Macedonia

By Kristina Jingling

Introduction

1400px-Flag_of_Macedonia.svg

Flag of the Republic of Macedonia

The Republic of Macedonia is a country in Europe located just north of Greece with a rich culture and tumultuous history. Since its recent independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, there have been many disastrous free speech and free press issues. According to Reporters Without Borders’ yearly free press ranking system, Macedonia sits at 118 out of 180 countries in 2016, a major drop from 2009 when they were 34. Numerous lawsuits have been filed against reporters in recent years, many involving threats, wiretapping, protesting and government-controlled media.

History

Macedonian history dates very far back, with early establishments dating back to an estimated era of 6000 B.C. During this early time period, a basic ethnic pool of Illyrian and Thracian tribes was created; very little is known about how the tribes lived during this time period, such as how they communicated and what their customs and culture were. It is known from this very early age they worked hard to distinguish themselves from Greek culture, something they are still striving for today (Rossos, 11).

Around 600 B.C., Macedonia began branching out to various parts of what is now Macedonia, Bulgaria and parts of Greece under the ruling of King Perdiccas I. While there is not much information about the Perdiccas family and their ruling, Macedonia geographically became the largest ever during their ruling from 359-336 B.C (Rossos, 13). From this time period until the start of the Ottoman Empire in about 1400 A.D., the country faced wars and struggled to establish themselves.

Macedonia was controlled by the Ottoman Empire at the start of the nineteenth century (Rossos, 59) and by 1878, the Ottoman Empire was still in possession of Epirus, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Thrace. The empire began to decline due to the rise of Christianity and countries began to separate. In 1913, the Ottoman empire ended after ruling the country for five centuries (Macedonia Country Profile). At the start of World War I in 1914, Macedonia was occupied by Bulgaria. By 1918, the country was a part of Serbia, creating what is now Yugoslavia, and in 1991, Macedonia peacefully gained independence. The country then became the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Since 2004, Macedonia is recognized by its official name as the Republic of Macedonia. The country has seen a great deal of political unrest since the early 2000s. In 2005, Macedonia became a candidate for the European Union and in 2008, became a candidate for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). However, that same year, Greece blocked their opportunity to join due to a name dispute; Greece argues that the name ‘Macedonia’ is ultimately Greek and that all Macedonians are Greek because of the history and cultural ties between the countries. Macedonia contends they are Macedonians and nothing more; the struggle to find their own identity has been present since their independence (Danforth, 6). President Gjorge Ivanov was reelected for a five-year term in 2014. Macedonia’s estimated population is 2,077,328 with the main two nationalities being Macedonian and Albanian.

Free Speech

The current state of Macedonian free speech and press is the worst the country has seen in recent history. Press is considered to be “not free” (Freedom of the Press) because of the mass censorship from the government. The government was caught wiretapping journalists and citizens, and discoveries about ties between media owners and corrupt government officials have been exposed to the public. Additionally in recent years, attacks on media employees have increased dramatically during protests and political campaigns.

Reports of civilians and journalists being wiretapped began surfacing in early 2015, after Zoran Zaev, head of the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, claimed he had evidence of this against Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. Rather than releasing the evidence himself, Zaev invited journalists to pick up the transcripts from him as an act of solidarity against the government. Ironically, a law was passed that February from the public prosecutor’s office, stating it was “illegal to publish material that could become evidence in criminal court proceedings” (Freedom of the Press, 2016). Early reports from The New York Times in June 2015 say “Mr. Gruevski… was far from apologetic [about the wiretapping] when he spoke at an anniversary celebration for his party on Saturday evening. He accused an unnamed organization, probably a foreign intelligence service” (Berendt, 2015). Unfortunately, nothing has been resolved for the country. The reports of the incident and the turmoil it caused the country damaged its chances of joining NATO and the European Union. The BBC reported in April 2016 Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov pardoned politicians involved in the scandal and cancelled the investigation, causing mass riots that would later be called the Colorful Revolution. Protestors took balloons filled with paint and tossed them at government buildings in the Macedonian capitol of Skopje, until Ivanov felt the pressure and reversed his ruling (Ash, 2016). Special prosecutors are still completing their investigation over the case. Three women, Katica Janeva, Lence Ristovska, and Fatime Fetai, hired and initially praised by Gruevski, now work for the Macedonian people; “Justice will prevail” Janeva said.

Throughout late February and early March 2017, a series of attacks against journalists have occurred in the country’s capital. Political crisis has escalated in the past few months and according to Reporters Without Borders’, protests between the nationalist party, VMRO-DPMNE, and SDSM, the opposition social democratic party, have caused journalists to be hospitalized. European Union leaders have requested President Gjorge Ivanov to work quickly to resolve these issues and provide protection for journalists “so that they are able to work properly” (Reporters Without Borders, 2017).

Free Press

Most media outlets in Macedonia are controlled by the government, with journalists and other entities being told what they can and cannot publish. In a 2014 study over fifty percent of Macedonian journalists said they censor themselves in their work, for fear of being sued, threatened or injured (Reporters Without Borders). Article 16 of the Macedonian Constitution states “The freedom of speech, public address, public information and the establishment of institutions for public information is guaranteed. Free access to information and the freedom of reception and transmission of information are guaranteed… Censorship is prohibited” (World Intellectual Property Organization). Unfortunately, because their nation is so corrupt, this is rarely upheld during trials against journalists.

The majority of journalists identify with either the party in alliance with the government or the opposition, so independent journalists are not highly respected in Macedonia. A specific example of censored media occurred in July 2015 against independent journalist Sashe Ivanovski, “a highly controversial citizen journalist and owner of the web portal, Maktel” (Index on Censorship, 2016). On July 14, 2015, Invanovski was assaulted by Aleksandar Spasovski, a reporter for pro-government media outlet TV Sitel. The very next day, Vladimir Peshevski, deputy prime minister for economic affairs, assaulted Invanovski. Even though both incidents were recorded on camera and reported to the police, no action was taken and it was even suggested that because Invanovski is not considered a true journalist, the attacks were not obstructions of freedom of expression (Index on Censorship, 2016).

Tomislav Kezarovski, a former journalist in Macedonia, was suddenly arrested in 2013 for an article he wrote in 2008. Kezarovski quoted an internal police report that was leaked to him about a protected witness in a murder case; however, at the time the piece was published, this witness was not protected and eventually admitted to giving a false statement (Reporters Without Borders, 2016). Kezarovski was found guilty in October 2013 after being held in prison for five months before his trial and was sentenced to an additional four and a half years of jail time (Macedonia Jails Journalist Tomislav Kezarovski, 2013). Due to extreme criticism from activists nationally and internationally, Kezarovski was sentenced to house arrest in November 2013. He was again taken from his home in January 2015 and had his sentence reduced to two and a half years in prison. However, after being placed back in prison, he ended up serving a total of three and a half years with his time served before his trial. He was temporarily released in January 2015 for health issues and was greeted by 3,000 supporters in the capital city. Due to international and national pressure, he was granted house arrest (Freedom House). Kezarovski’s story received international attention from media outlets like The New York Times, the Guardian and Reuters.

Critical Comparison

Free speech and free press in Macedonia are grim in comparison to how the United States handles conflict. The United States as a country is protected by the First Amendment and has many court cases to prove its validity. In Macedonia, a free speech and free press article of the constitution does exist, but is rarely upheld in the court of law.

A comparison falls in the current political turmoil in both countries and how protestors are handled by police units and the government. During the Colorful Revolution in Skojpe, Macedonia, protestors damaged government property and leader of the leftist Levica party’s presidential committee, Zdravko Saveski, was charged with participation in a mob and destroying state property (Strickland, 2016). These protests were in reaction to the wiretapping pardons and Saveski said he was only arrested because he is viewed as the leader of the organization. Saveski was sentenced to over 50 days of house arrest during the investigation.

Six journalists were similarly charged with rioting or inciting to riot following the Inauguration Day protests in the United States in January 2017, even though the journalists insisted they were not involved with the events of that day and only there to film and record events. Regardless if the speech expresses the popular opinion, the United States examines the First Amendment rights with utmost scrutiny; this is clear in the Snyder v. Phelps case, where it was decided that the Westboro Baptist Church had the right to picket at deceased Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder regardless of personal feelings the Supreme Court had towards the situation. Brandenburg v. Ohio showcases an example of hate speech but still receiving due process and the First Amendment upholding the right of free speech. Brandenburg, a member of the KKK, invited a TV journalist to come to a meeting and after being televised was eventually convicted of assembling under criminal syndicalism. The First Amendment upheld that the Ohio criminal syndicalism law was illegal because speech can only be prohibited if it is inciting or producing imminent lawless action and/or if it’s likely to incite action. Neither occurred so Brandenburg was found innocent. The journalist’s felony charges were dropped but the search and seizure of their electronic devices still continues (Tillman, 2017).

Macedonia has over 50 political parties (Farije), but two main journalism parties –Macedonian Association of Journalists and Association of Journalists of Macedonia –resemble the split between right-wing and left-wing journalists in the United States. Although Macedonia recognizes the right to free speech, press and the right to assemble in their Constitution (Article 21, World Intellectual Property Organization) they do not uphold these laws; an example would be the assaults on Sashe Ivanovski. Had Ivanoski’s attacks occurred in the U.S. and he reported the assault to the police, the other men would have been arrested and a fair trial would have ensued.

Conclusion

Macedonia may have free speech and press outlined in its constitution, but they have a lot of work to do as far as corrupt government choosing what they allow the media to say and how they treat journalists in their country. Because Macedonia is a relatively young nation, one can hope they learn from the mistakes of the United States, as well as the accomplishments we have seen using First Amendment rights, and adapt to those changes accordingly.

This essay was last updated April 30, 2017.

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