By Kai Prager, Senior Media Relations Specialist, Business Wire
If you visit Skopje, Macedonia today, you will be surprised. The central spots in Macedonia’s capital are crawling with enormous fountains, museums and bridges laced with statues over the Vardar River (which divides the city in two parts). Wondering when they might have been built, I learned that they were all quite new, produced within the last 10 years. The construction of these monuments is part of the project Skopje 2014 — the idea being to enhance a city that was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1963. However, the project is controversial, not only due to its high costs, but also because it is viewed as nationalistic historicist kitsch by many Macedonians.
Macedonian media can also be viewed as new and somewhat controversial. Most publications were first published after the declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Under the promise of a free press, newspapers and magazines were printed and new broadcasters took to the air. But today, there is not much left of that free press. In 2009, Macedonia was ranked 34th on Press Freedom Index (by Reporters Without Borders). Five years later, it has dropped down to number 123.
(Skopje, Macedonia – Photo by Kai Prager)
When I visited the South East European Media Forum in Skopje this year, I had the chance to speak with Dragan Sekulovski, who works as Executive Director at the Association Of Journalists Of Macedonia. He kindly agreed to answer some of the questions I had about the media in his country and about the aforementioned drop on the Press Freedom Index.
What caused Macedonia’s fall on the Press Freedom Index?
Unfortunately, Macedonia is setting new records with a drop down of 89 places in less than 5 years on the Reporters Without Border’s Press Freedom Index. The main difference in the media back in 2009 and now is the level of criticism of the journalists and the media. Nowadays there is almost no critique in the mainstream media towards the ruling parties and the governmental reforms. In a society where the politicians are not able to stand a critique and where critical media are shut down, journalists are imprisoned for writing a text. The government is the biggest advertiser in the private media and journalists are sued by officials … we cannot expect, with all this, for Macedonia to have a better place on the Press Freedom Index.
The media market in Macedonia is small. Does this also have an effect on the media landscape?
Macedonia has almost 200 media outlets and they all compete in a small, distorted market and cover about 2 million citizens. They cannot survive financially unless they align their interests with the governing parties and politically connected large businesses. Apart from the public broadcaster (MTV), the vast majority of the country’s press is in private hands. However, the government comes out on top among the 50 largest advertisers in the country. In 2012 and in 2013, the government was in first place with twice as many campaigns in the private media than the larger local mobile operator T-Mobile. You cannot expect to have a free media market when there is so much influence by the government.
Other countries in the region (Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, etc.) have a small media market as well. Do you think they have similar problems?
I would not say that the problems are similar since the pressure points that are creating chilling effects and self-censorship in Macedonia are far more drastic than in neighboring countries. Two recent cases illustrate this negative trend: the first one is the case of Kezarovski, a journalist who in 2008 wrote a text and published in local small print media. In 2013, he was arrested and convicted for alleged reveling identity of a secret witness, and at the moment, he is more than 18 months detained waiting for the final word of the Appeal Court in Skopje. The second case, as of this autumn, is about a court verdict for defamation where the plaintiff is the Director of the Secret Service and the defendants are [the] editor and journalists from the local printed weekly Fokus. The court here judged a compensation of non-pecuniary damage in amount of 9000 EUR, including court expenses, for the editor and the journalists of Fokus to pay. These negative examples that influence the freedom of expression and independence of media are unique for this part of the world.
How does the move to digital media (internet, mobile devices, social media, etc.) change the media landscape?
Following the global trend, the online media in Macedonia are becoming more influential and are being followed by large percentage of the audience. Based on the assessments of the regulator, 44% of the audience is being informed on a daily basis from web portals. These media can offer some criticism, media pluralism is generally present, and some investigative journalistic stories can be found.
What sources do Macedonian journalists usually use to access information?
Mainly from press conferences and releases from the state media agencies. Interesting to note is that journalistic questions are rarely present during a press conference. Some journalists are using the Law on Access to Information of Public Character, but the information is not always satisfactorily received or delivered in the desirable time frame.
Which information or topics are the most popular in the media?
News and propaganda that promote governmental policy and reforms; chronicles; news about celebrities; critiques of opposition political parties and civil society organizations/individuals; and global news. Very rarely we can see in the mainstream media TV debates from guests which are having different opinion[s] of governmental policy.