It is a hard time for journalists in Macedonia. Threats against their lives are common, the society is divided, and so is the media. Information about the corruption of governmental officials can hardly appear in mainstream media. For Macedonian journalists, the solidarity of their European colleagues is important, although they are aware that it is the local political factors that hold the greatest responsibility for the escalation of violence against journalists.
For more than 6 months, Macedonia has been in deep political crisis, which escalated when the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), the largest opposition party, accused the Government of illegally wiretapping thousands of citizens, and started divulging the so called political bombs – phone calls of high Government officials. These phone calls triggered serious public reaction, because they cast serious doubts upon the illegal and criminal activities of the Government.
This crisis further widened the social cleavage, especially between supporters and opponents of the Government. It caused an extremely confrontational atmosphere, followed by the use of extreme hate speech on the Internet, as well as by incidents which damaged the property of the opposition party members and activists critical towards the government.
The disclosed phone calls revealed conversations between editors / media owners and high government officials. These conversations show how the Government directly influences the editorial policy of pro-government media. Only a limited number of on-line and traditional media provided full extensive coverage of the revealed wiretapped conversations, while pro-government media completely ignore the content of the tapes. Furthermore, media outlets close to the Government create an atmosphere of media lynch against all who criticize the government and call on institutions to act upon the findings in wiretapped phone conversations.
Along with the escalation of the political crisis, several journalists faced serious attacks and threats to their lives, property and families. Firstly, at the end of April, Borjan Jovanovski, a prominent journalist, editor and founder of the Internet television ”Novatv.mk”, received a death threat at his home in Skopje in the form of a funeral wreath with the words ”last goodbye” written on it. A few weeks later, the car of the prominent journalist and editor, Branko Trickovski was found torched near his home. In the last of a series of incidents, Sase Ivanovski, owner of the online news portal Maktel, was attacked and beaten by two masked individuals, in front of his home.
The common thing for these cases is that the victims of the attacks are journalists who criticize the ruling party and government policies, and relevant institutions have not found any of the perpetrators yet.
International media organizations strongly condemned these attacks against journalists who have been critical of the Government, warning that the tense political situation in the country could cause more violence against journalists. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) strongly condemned the death threat against, Borjan Jovanovski, and called on the Macedonian authorities to prosecute the perpetrators. Reporters Without Borders condemned recent intimidation attempts targeting Branko Trickovski, a columnist of the opposition newspaper “Sloboden Pecat”, and called on the authorities to protect him. OSCE Representative on Freedom of Media, Dunja Mijatović stated that the growing trend of violence against media professionals must be reversed and called on the authorities to immediately and thoroughly investigate the brutal attack on Ivanovski.
The journalists and media community in Macedonia that hold professional integrity and still practice a decent journalism, constantly express their concerns about the recent attacks and threats against the journalists in the country, and call on relevant institutions to find the perpetrators. They claim that the attackers are aiming to bring fear and insecurity among journalists and to limit the freedom of expression.
“The idea of those commanding such physical attacks, of those dealing with such threats and extortion, inter alia, is to intimidate the others. If we can no longer make reasonable the one who dared to and is brave enough, let us convey the message to all those who would tend to dare tomorrow, in a way, to write something critical for the government, or to investigate any affair where they would denote violation of laws…” – said Zoran Dimitrovski, editor at the weekly magazine Fokus.
He thinks that it is certainly terrifying to believe that after so many incidents, the Ministry of Interior have not resolved any of these cases. “That is further encouragement to all those thinking of entering such a scenario to physically attack someone, etc., to encourage them, because if you leave them unpunished, anyone may go after this type of adventure. I’m not saying that it has to be the Prime Minister or, I don’t know, his Chief of Cabinet who commands physical attacks. It is enough for you to have an environment where a certain group of hot-blooded people will do that”, he added.
According to Dimitrovski, criticising the government is demonised and political disagreements or any investigative articles referring to violations of laws by the heads of government are declared perfidious articles. As a result, in several cases critical journalists were disqualified as mercenaries.
“Today, we can also see the web portals spreading hate speech on Facebook, as well as on mainstream TV shows of certain pro-government broadcasting; they create an environment which, tomorrow, make you deserve to get a metal bar in your head, or your car to be set on fire, etc if you have been tagged as a traitor or a foreign mercenary […] Dimitrovski said.
The solidarity support coming from European and world journalist organizations is very important for the Macedonian journalists in such difficult times, although the media community is aware that it is the local political factors that hold the greatest responsibility for the escalation of violence against journalists. Some journalists hope that the process of implementing the political agreement recently reached by major political parties can improve this tensed media situation. But the fact that early parliamentary election are scheduled for April 2016, does not leave room for much optimism that things may improve significantly. The results of the upcoming elections will be crucial in determining the path forward.