are found guilty of “unbalanced or impartial reporting”.
This is the first time that the Electoral Commission has been tasked with monitoring media reporting.
Previously, it was the AVMU that monitored and fined media for biased reporting, but it gave up this practice during last year’s local elections, saying the practice was flawed and not in line with European standards.
Before coming to power, the Social Democrats pledged to honour the opinions of media watchdogs and professionals, who for the most part are against tight regulation of the media sphere, insisting that self-regulation combined with a government policy of non-interference is preferable.