The Freedom Chat Transcripts: Macedonian Naser Selmani
Vastly under-reported by the international media, Macedonia is facing ever-increasing restrictions on journalists and freedom of expression. An EU report released in October reported significant decreases in freedom of expression and judicial system independence. The government is a major advertiser in media outlets and has been accused of favoring sources they consider friendly to the ruling party. Last year, Tomislav Kezarovski was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for revealing the name of a protected witness in the course of his journalistic work before the witness was granted protections. He is currently serving his term on house arrest.
Editorial intern Karen Hillgrove spoke with Naser Selmani, a journalist at Vest and President of the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (ZNM) about the condition of journalism and corruption in his country.
Can you describe the current conditions for writers and journalists in Macedonia?
First of all, I want to explain that Macedonia did not have a successful democratic transition, as was the case in Poland or in the Czech Republic. We have a quasi-democratic model, like Russia, in which all power is held by a small group of people. There is no democratic institution to protect human rights. Many media outlets serve as propaganda for the ruling party. Macedonia and Turkey are the only countries in Southeast Europe where journalists are being imprisoned. One journalist in Macedonia was sentenced to four and half years in prison for journalistic work. Another Macedonian journalist is being detained in Serbia because the Macedonian authorities have accused him of espionage. These accusations are absurd, and the intention is to intimidate journalists. The message is that anyone who tries to investigate corruption will end up in jail. Last year many Macedonian journalists lost their jobs because they refused to become propagandists for the ruling parties. Macedonian journalists work under constant, heavy political and economic pressure.
Are the specific laws that censor the media or protect the media?
The new media law, adopted last year, is more restrictive than the previous one. The Association argued that it is not aligned with European standards. Certain articles of the law can be misused to intimidate and punish critical media. The law also introduced new restrictions on journalists and allows the government to fund a private national television station with taxpayer money. Lastly, the law allows for disproportionate and costly punishments. Fines are severe enough to close down a media outlet. The problem is not only the law but also the application.
As a reminder, in 2010, the government closed multiple media outlets including the national TV station, A1, and three national newspapers on charges of tax evasion by the owners. Even if the owners are guilty of tax evasion, there is no justification for the media outlets to be closed. It was obvious that the government intention was not to collect taxes but to shut down media sources that were critical of government policy.
Who are the major censors in Macedonia?
The biggest censor in Macedonia is the government as well as media owners and editors. The government doesn’t allow criticism, the media owners protect their economic interests and sacrifice their media outlets, and editors are put in place who worship the government.
A striking example of censorship was the incident in December 2012 when journalists were expelled by force from the parliamentary gallery and were not allowed to view the PM’s session in which the budget for 2013 was about to be voted on. We complained but they concluded that the exclusion of journalists was not an act of censorship. Even the constitutional court defended the police security and their measures toward the journalists. We have no other recourse except to submit a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights in Strausbourg for violation of freedom of expression.
Frank LaRue, Special Rapporteur on free expression for the UN, found the legal environment for journalists in Macedonia to be sufficient but found he found the actual environment was restrictive. In what ways does the government censor without legislation?
The tool used to control media is corruption. Government funds are given to the media owners who pledge their support for government policies. Another instrument they using are court cases against journalists The judicial system is under government control and they’re unable to rule impartially. The editor of the weekly newspaper Fokus was sentenced to 6000 Euros for defamation which by Macedonia’s standards is too high when the average salary is 350 Euros. This lawsuit was submitted by the director of the Macedonian secret police, who is the cousin of the Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski.
Which topics are most heavily censored in Macedonia?
I think that very few media sources in Macedonia can criticize the Prime Minister or his cabinet. There is almost no one critiquing corruption in government although it is a public secret that this government is spending a huge amount of money on unproductive products. No one can criticize national policy if they do not belong to the ethnic Macedonia community or to the Macedonian Orthodox Church, as the media propaganda machine will accuse you of being a traitor. Very few can get away with criticizing international policy, including relationships with NATO and the EU. By doing this you risk being charged of espionage.
So, what other legal repercussions have journalists faced?
Journalists facing lawsuits have no hope of a fair trial. Most likely they will be sentenced to prison or face large fines. The government also will immediately campaign against you without any facts. We have many examples of impunity for violence against journalists.
So, in addition to legal repercussions, what social or other repercussions have journalists faced?
Journalists in Macedonia must truly love their job as there is no court that will protect them. If you cause problems, you will be replaced with younger and inexperienced journalists. Media owners are not looking for good journalists but for people that will follow instructions.
Have you be censored yourself? If so, was it self-censorship to protect yourself, editorial censorship, or government?
To be honest, as a journalist I haven’t practiced self-censorship. It is a fair to say that my newspaper has more freedom of expression than others. Of course, we cannot write about anything. There are some topics not present in the media. On the other hand as the President of the Association of Macedonian Journalists I never hesitate to criticize government policy, for which I pay a price. There was an example of a Facebook post I wrote which provoked the ruling party to respond and label me as a loser and an incompetent journalist
Conditions in Macedonia for freedom of expression have declined rapidly according the 2014 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. In your experience, how have you observed these declining conditions?
These reports are completely accurate. In the last year, we have worked very hard to explain to our colleagues and to the international community about the real state of the media in Macedonia. The Association of Journalists of Macedonia warned that the authorities were taking all the wrong political steps regarding the media sector. Our recommendations for improving this situation were essentially ignored.
One rather new negative trend is the public discrediting by mainstream media of international human rights and media organizations who are critical of government policies.
What steps do you believe Macedonia needs to take to protect journalists?
To be honest, I do not believe that this government will change their policy because if they stop controlling the media, they will lose power. They can only save their power by controlling the media, the judicial system, and civic society. It’s very easy to solve those problems but I do not see the political will from the Macedonian government.