Vanhoutte: Reforms in the media will survive only if there is political will


Further significant progress can be achieved in a few years, provided that the government, especially the relevant minister, remain involved in supporting a free and professional media environment – said the Belgian expert in an interview withTruthmeter.mk and Meta.mk.

Peter Vanhoutte, the mediator in the talks between political parties during the process of reaching the Przino Agreement, recently visited Macedonia for the second time since completing his mission in 2016.

He was here once in June, 2017 when he was invited by the AJM, immediately after the appointment of the new Government, and now as part of the team that supported the workshop to implement the Urgent Reform Priorities, organized by the Government and initiated by the Republican Institute from the United States. We used the opportunity to talk with Vanhoutte about the reform process in Macedonia, focusing primarily on media reform.

You have been out of Macedonia for some time. Being aware of the situation in the media during your stay and involvement in the media reforms, can you see an improvement? If yes, in what sectors: MRTV, print, legislature…?

When I left a few years ago, the situation of media was very bad, mainly because it was completely controlled by the Government. Today, we see there is improvement. The overall atmosphere, including in the media, is much more relaxed. The new Media Law certainly can contribute to additional progress. However, there still is a lot of work to do. The new law is still too much written from the perspective, that if you don’t obey, you need to be fined or punished. Such restrictive approach is not good. Instead we have to invest much more energy in empowering media, including media owners and journalists, to do what is right. Fines and punishments should be replaced by mediation. If there is a problem, one needs to talk and to agree on compromise solutions. I believe this is feasible and should be part of a truly professional media environment.

The situation of the print media remains problematic, as is the case all over the world, because of the transition to electronic media. However, there are probably too many print media in Macedonia to be viable. Subsidizing print media therefore is not a good idea, but one has to accept that we will need less, but profitable print media in the near future.

The situation of MRTV remains also complicated. MRTV urgently needs a solid reform plan, including the complete modernization of the broadcaster, with younger employees and probably less, with up to date equipment and a clear vision about its role in today’s society. The political control established by law can be an advantage, but in reality is often counterproductive – politics first instead of media first.

MRTV needs a new plan, a financial plan

Does the new proposed Law on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services can guarantee, be a solid base for the reforms at the public broadcaster? If not, what else should be done to eliminate potential obstacles for successful PBS reforms?

The new Law on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services certainly provides a good starting point for reforms of the public broadcaster. However, two key issues remain: the funding of the broadcaster and the appointment of members for the program council. For funding to be effective, it is necessary to first agree on a solid strategic plan as well as a financial plan on how to modernize and reform the public broadcaster. Funding needs to be based on this financial plan. The selection procedure for members of the program council contains some good elements, as is the case for the regulatory media agency. The weak point remains however the selection process by the Assembly. This process is not really effective, unless parliament establishes first a professional and independent selection process prior to a final (political) decision about the members of the Council. Only if one can chose between several equally competent candidates, there will be a guarantee for a less politicized Council. The best option would be to establish a highly professional independent select body, doing the selections for the whole civil service, including people to be appointed by parliament. And as a rule, appointments by parliament should be restricted to the absolute minimum.

Do you have examples on successful public broadcasters’ reforms in multicultural society as ours?

It is difficult to find comparable examples of successful reforms of public broadcasters, given the specific context of individual countries. It might however be interesting to study the Belgian way the public broadcasters are organized, funded and controlled by parliament, while at the same time their independence is guaranteed. Politicians are never allowed to interfere in any way in the work of the broadcaster, but have to ensure that, based on a well defined long term vision, the public broadcasters remain the front-runners of public communication.

Do you think that significant progress can be achieved, and in what time frame?

Further significant progress can be achieved in a few years, on condition that the Government and in particular the relevant Minister, remain engaged in supporting a free and professional media environment. The way the current Minister for Media conducts an open dialogue with media is an excellent opportunity for change. On the side of the journalists, it is however important to consider the introduction of a system of accreditation for journalists as it does exist elsewhere in Europe. Such system, including press cards, should be entirely managed by the media themselves. It would serve as a good protection for journalists as they can identify themselves when needed but should also be considered a guarantee that journalists with a press card are true professionals, even in relation to the editors. In case a journalist is not respecting the basic standards of professional journalism, the press card could be revoked either temporarily or permanent. A professional body, such as the ethics council could decide on such measures when needed. The introduction of an accreditation system would allow journalists of internet portals to be recognized as professionals as well.

What is your feeling about overall reform process in Macedonia, regarding Priebe Report 1 and 2 and all questions have been raised during Przino process and your mediation…

There has been progress concerning the reform process. However, in some key areas, this still is insufficient. The judicial reform remains highly problematic. I believe there is a need to first of all replace certain members of the Judicial Council and to start a thorough review process of the whole system, including an evaluation of all judges. And in the end, we all have to accept that people will be fired, if they are not acting as true professionals. That is the only way to move forward. Let’s however not forget that, regardless the importance of the reform priorities, the real priorities of the citizens today are elsewhere. It is about the right on well-being and welfare, a prosperous economy, a clean environment, a professional education system and a healthcare system which is accessible to all.

You are back in Skopje – doing what?

I was back in Skopje in recent weeks to support a workshop on the implementation of the urgent reform priorities by the Government, an initiative by the International Republican Institute (IRI), which proved to be very useful. In addition, together with some of my contacts in Macedonia, we have been looking into ways to further stabilize the situation, also at a more regional level. A lot of work remains to be done, with a focus on economic development, healthcare and education, which are the real urgent priorities for all the citizens.

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