Transcripts of alleged wiretap recordings are handed out in Skopje on February 27. Claims that journalists as well as ministers were under surveillance have highlighted press freedom conditions in Macedonia. (Reuters/Ognen Teofilovski)
Transcripts of alleged wiretap recordings are handed out in Skopje on February 27. Claims that journalists as well as ministers were under surveillance have highlighted press freedom conditions in Macedonia. (Reuters/Ognen Teofilovski)

Press apathy over Macedonia wiretaps is symptom of failing democracy

Journalists and professional press organizations were given just one day’s warning on February 25 that Zoran Zaev, leader of Macedonia’s opposition party the Social Democrats, would be revealing what he described as a “bomb“–conversations of journalists allegedly wiretapped by the government–at his weekly press conference.

Claims by the Social Democrats (SDSM) that 100 journalists had been under government surveillance appeared to confirm long-held suspicions of many of the country’s independent media. Since Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski came to power in 2006 conditions for the press have deteriorated, with a large TV station being forced off air, the arrest of an investigative reporter, and independent publications coming under financial pressure through allocation of state advertising.

So far, only recordings allegedly of ministers and prominent supporters of Gruevski have been made public. But Zaev claimed that critical journalists and their counterparts in the pro-government media were eavesdropped on and that conversations of more than 100 journalists can be heard on tape. During the press conference, the opposition leader invited each of the affected journalists to come to party headquarters and pick up the transcripts.

Colleagues told me they felt “violated” and “disgusted” having to read transcripts of calls, some of which dated back to 2011, but none of them seemed surprised. For years they have been warning each other about how unsafe talking over the phone in Macedonia is, and some would jokingly greet the intelligence chief at the end of their calls, they said.

The SDSM claimed in press conferences that the wiretapping was ordered by Gruevski and his cousin, Chief of Intelligence Services Sašo Mijalkov. Gruevski has denied any involvement in the bugging and claimed the SDSM got hold of the tapes via “foreign intelligence services,” according to news reports. He also accused the opposition leader of trying to organize a coup. Zaev’s passport has been confiscated and he was charged for “espionage,” reports said. The opposition leader rejected those allegations in a press conference, and said the material came from whistleblowers inside the secret services.

Since details of the wiretapping were made public there have been two reactions in the press. Pro-government journalists accused the opposition chief of working for foreign services and trying to overthrow the government. And critical journalists said they had received confirmation of long-held suspicions.

As Tamara Chausidis, president of the Trade Union of Macedonian Journalists, put it: “The level of arrogance of the government on one side, and the apathy and passivity of the public and the journalistic community on the other are such that the consequences of the wiretappings do not produce […] a new quality that would change things.”

She told me: “Of course, articles were written, the professional association held a press conference demanding resignations, but all of them, the authors of those texts, the speakers at the press conference, the bugged journalists and the public as a whole, did that as some kind of strange ritual in whose effectiveness they don’t actually believe.”

The Association of Journalists of Macedonia held a press conference to call for the resignation of the prime minister and the government over the wiretappings, but little publicity was given to its statement.

Such is the state of affairs in Macedonian journalism.

Chausidis is right, the apathy has taken such a strong hold on the profession that it was an illusion to think that these revelations would turn it upside down.

Since Gruevski took the reins of the Macedonian government conditions for the press have worsened. In 2013, I wrote a blog about the declining state of the Macedonian media. In 2011 the largest privately owned station A1 TV was ordered to shut down. In 2013 investigative journalist Tomislav Kezarovski was arrested for allegedly revealing the identity of a protected witness who, it turned out later, was not under protection. He was sentenced to four and half years in prison, but was released in January according to CPJ research. Also in 2013, Nikola Mladenov, owner of the newspaper Fokus died in a car accident in circumstances journalists at the time said had not been investigated properly. His paper closed down after his death.

Since 2006 journalists have been living in parallel worlds: the pro-governmental one and the critical one.

But while the former have access to traditional print and broadcast media, the only outlet for the latter is a multitude of often poorly designed and poorly managed websites. Most rely heavily on foreign grants while the government funds its “favorites” through state-financed advertising, journalists I spoke to, who asked to remain anonymous, told me. Owners of independent media told me that it is practically impossible to get private advertisement, since it might put those companies at odds with the government.

It is no wonder that journalists in Macedonia are apathetic and discouraged. A journalist’s work makes no sense if it cannot reach a diverse audience, trigger public debate, create informed citizens, or educate the wider public. Those are some of the fundamentals of our work and in Macedonia they no longer exist.

Many of my colleagues in Macedonia are investigative journalists who, with scarce resources, have managed to report on potential corruption such as Mijalkov’s alleged failure to declare business dealings in the Czech Republic. The story appeared on the non-profit Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project website and NovaTV, an independent website that publishes work from journalists who used to work for A1 TV before it was closed down.

In a functioning democracy a story like the wiretapping revelations would have made headlines and would have been at least considered by the public prosecution. In Macedonia it went unnoticed, except for a few thousand of us who follow the independent news websites.

Since 2006, journalism has been deteriorating. Critical reporters, including myself and many of my colleagues, were constantly labeled by the prime minister and pro-government news outlets as “traitors of the nation.” The profession has not been the same since the closure of A1 TV and the marginalization of independent journalists.

As much as the opposition’s “bombs” are welcome because they shed a much-needed light on the Macedonian government, they are not nearly enough to bring back professional standards and ethics.

The state of Macedonian journalism is nothing but a reflection of the deteriorating state of democracy in this tiny Balkan republic. Under the kitsch and faux baroque of the government’s Skopje 2014 project (the name given to a criticized makeover of the capital), is a frightened and increasingly uninformed people.

It is far from certain that the opposition’s bombs will have a positive outcome. In other countries, such as Colombia where the wide-scale surveillance of journalists was revealed in 2009, the intelligence service was disbanded after public outcry.

The apathy over revelations of surveillance in Macedonia suggests its journalism and democracy are inexorably sinking and will be saved only if the outside world starts paying attention.

It is now long overdue.

[Reporting from Brussels]