Ralf Breth, the Head of OSCE Mission to Skopje, during a conference on good practices for political party and campaign financing in Skopje, October 2013 © OSCE/Silke Tittel (CC BY-ND 4.0)

Too Small, Too Personal

Media laws in Macedonia and Slovenia are largely in line with international standards. Yet to guarantee a transparent system and independent reporting this is not enough.

In April 2014 the Republic of Macedonia held its fourth general parliamentary election in the last 8 years along with a regularly scheduled presidential election. As usual it was monitored thoroughly by the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which this time gave a far from stellar report. One of the main criticisms was that there was a lack of independent reporting and a severe bias in the media, even worse than for previous elections.

This bias can be seen as evidence of problems identified in the latest country report on Macedonia by the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI), namely concentrated media ownership tied to politics and increased political pressure on editors and journalists. The challenges to media freedom in Macedonia are, among others, rooted both in the small size of the media market and in the very personal nature of politics in this country of only 2 million.

Media register does not foster transparency

Macedonia did not have a generic media law before December 2013. The law now “guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the media” and establishes a register of media requiring them to report to the Agency for Audiovisual Media Services on their ownership structure, sources of financing, and editorial staff. This was basically already required of licensed broadcasters, but the Media Law now requires it also of print media. Online media are excluded.

Such a register could in theory help to combat the problem of ownership concentration and political influence by introducing more transparency. In Slovenia such a register has existed for years and there is no evidence yet that it has been used as an instrument of government control, but neither are there indications that it has encouraged pluralism or improved transparency. As the latest country report on Slovenia by the Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) project found, the country’s media market continues to suffer from a lack of transparency, remains highly concentrated and the government has done little to improve the situation. In Macedonia the media register is also unlikely to help combat political influence linked to media ownership or concentration.

In 2012, after years of inaction, the Macedonian Broadcasting Council finally forced ownership changes in two national television stations and one national radio station because of their owners’ direct links to politics. Lack of transparency was not what had kept the regulator from reacting sooner. Few people did not know, for instance, that Ljubisav Ivanov-Zingo, MP, owned TV Sitel, and most also knew that Boris Stojmenov, MP, owned Kanal5. The small political parties led by these two men were at the time and remain in the governing coalition. Audiences are generally well aware of the biases in the major broadcasters and choose the media with which they agree.

In fact the size and nature of the market makes the media’s political connections nearly essential. As I have shown in previous research, the size of the advertising budgets in Macedonia and number of media outlets make it nearly impossible for them to sustain themselves commercially, much less make a profit.

Some of the larger media owners are not even that interested in whether their media outlet earns money. For these owners their media serve to protect their other businesses by providing something that can be offered in exchange for favours related to licenses, tenders, etc. Many media survive off of either government paid public service announcements or from election campaign to election campaign offering little substance to audiences in between. Any increased transparency that might be introduced by the operation of a public media register is not likely to break these clientelistic ties, which are already “open secrets”.

“Right of Reply”: A new tool to put pressure on free media

Moreover, the new strict rules contained in the Media Law regarding right of reply and correction could be used as tools for exercising greater pressure on editors and journalists. Now “physical persons or legal entities” can seek either the right of reply or the right of correction, which must be published or broadcast without changes in the same length and position as the original claim.

Similar rules were put in place in Slovenia in 2006 and based on this small country’s experience Professor Marko Milosavljevic of the University of Ljubljana warned:  “there’s a thin line between the right of reply or correction and the right to exert undue pressure on the media”. Although ostensibly to protect ordinary citizens in Slovenia these rights have been used overwhelmingly by state ministries, local authorities, corporations and other institutions.

The rules are new in Macedonia yet, but given the history of libel and defamation cases in the country the picture is likely to be similar. The civil fines for defamation in Macedonia are exorbitant for the current economic standards and suits are abundant. As of March this year a Balkan Insight reporter found 330 cases pending in courts. This means many journalists are facing multiple suits and several well-known journalists have already been sued before.

In a recent case brought by the Head of the Security and Counterintelligence Directorate, Saso Mijalkov, against the magazine Fokus, which published statements by an ex-ambassador who claimed Mijalkov had him removed from office, editor Jadranka Kostova had to pay €5,000 plus more than half that in court fees. In October 2011, Kostova was levied a fine of €18,000 for supposedly defamatory remarks about then Foreign Minister Antonio Milosevski. Kostova’s predecessor, the late Nikola Mladenov, was forced to pay nearly €50,000 in fines and damages in suits brought against him by Branko Crvenkovski while he was president and by the former Prime Minister of Hari Kostov. The size of the fines and the personal nature of these suits have the potential to close down media outlets or bankrupt individual journalists.

The main political parties, especially while in government, are not lacking in media that can serve as vehicle through which to contradict claims shared on other media in the eyes of the public. Instead the rights of reply and correction are simply additional tools for shaming and financially burdening editors and journalists that cause trouble for political elites.

Changing laws is not enough

What would it take for the next election monitoring assessment, BTI Report or Freedom House’s Press Freedom rankings to show improvement in Macedonia? One thing would be to amend the Media Law so that the rights of reply and correction are more limited and perhaps cannot be used ex officio. The maximum fines for libel and defamation could be reduced.

However, for the most part changing laws will not provide a solution. As the BTI report and others have pointed out, the laws in Macedonia are already in line with generally international standards. Unless media outlets are able to function as normal commercial media whose primary function is to cater to audiences and advertisers and journalists are able to do their jobs isolated from the other business or political interests of media owners or the personal vendettas of politicians, there is little hope for real improvement.

Dr Sally Broughton Micova is the Research Officer for the LSE Media Policy Project at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Before entering academia she was Head of Media Development and Spokesperson for the OSCE Mission to Skopje for several years.

Related BTI

Study: BTI 2014 Report
Political Management in International Comparison

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