Hopes dashed again for more press freedom in Macedonia

On June 21, Macedonian journalists, intellectuals, artists, and free thinkers breathed a sigh of relief. The U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, visited Skopje and held one of the most straightforward and honest press conferences on the state of freedom of the media we had seen in years. La Rue’s fact-finding mission concluded that even though the Macedonian legal framework for media freedom is satisfactory, its politicized practice raises serious concerns. Here are some points the rapporteur highlighted:

  • The largest critical television channel, A1, was shut down in a nearly year-long process, with a siege by police followed by the arrest of the owners and finally the definitive closure of the channel in 2011 for tax fraud. Authorities refused a payment installment that would have allowed the media conglomerate and its journalists to resume their work.
  • In March, Nikola Mladenov, owner of the newspaper Fokus, one of the last critical printed media, died in an unexplained car accident. There remain many mysterious elements surrounding the accident: why hasn’t his mobile phone been found, even though the investigation initially said his body had been located thanks to the phone signal? Why haven’t investigators collected any evidence from the tolls that Mladenov passed that night; how come cameras at the toll point weren’t working? The authorities continue to treat this as a banal car crash, raising more doubts among the public. Meanwhile, his daily paper Fokus disappeared with him, due to lack of funds. The weekly version will be printed again as of this week, thanks to the support of the Open Society Foundation. But for how long?
  • Investigative journalist Tomislav Kezarovski was arrested at the end of May for allegedly unveiling the identity of a protected witness in a criminal case dating from 2008, a witness that later turned out to be a false one, and not under protection at the time of publication. Kezarovski’s temporary detention has been extended for 30 more days. The U.N. rapporteur on media freedom was prevented from visiting Kezarovski in prison.

Drawing on his own experience as a Guatemalan, La Rue explained how, in his country too, those who bring attention to violations of human rights are labeled as traitors of the state. For once all of us “traitors” felt understood and hoped that finally the Macedonian government would lend an ear, since it was the government who invited La Rue in the first place.

But that was too much to ask.

Less than a week after La Rue’s departure, the pro-government media–and that’s basically all of the mainstream media in Macedonia–staged an orchestrated attack on La Rue, on the basis of this article. For days, all we could hear about Frank La Rue was that he is “on George Soros’s payroll.” As odd as this might seem to a foreign audience, the Macedonian government has managed over the years to force on people the idea that the Hungarian billionaire is somehow related to the Macedonian opposition and that he, more or less secretly, encourages some kind of coup against the democratically elected government of Nikola Gruevski–even though a great number of members of the ruling party have in the past enjoyed Soros’s money for various projects.

The obsession with this conspiracy became so big that pro-government media coined a term for journalists and NGOs that are critical of the government, “Sorosoids,” regardless of whether that organization or journalist has ever received funds from the Open Society. It became a synonym for “traitor” in everyday language.

Frank La Rue has yet to write the report based on his findings. I am afraid that when he does, those conclusions will not be taken into account by the government or any of the media outlets aligned with it. Discredit has been thrown upon him and nothing he says or writes will make a difference where it should. Just as nothing we, the traitors, write makes any difference any longer.

What makes this even more tragic is that La Rue’s openness was a first from an international organization. He focused solely on press freedom issues without any political agenda.

The European Union, in contrast, has been weak in conveying its message to the Macedonian authorities when it comes to press freedom. Everything is stained by Macedonia’s dispute with Greece over the country’s name. Brussels is so determined to solve that problem that diplomats and commissioners tend to minimize criticism in order to avoid losing leverage over the Macedonian prime minister.

But it wouldn’t be fair to spare the Macedonian opposition from criticism. The Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) is in opposition for the seventh consecutive year, and shows no signs of shaking off its political apathy. The former president of the party, Branko Crvenkovski, who left office a few weeks ago, expressed regrets for not standing up more firmly in defense of A1 TV back in 2011. The opposition has watched press freedom and human rights degrade before their eyes. Is it because they are too consensual or too scared to take a stand? An imprisoned journalist and the mysterious death of the Macedonian pioneer of free speech, Nikola Mladenov, are not questions that can be taken lightly. Democracy, including free speech, must be the highest national interest.

All relevant players, at home and abroad, should sober up and stop this authoritarian drift before it’s too late.