The recorded phone conversation of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev with Russian comics Vovan (Vladimir Kuznetsov) and Lexus (Alexei Stolyarov) who pranked the Macedonian Prime Minister introducing themselves as the former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, from yesterday (9 July 2019) is the top topic among the public in Macedonia, but also abroad. The video released by the two pranksters contains three audio recordings of conversations with Zaev from August 2018, January 2019 and April 2019, and caused a series of reactions. The opposition classifies the case as “an embarrassing gaffe and a serious diplomatic scandal” and demanded resignation from Zaev. The Prime Minister, however, admitting that he naively believed the Russian “jokesters”, became the object of mockery on social media.

When more than four years ago (9 February 2015) Zaev, leader of the opposition at that time, released audio-recordings at a press-conference, disclosing the mega-scandal with the wiretapping that marked the beginning of the end of rule of the then prime minister and leader of the VMRO-DPMNE, Nikola Gruevski, he probably did not think that his government, and himself, would be in the center of a telephone scandal. Although the two scandals are of a different format, the entire situation – releasing telephone recordings, somehow reminds of the saying “a taste of your own medicine”.

“Wiretapping” scandal
On 9 February 2015, Zaev, at a specially convened press-conference in the headquarters of SDSM, presented audio recordings of telephone conversations which, he said, were illegally acquired by the services of the Ministry of Interior at the order of the then Prime Minister and his first cousin – former head of the Administration for Security and Counterintelligence, Sasho Mijalkov. It was reported that the complete political, judicial, media and business elite in Macedonia, as well as foreign diplomats were wiretapped. Only the phones of Gruevski and Mijalkov were not directly wiretapped.
In the following period, “bombs” were released once or twice a week and each subsequent was more serious than the previous. By mid-June, 38 “bombs” were released which talk about the direct gap between government and justice, about constructed processes, corruption and crime in the highest structures of the then government. Macedonia entered a deep political crisis. A way out of the crisis was the Przhino Agreement signed on 2 June 2015 after which the Special Public Prosecutor’s Office was formed. This Office was formed according to the Law on Public Prosecutor’s Office for prosecuting criminal offences related to and arising from the content of the illegally intercepted communication. On 15 September 2015, the Council of Public Prosecutors appointed Katica Janeva as a Special Public Prosecutor.

Zaev’s audio “bomb” with the fake Poroshenko and Stoltenberg, in fact, covered another scandal with recorded telephone conversations – the case with the General Secretary of the Government, Dragi Rashkovski. This scandal has been raging for ten days, after audio recordings were released on which Rashkovski is heard and he allegedly agrees on the realization of the purchase of a radar system for M-NAV from an Italian company “Leonardo”.  The Anti-Corruption Commission got interested in the case and started investigating and looking for answers to questions – in which capacity the General Secretary was involved in the tender procedure.

However, these are not the only recordings of telephone conversations that were released in the public after the disclosure of the wiretapping scandal in February 2015. Zaev then, at a press-conference announced that over the period 2008-2015, 20,000 citizens were illegally wiretapped, releasing audio-recordings as evidence. After the formation of the Special Public Prosecutor’s Office, the opposition at that time (SDSM) handed over the files with wiretapped conversations, and their further publishing was banned by the Law on Protection of Privacy.

Prison sentence for publishing audio-recordings that violate privacy
The Law on Protection of Privacy (2015-2016) prohibits possession, procession, public release and disposal in any way of materials arising from the illegal monitoring of communications carried out in the period from 2008 to 2015, including their use and disposal in the election process, political and other purposes and actions. Furthermore, the Law provides prison sentences for “those who releases wiretapped or recorded conversations or parts of conversations or transcripts that violate the privacy of personal and family life”, as well as for “those who will allow an uninvited individual to get acquainted with a conversation or statement that has been wiretapped or recorded”.

However, despite the legal restrictions, new and new wiretapped conversations – “bombs” were released in the public under different code names (“El Cheka”, “Nikola Tesla”, “Ilija Gromovnik” etc.).

During 2016, through social media were released recordings of telephone conversations of DUI officials.  The anonymous publisher stated that the conversations are among Ali Ahmeti, Musa Džaferi and Ermira Mehmeti. Mehmeti, meanwhile, claimed that her voice is not on the recordings and that they are not authentic.

As was written in the media, such recordings were released earlier by the “defendant in the court case ‘Spy’”, journalist Zoran Bozhinovski, and folders with wiretapped conversations were found on Zahir Bekiri Chaush’s computer and on USB and hard drives kept in his home in a folder named – ZAEV-SDSM.

This year (2019) in April, during presidential elections, on the Russian social network “VKontakte”, by a user with the pseudonym “Ilija Gromovnik” wiretapped telephone conversations of the former and current officials, analysts and public firm representatives were released.

In May 2019, on the Russian network “VKontakte” an audio recording was published, on which we can hear MP Pavle Bogoevski ordering “half” of something. The publisher of the recording claims that Bogoevski talks about drugs, and Bogoevski stated that on the recording he is ordering cannabis oil for a close relative. In June, Bogoevski officially resigned from his role as an MP.

The same month on a profile named “El Chaka” on Facebook, six wiretapped conversations were released. Five of these are in Albanian, and in the description it is stated that the persons in the conversations are DUI members: Blerim Bexheti, Musa Dzaferi and Bekir Asani. One of the conversations is in Macedonian, and the publisher claims that it is between the former Minister of Interior, Gordana Jankuloska, and former director of UBK, Sasho Mijalkov.

The public, for now, has no information about the origin of these conversations.

According to the Facebook status of the Vice President of the Assembly, Frosina Remenski, the biggest challenge of all security-intelligence services is dealing with unconventional forms of endangering national security and strategic interests, through use of tools of a special (information) war, nowadays known as hybrid threats.

-Hybrid threats (a combination of legal and illegal actions with a purpose) are used by individuals, groups, movements, political parties, governments and counterintelligence services in order to achieve their goals and interests or to disrupt the interests of countries where the products of the hybrid threats are placed. The current recording of the so-called “prankers” is a classic example of a hybrid tool. The legality of this hybrid tool is only the right to communicate. The illegality is the false representation, the use of agents provocateurs behind a veil of “prankers” and the concealment of the illegality and abuse of media by the so-called prankers behind the veil of freedom of expression and freedom of media as a democratic value – Remenski writes.

Professor Jove Kekenovski states that the current legislation does not provide sufficient and serious guarantee for protection against illegal recording, wiretapping and releasing telephone conversations. In a statement given for “Meta”, he emphasizes that “with such government, opposition, judiciary and police, any regulation you adopt will not be efficient.”

According to him, the problem has multiple layers.

-First of all, nobody trusts anybody. Trust in institutions is lost. The division in the institutions and the polarization between the political parties is still high. It has not been cleared up and there is no epilogue with the previously recorded conversations, and in terms of the newly released secretly recorded conversations the institutions are powerless. In this context we need to have in mind the fact that in the absence of an effective system of protection against illegal wiretapping and releasing of the recordings, as well as the absence of an effective and robust legal regulation with draconian penalties, the foreign services have found a fertile soil and “a village without a watchdog” and unfortunately, depending on their interests, they are trading with the recorded conversations with political parties and politicians – says Kekenovski.

He notes that one should not neglect “the rumors from the past – that the major political parties and certain businessmen possess illegal wiretapping equipment and have installed illegal parallel wiretapping system”.

The Executive Director of the Coalition “All for Fair Trials”, Natali Petrovska, considers that the basis for the existence of guarantees for protection against illegal recording are fulfilled, given the fact that the Constitution of the Republic of North Macedonia (RNM) and the Criminal Code provide protection of the privacy of citizens.

-Article 152 of the Criminal Code of RNM in detail regulates the possibility of recording and releasing recordings as an illegal act, and it also states that this is an act of unauthorized creation of photographs, film or video recordings of another person or their premises without consent, violating their privacy. These regulations are also applicable to the person that will directly transfer or show such recordings to a third party. The sentence is prison, depending on the status of the perpetrator, and it varies from fines to 3 years of imprisonment – stated Petrovska in a statement for “Meta”.

She also adds that the very incrimination of the crime and the fact that procedural laws create additional security when it comes to evidence materials obtained in this way – via illegal recording, limits their usable value as evidence, suggesting multilayer protection, that is “obstacles” on several levels for the use of illegal recorded materials.

Petrovska points out that “the only limitation to this right to protection of privacy is found in the cases when the state, legitimately, through its organs and with a special permit (Special investigative measures), envisaged in the Law on Criminal Procedure and the Law on Monitoring of Communications, would enable the collection of this kind of evidence or materials”.

On the other hand, Petrovska noted that despite the provided protection, in the recent period we have witnessed an upward trend of illegally recorded conversations, mostly of state officials, that often end up on the “black market” or are distributed and made available to the public on channels that have no genuine origin and are not registered in RNM. All this is done with the purpose to encourage possible political instability or political processes that would affect the social trends in the country.