Political developments put media reform on the backburner
Recent political developments have affected the implementation of the reforms in the area of freedom of expression in Macedonia. The focus of government institutions on overcoming political obstacles to joining NATO and the EU had put most other reforms on the backburner, ifex.org reports.
The political tension in the Republic of Macedonia has increased in recent months ahead of the referendum, scheduled for 30 September 2018, which will enable the voters to express their opinion on the agreement signed with Greece in June in order to solve the long-standing name dispute. Fulfilment of the agreement includes change of the name of the country to “Republic of North Macedonia,” which is a precondition for lifting the Greek veto that had been preventing Macedonia from joining NATO and the EU. Joining these alliances had been a long-term strategic goal of the country, in particular as a safeguard against internal and regional security threats.
Civil society organizations dealing with media had warned that changes to the electoral code made in July 2018, ahead of the crucial September referendum on NATO and EU accession, would re-introduce government-funded advertising in the media, which was abolished as one of the first steps of the overall long-term reform process.
In order to fulfill the conditions for accession to the European Union, Macedonia is required to continue the process of institutional changes, based on the Urgent Reform Priorities set by the EU in 2016. The URP include re-examining of the legal framework affecting freedom of expression. The four key urgent reform priorities area in the field of media and freedom of expression include:
1. Reform of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in order to ensure its independence and increase the quality of its reporting and overall content production.
2. Establishing mechanisms for transparency and accountability with regard to government advertising.
3. Addressing the main obstacles which journalists face in obtaining access to information of public interest.
4. Revising the legal and procedural rules related to defamation, and promotion of self-regulation and arbitration as alternative to court actions.
The pace of these reforms, which started in June 2017, when the new, pro-EU and pro-NATO government came into power, has been uneven and incomplete. According to the most recent periodical report by the Observatory of Media Reforms (OMR), a monitoring project by IFEX member Metamorphosis, most of the reforms had been only “partially fulfilled,” and some, like defamation legislation, has not been tackled at all.
Reform of the PBS at a standstill
The reform of the PBS Macedonian Radio and Television is related to a wider reform of several so-called ‘media laws’ (Law on media, Law on audio and audiovisual media services, etc.) which also affect the composition and the mandate of governing bodies of the PBS and of regulatory institutions, in particular the Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services. While the government has started the process of changing these laws, by the summer of 2018 it has come to a standstill due to complex set of influences. The government mainly has been pointing to filibustering by the parliamentary opposition as key obstacle, blaming the former ruling party for attempting to keep in office the members of governing bodies appointed by them. However, civil society has stressed the need to build public consensus on the final form of these laws in order to prevent setting legal loopholes which would enable the executive to exert undue power.
Meanwhile, the situation in the PBS has been deteriorating, as it has been failing in its basic task to strengthen the cohesion of the society by providing unbiased information catering to the needs of all citizens, including various ethnic communities. Research by the OMR revealed a severe lack of capacities, both financial and technical, including human resources.