The General Secretary of the European Federation of Journalists, EFJ, says the outlook for press freedom in Macedonia is depressing, condemning the incarceration of the journalist Zoran Bozinovski.
Sinisa Jakov Marusic, BIRN, Skopje
The fact that Macedonia is one of the few countries in Europe to have incarcerated a journalist – not for the first time – speaks volumes about the state of media freedom there, Ricardo Gutierrez says.
The EFJ General Secretary, who visited Macedonia, among other things, to promote an EU funded project, “Journalists’ Network for Promoting Media Freedom,” notes that every time he has visited the country, a journalist seems to have been imprisoned under suspicious circumstances.
“Previously it was Tomislav Kezarovski and now it is Zoran Bozinovski,” Gutierrez recalls.
Bozinovski, who is accused of spying and extortion, has been spending five months in detention in Skopje, after his extradiction from Serbia where he had spent another 18 months detained.
He has remained in pre-trial detention for almost five months and is now on a hunger strike.
Gutierrez reflects the concerns expressed by the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, ZNM, and the Trade Union of Macedonian Journalists and Media Workers, SSNM, who say the case against Bozinovski is “politically motivated” with the aim of silencing journalists who uncover corruption in which officials are involved.
“In our view, it is an unlawful and extremely long detention without clear reasons,” he says.
“We see this as a way to intimidate the full journalistic community … because they [the government] are showing journalists in Macedonia: look what we can do if we are not satisfied by your work,” Gutierrez adds.
He says it is “strange” that the prosecution took four months just to provide an official indictment, which he says lacks material evidence in support of the spying charge.
He says he felt “disgusted” when the court ignored the EFJ’s request to visit Bozinovski in prison.
“The EFJ never supports hunger strikes because we consider people should not risk their lives, so we could at least have given Bozinovski some good advice, telling him that this is not the best way to fight for your rights,” he explains.
Gutierrez recalls that earlier this year Macedonia signed a protocol with other members of the Council of Europe on the safety of journalists and protection of journalism.
“I read all the specific duties in the recommendation, but in reality we are far from what the government signed and decided to respect,” he says.
Gutierrez says that of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe that the EFJ covers, only four others have imprisoned journalists, namely Turkey, Russia, Montenegro and Azerbaijan, which puts Macedonia in a bad light.
While he says journalists’ associations in Macedonia are gradually strengthening, and notes the improved will of the EU to fund the promotion of media freedom, media literacy and capacity-building, he says the outlook for the media in the Balkans remains worrying.
“Here in the Balkans, including Macedonia, we have all the problems present in Western Europe but in a much more pronounced form,” he says.
“We don’t really see any improvement, just deterioration [here]. If we look at media freedom indexes, we see the situation is still far worse in Macedonia than in the other Balkan countries.”
In Freedom House’s 2016 “Freedom of the Press” index, Macedonia, together with Belarus and Russia, are the only countries in Europe with “Not Free” media status, he recalls.
Freedom House says this is due to the revelations that point to large-scale and illegal wiretapping of journalists on the part of the government, as well as corrupt ties between officials and media owners and an increase in threats and attacks on media workers.
“I see Macedonia as a country still having a Soviet-style power [structure], now misused by neo-liberals,” he says.
“It is a kind of strange mixture between pure economic liberalism but with very concentrated power, control over people and fake democracy,” Gutierrez argues.
He fears that change for the better may come only very slowly and through the passage of generations, with a steady change in the mindsets of the political elites.
“We need a shift of the system, the media system, the political system, but this seems difficult,” he says.
Macedonia recently formed an ad-hoc body tasked with monitoring media coverage of the early elections set for December 11. The leadership of the national broadcaster, MRTV, has also been changed. This was all agreed this summer as part of the internationally brokered talks between Macedonian parties.
However, Gutierrez said he doubted the changes will do much to ensure truly balanced reporting in the Macedonian elections.
The article was originally published by Balkan Insight. It is republished here with permission.