The example of decline of freedom of expression in Macedonia offers a lesson on how populist forces can subvert democracy and use its mechanisms to conduct state capture.
Freedom of expression is a human right which enables implementation of all other human rights: if the people are unable to express themselves, then they cannot communicate their needs in any other area. That’s why attempts to increase government control of the media sector should be viewed as warning sign of growing authoritarian tendencies within a country.
During the last decade, Macedonia’s backsliding from democracy was evident in the drastic fall of its rating on various international indexes, including those compiled by Freedom House and Reporters without Borders. For instance, during this period, Freedom House’s Freedom in the World reports measuring the general level of political rights designated Macedonia as “partly free,” while by 2016 its reports on the Freedom of the Press designated the country as “not free.”
The World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters without Borders, corroborates these findings. Macedonia slid from 34th place in the world in 2009 to a low of 123rd within a period of only five years.
This is not an isolated case, as the level of media freedoms have declined both in the immediate region, the Western Balkans, and beyond. However, Macedonia is an outlier both at regional and continental level. From a status of candidate for membership in EU and NATO with improving score during the first decade of 21st century, its rank quickly plunged near those held by some of the more authoritarian countries in Europe: Russia, Belarus and Turkey.
The period of decline is related to the increase of populism. The ruling political party VMRO-DPMNE, which came into power in 2006 with a mix of election promises mainly focused on economy and European integration, over time consolidated its power by using a mix of nationalism and clientelism.
Within the first few years most TV stations and newspapers either become willing members of party’s propaganda ecosystem, reaping benefits of state-funded advertising and other subsidies for their owners, or were intimidated into keeping a low profile. The rest, including most influential critical media, were removed from the market using ‘selective justice’ through party-controlled judiciary.
The ownership of all but several print media and national TVs, as well as most local TV and radio stations, had close ties to the government, affecting their editorial policies and hiring/firing decisions. Satirical content was not desirable on the air either: the most popular humorist show in the country, K-15 had to cancel due to political pressure on TVs and fear by advertisers from the private sector.
The state-owned media outlets, the Public Broadcaster MRTV and the state news agency – Macedonian information Agency (MIA) remained under tight political and financial control of the ruling party and continued to serve as vehicles of propaganda.
By the end of 2013, the internet and social networks remained the sole space for exercise of freedom of expression – for the unintimidated few. Small groups of journalists opened several news portals, which together with digital activists served as beacon of free expression. The whole atmosphere had the characteristics of a “spiral of silence,” with precious few critical voices.
Increasingly, independent journalists had to suffer direct verbal and/or online threats by officials and government mouthpieces with complete impunity. According to the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) over the period of four years (2012-2016), there were more than 20 threats and physical attacks against journalists, and none of the violators have been sanctioned.
In 2013, the atmosphere of fear was compounded by the controversial death of publisher Nikola Mladenov, officially declared a traffic accident. Journalist Tomislav Kežarovski, who revealed inconsistencies of the investigation, spent almost two years in jail and prison under different pretext. Web portal owner & editor Zoran Božinovski spent almost 15 months in detention, until July 2017.
The worrisome trend of impunity for physical violence against independent journalists and civil society activists intensified between the spring of 2015 and the spring of 2017. ‘Blacklisted’ persons or organizations suffered direct death threats and physical violence at almost weekly basis. Basic human rights had been infringed on a massive scale: the wiretaps leaked by the opposition in 2015 showed that the ruling party conducted illegal surveillance against journalists and civil society. Collusion between state and pro-government media for political prosecution was also conducted on a wide scale, for instance by criminal abuse of personal data controlled by state institutions.
The European Commission Report on Macedonia, issued in November 2016, summarized the situation by noting that “democracy and rule of law have been constantly challenged, in particular due to state capture affecting the functioning of democratic institutions and key areas of society.”
The attacks intensified around the 2016 elections, after the declaration of general purge of civil society by the former prime minister and head of then still-ruling party. This included state institutions employing harassment measures similar to those that Russian government had used against civil society since 2012. The campaign culminated with the storming of the parliament by a lynch mob April 27, 2017, attacking MPs and journalists. The situation calmed after this grave incident, which alerted the international community at the highest level. Then, the elected authorities slowly started assuming their positions.
The first step out of the Macedonian political crisis was conducting credible elections, which took place in December 2016. After much additional turmoil, the elections resulted in forming of new government coalition at the end of May 2017. Led by former main opposition party, the new government emphasized returning of media freedoms and fulfilling the Urgent Reform Priorities as essential goals within their program. These reforms include changes in the legal framework that need to provide conditions for democratic development.