The government boasted that media workers are freed from political pressure. But, the conduct of some government officials and the journalists’ experience from their everyday work are proof that this is still not true. Threats, pressure, insults, influence – all of these methods are still part of the everyday life in the media sphere, say many journalists from Investigative Journalism Analysis Platform (PINA).
Author: Kristina Ozimec – PINA
Correspondence, blackmail, threats and insults are part of the methods that the government’s Secretary General, Dragi Rashkovski, has used when communicating with the team of journalists of the Provereno (Verified) show, when they were investigating nepotism and employment of people close to him, as they say for PINA. Sashka Cvetkovska from the Investigative Reporting Lab and the Provereno show says that while working on one episode Rashkovski jumped down one journalist’s throat in every way possible – through e-mails, phone calls and texts because he didn’t like what they will write about nepotism in the government regarding cases when he had employed his close relatives.
“Not only does he think that he did nothing wrong, but he also sees himself as a victim. However, this victim is not a normal mortal, it’s a high government official. In the correspondence with our colleague, he used all means – blackmail, threats, insults. Unlike him, Provereno shot an entire episode for the Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s family businesses of marijuana cultivation and we had no problems, Zaev even agreed to be interviewed with no problems whatsoever, and there wasn’t even a discussion for the questions beforehand. Sometimes, Zaev apologizes on behalf of other officials, but they in no way apologize for themselves. It shouldn’t be like that, the responsibility here is not collective, but individual and the report and accountability principle must be forced. Functionaries with such behavior should resign immediately.” says Cvetkovska.
PINA also contacted the government’s Secretary General, Dragi Rashkovski regarding the pressure and we inquired whether the allegations concerning his threats are true, as well as how and whether he is sorry for that conduct. We inquired if he thinks that it is appropriate for officials to threaten journalists, or attempt to pressure and influence them, what kind of consequences does that leave on the entire atmosphere of freedom of the press and democracy in the country, but also if an official that threatens a journalist should resign because of such conduct. We inquired if he had any responsibility regarding the aforementioned situation and if he would resign. We got a short answer to our SMS, saying: “The answer to all the questions is NO.”
(PIKTOCHART: Rashkovski’s five NOs)
Government representatives recently boasted that one of the most recognized change in the country is relieving journalists from political pressures. The new Government’s approach is much more transparent compared to the previous one, since they published many documents for the public, for example the declassification of contracts with foreign investors, and they also provided tools for checking public officials’ spending. As promised, they abolished government advertising, deemed one of the main sources of media corruption, which the previous government used to gain support for its policies by the then pro-government media.
Regular briefings with journalists are held, and unlike the previous negative experiences, now everyone can ask a question regarding any topic during a press conference, not just about the government’s daily agenda. A decision was made for the journalists to have free access to the Central Registry’s and Agency for Real Estate Cadastre’s services, even though journalists still have some remarks for this measure, that the access to these services should be better and with more ease. All in all, the new government’s attempts to relax the work atmosphere in the media are visible, but they are nowhere near a satisfactory level.
„If you ask a question, there won’t be an interview“
Cases such as the one with Rashkovski, as well as other incidents reported by media workers in the last period, show that even after the shift of power, journalists are faced with pressures from functionaries. Several months earlier, Furkan Saliu, TV 21’s journalist, also accused an employee from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for being pressured during a press conference and in a room full of journalists and cameramen.
“If you ask a question, you will never get an interview” were the words which Saliu says were said to him by Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ employee during the Minister of foreign affairs Nikola Dimitrov’s and mediator Matthew Nimetz’s press conference. Saliu says this incident was a harsh attempt to silence the journalists.
“Now people from the government may not call you to order a news piece but, on the other hand, all those loud safeguards of the public good are employed in the government. Those that really have information and influence in society, but are not employed in the government, are people close to the previous ruling set, so there’s rarely anyone who believes them. The incumbent government is far more transparent, but it all stops here. Here I am, being personally threatened that I won’t get an interview if I ask a question, all of it is recorded and the Ministry is apologizing in the name of the employee, but he still works there” says Saliu.
According to him, even though the journalists’ work ambiance is generally better previously, he doesn’t believe that journalists are completely freed from political pressures.
“The situation in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was the first harsher attempt for silencing a journalist and I hope it will be the last. However, a Minister (now an ex-Minister) has called me before, objecting a question and asking me who pays me to ask such questions” says Saliu.
Cvetkovska thinks that a major improvement in terms of communication with the media has been achieved, but we are still far from substantial shifts.
“Corruption in the media remains a problem, the propaganda remains not only installed, but also a well-accepted tool of this administration. The impression that almost nobody is dealing with the substantial problems in the already devastated media is unavoidable, but we therefore have an invasion of unreasonable spending of resources for propaganda by the government PR team.
Finally, it is inevitable that the “PR” is more committed to working on creating a perception that something is being done rather than changing something for real. All those cameramen, photographers, that aggressive omnipresence of government officials on social networks is not a good thing.
The extensive production of video and photo materials, and journalistic texts (such as those for the Prime Minister’s graduation), the government participates additionally in the destruction of the newsrooms and deliberately abuses the fragility of the media which lack staff, resources and standards to impose their own populist agenda, but also because of them, the media are not interested in employing photographers and cameramen because, of course, the government does that”, says Cvetkovska.
Officials still too fragile for criticism
After power shifted, the Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has repeatedly stated on several occasions that media and journalists should criticize the work of the government and watch the officials’ actions vigilantly. However, certain officials seem to disagree with this message and their reactions resemble the reactions of the previous government, especially when they react strongly to the criticism addressed to them.
Tamara Chausidis, president of the trade union of journalists, told PINA that public discourse has seen changes in terms of freedom of speech and there is some sort of relaxation with regard to topics, especially when compared to the previous ruling set.
“Institutions strive to be more transparent, that is a fact, the number of taboo topics is lower, propaganda is voluntary, not imposed. Regarding the atmosphere in the newsrooms – not much has changed. People remain in an economic and social cramp with fixed-term contracts, threats of layoffs, pay cuts, etc. But now, we cannot blame the government directly for this because we have no evidence”, says Chausidis.
As to whether journalists have complained in the Union so far regarding pressure, influence or threats at work after the power has shifted, she says that when it comes to pressure from the authorities, a very important part of the equation is – the integrity of the media outlet and its leadership.
“The problem is that in the first echelons of the media, there are often people who have been taught to submissiveness, and often voluntarily, without being asked, they assume what the government wouldn’t like to hear or read. According to our findings, where the management has integrity, the threats and calls ended right there, and the media outlets faced no repercussions. When it comes to officials, I would like to mention the names of Deputy Prime Minister Kocho Angjushev and Secretary General Dragi Rashkovski. It’s a matter of pressure in the form of calls, inappropriate messages and comments addressed to journalists about questions, critical texts, and even innocuous headlines that someone finds problematic. Generally, I have an impression that the authorities are hypersensitive to criticism. They are very sensitive, but that does not have to be so bad as long as it results in improved practices. I would like to highlight the cases of pressure from business strongmen or people who perceive themselves as such. This is the case with the colleague Lupevska from Telma and colleague Petreski from Alsat M. These two cases that have become public, illustrate the attitude towards journalists and journalistic teams that must be changed urgently”, Chausidis said.
We talked to several other journalists working at well-known media outlets and TV stations, who told us their points of view on media freedom, but asked to remain anonymous, which is also a certain indicator of the atmosphere in the media. They all emphasized that the media and journalists are not yet freed from political pressure and influence. One of them also pointed out the influence on the editors by the government, which may be in a more concealed form, but is noticed by monitoring the ether.
‘On the one hand, in case where an official appears several times in shows aired by the same media outlet within a month and talks about slightly trivial topics, it indicates some kind of a connection between the editor and that particular person, while on the other hand you have media outlets who cannot reach that particular official in spite of the numerous open invitations they have received”, a journalist from a TV station said.
A journalist in another media outlet, who worked for a well-known TV station until recently, also points out the links between editors as well as other influential people in the media and various government employees as problematic.
“After power has shifted, some editors in that TV station try to distort the truth and create the journalistic articles, but I do not think that this is a consequence of the actions of the government, but of personal interests”, she says.
According to her, in the first few months after the incumbent government assumed office, there have been cases where several former journalists (now employed in the Government’s PR office) have called the journalists and on the pretext that they “are colleagues”, asked that certain information not be published. She says that after seeing that it doesn’t work, such requests have ceased. The media are still struggling with poor working conditions for journalists and media workers, low wages and poor job contracts, which also affect the work of journalists’ independence and freedom.
The Government: No one has the right to threaten media workers
To comment on the pressures of certain officials, as well as whether officials threatening or pressuring journalists should be held responsible for their actions and resign, the Government says they have condemned all attacks and believe that no one has the right to threaten the media workers and to hinder them while carrying out their work. They say they encourage all journalists who face any form of pressure to report it to the responsible institutions that are obligated to act.
“The Government believes that no one has the right to threaten and exert pressure on another citizen of Macedonia regardless of the profession and the work obligations, and regardless of someone’s background. Responsibility for the manner of conduct is stipulated in the legal regulations and it also has an ethical point of view bearing in mind the general public as a corrector of the conduct of certain individuals. We point out that there every public official will always be held responsible in cases of inappropriate violent behavior” the Government told PINA.
Media reforms have not been implemented yet
The urgent reform priorities regarding the media outlined in Reinhard Priebe’s report as of June 2015 are only partially fulfilled. The reforms in the public broadcasting service, the resolution of the government advertising, the obstacles to access to information, and defamation and insult when then pointed out as main priorities.
The latest report by Media Observatorium has concluded that despite the efforts of the Government to build partnerships with associations and the civil sector in the sphere of the media, that sphere is not yet freed from institutional or personal influence due to the sluggish passing of amendments by the Parliament. ‘Started but Unfulfilled’ is the assessment regarding the public service reforms, as per Government’s advertising that was abolished was assessed as ‘Partially fulfilled’ because it did not provide detailed explanations for a series of specifics for ensuring full transparency and accountability through the publishing of rulebooks, procedures, or protocols. The third pillar of the media reforms, access to information, is also assessed as ‘Partially fulfilled’ due to the unchanged state of play regarding the amendments to the Law on Access to Public Information. The section of defamation and insult has the poorest assessment, “Fully unfulfilled”, because the report concludes that there are no changes and shifts during monitoring and reporting period: no initiative has been taken to revise the Law on Civil Liability for Defamation and Insult, and the Government has not started the coordination with the experts in this regard.
In Priebe’s renewed report of 2017, recommendations are again made to address systemic problems in the media. It emphasizes that the Government should ensure that media reforms are part of the overall strategy, be well-planned, research-based and credible, timely and transparent consultations with all stakeholders, both public and private, without discrimination and their contributions to be taken seriously into account.
“Investigations of attacks against any journalist should be prioritized and concluded speedily. To improve the role of media in holding the state accountable, investigative journalism should be encouraged and enabled by public institutions and media outlets. To improve the performance of the public broadcaster MRT: Adequate resources immediately to strengthen its independence further and ensure effective operations and management. Legislative amendments or policies must ensure that MRT is fully transparent and accountable to all its stakeholders; engages with all relevant stakeholders actively and ensures that all citizens despite political opinion, sex, age, disability, etc… believe that MRT is their public broadcaster and not an instrument for political parties or others”, the report says.
The text is made within the framework of the project “Media Reform Observatory”, implemented by the Foundation for Internet and Society Metamorphosis, “Agora” Center for Promoting Civil Values and the Platform for Investigative Journalism and Analyzes – PINA, with the financial support of the “Foundation Open” Society – Macedonia “. The content of the text is the sole responsibility of the authors and can in no way be considered to reflect the views of the “Open Society Foundation – Macedonia”.