Press freedom issues may keep Macedonia from EU

The European Union accession process has been hailed as the best tool in the arsenal of democracy promotion. By adhering to the acquis communautaire, the EU’s total body of legislation, and to the Copenhagen criteria that define the democratic nature of the EU, candidate countries are supposed to perfect their political transition before joining “the club of European democracies.”

However, this process does not seem to be working for the Republic of Macedonia. Last week, the small Balkan country, which aspires to EU membership, was severely criticized in the European Commission’s 2011 progress report, especially with regards to the worsening state of press freedom in Skopje, its capital. Prior to that, on September 20, three Macedonian journalists disrupted a panel on press freedom in the European Parliament.

The commission’s progress report pointed out that Macedonia has much progress to make before it is able to join the European Union. “The media [in Macedonia] continue to be subject to interference from political and business interests,” the report said in language harsher than what is usual in its publications. “Intimidation of journalists and selective enforcement of legislation against media companies are increasing causes for concern.”

In recent months, local press freedom activists, as well as international advocacy organizations, have also denounced the degradation of freedom of expression and the rule of law in Macedonia. “Rising ethnic Macedonian nationalism, state capture by the prime minister and his party, decline in media and judicial independence, increased segregation in schools, and slow decentralization risk undermining the multi-ethnic civil state Macedonia can become,” wrote the Brussels-based International Crisis Group last August.

In July, the revocation of the license of Macedonia’s A-1 television station, “one of the most openly critical media voices,” according to The New York Times, and the closure of three newspapers owned by the same media group, were clear signs that something was very wrong. Very few in Skopje and in Brussels believed the alleged motive behind the media group’s closure–tax fraud–in a country where, as reported by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009, “external influences and pressures” on the judiciary seem to be the rule.

After the summer recess this year, the growing concern regarding Macedonia’s state of press freedom was relayed to the European Parliament, where the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, a centrist political group, convened on September 20 in Brussels to hold a hearing. A-1 TV journalists–Borjan Jovanovski and Biljana Sekulovska–were invited onto a panel along with Margarita Caca Nikolovska, head of the Macedonian Institute for Human Rights, Slobodanka Jovanovska, journalist at the daily Utriski, and Petar Stojkovik, a student activist.

The late-evening hearing was supposed to follow the traditional decorum of Parliament, with its strict rules and tight schedule. However, the arrival of three Macedonian journalists–Mirka Velinovska, columnist for daily Nova Makedonija; Milenko Nedelkovski, talk-show host on Kanal 5 TV; and Boban Nonkovic, journalist at the Daily Dnevnik–who had not been invited threw the panel into turmoil. The three journalists questioned why they had not been invited to the hearing and shouted at their colleagues, calling the Members of Parliament “Euro-Bolsheviks.” They were soon told to leave the premises.

In Skopje, some pro-government media portrayed the hecklers as truth-tellers–“real Macedonians” defending the honor of the nation against a band of “traitors.” The Macedonian Association of Journalists attempted to sit on the fence, blaming both sides.

But most people who were present at the hearing were stunned and outraged. Some participants openly wondered how this could be allowed to happen just a few days before the European Commission delivered its assessment of Macedonia’s preparedness to join the EU. “They are undermining their own country,” one participant muttered.

The Republic of Macedonia, which, up until this incident, had been mostly ignored by European media and officials, is now clearly on the EU’s radar. The European Commission and many Members of Parliament have pledged to closely monitor the evolution of the country.

International and European press freedom groups, already up in arms about Hungary’s new press law, are preparing a joint mission to Skopje in mid-November to assess the state of press freedom and express their concerns to the Macedonian government. The message is clear: Fundamental freedoms must not unravel anymore, either in member states or in candidate countries. Indeed, most activists are convinced that attacks against press freedom in one country could spread to other EU countries and undermine the rights and freedoms enshrined in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The beleaguered independent journalists in Skopje–as well as other sectors that count on the prospect of EU membership to build a prosperous and democratic country–hope the government will listen seriously to their concerns and heed the warnings of the European Commission.