Cautious signs of improvements in respect for freedom of association
As covered in the last update on the CIVICUS Monitor, many in civil society welcomed the end of Macedonia's political crisis and the formation of a new coalition government. In this update, CIVICUS Monitor research partner - Balkan Civil Society Development Network (BCSDN) - provides details on the still early and cautious signs for improvement in the situation for civic space in Macedonia.
As previously featured on the CIVICUS Monitor, the continued and unwarranted harassment of civil society organisations (CSOs) in receipt of foreign funds has stymied the operation of independent civil society since 2016. In particular, the unwarranted, multiple financial inspections of twenty-one CSOs affiliated with Open Society Foundation has been described as an "unprecedented attack" on civic space. After months of uncertainty as to which arm of the government was behind the harrassment, CSOs recently learnt that the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption had ordered the inspections.
At a press conference on 4th June 2017, the twenty-one affected CSOs demanded that the authorities clarify and revise the grounds on which they can inspect CSOs. They also called upon the new government to conduct an impartial inquiry into the unjustified political pressure placed on civil society under the previous government, declaring that:
"...anti-corruption officials and state bodies have ways of checking if funds are questionable and do not need to harass organisations. Anti-corruption bodies just need to take data from the Central Registry or the Public Revenue Office where all projects are recorded to check the work, rather than initiating months of controls that cost money, organisations and citizens".
As reported on the most recent Monitor update on Macedonia, the recent change in government has been lauded by many as an opportunity to ease the restrictions on independent civic groups put in place during the previous government. However, pseudo civil society groups affiliated with the former ruling party, VMRO-DPMNE, have become even more prolific. On 23rd May 2017, VMRO-DPMNE announced the granting of 800,000 EUR of financial state support to twenty-eight newly-formed CSOs, many of which are openly affiliated with the party. However, on 22nd June 2017, the new coalition government quickly reversed the previous government's decision, thereby preventing the distribution of the allocated funds.
ВЛАДАТА ЈА ЗАПРЕ РАСПРЕДЕЛБАТА НА 850-ТЕ ИЛЈАДИ ЕВРА ШТО ГИ ПОТПИША ТОДОРОВ ЗА ДЕСОРОСОИЗАЦИЈА https://t.co/2oXMB5I2Nf— Sakam da Kazam (@SDKsakamdakazam) June 22, 2017
On 5th July 2017, the new coalition government unveiled a policy directive called "Plan 3-6-9", which paves the way for future membership in the European Union. The Plan, based on recommendations from civic groups in 2016, aims to foster democratic reforms, while also creating a more positive and enabling environment for a robust civil society.
Similarly, space for civil society to provide input on policies are reportedly increasing. A recent series of consultations with CSOs on key ministerial portfolios, such as the Minister of Health, Minister of Information Society and Administration and Minister of Labour and Social Policy, has enabled civil society to have a voice on key issues in Macedonia.
While freedom of association seems to be better protected under the new government, journalists and media activists have been threatened, harassed and even physically attacked in Macedonia. On 7th June 2017, the editor-in-chief of the Albanian language news website Portalb, Elida Zylbeari, was threatened by unidentified individuals after publishing an article on alleged misconduct by a politician affiliated with the Democratic Union for Integration Party. In the article, Zylbeari reported on previous allegations of misconduct by Blerim Bexheti during his time as Mayor of Saraj. Reports indicate that the authorities have opened an investigation into the case.
In a separate incident that also took place on 7th June 2017, a television camera crew was attacked while filming in Shtip. The altercation took place after the crew from 24 Vesti Television was approached by an individual who initially introduced himself as security personnel, but who quickly became hostile. After verbally threatening the crew, the perpetrator then attacked the journalists and attempted to break their equipment. The media outlet has reported on the controversial extension of a shopping centre in the city, which is widely thought to have caused the confrontation.
In a statement, the Association of Journalists in Macedonia (ZNM) claimed that this attack and the harassment of Elida Zylbeari are indicative of an environment in which aggression is frequently used to silence journalists. ZNM declared:
"These kind of attacks and threats are show that the violators that used to attack journalists are not discouraged by the change of the government in Macedonia. We call on the new Minister of Interior Oliver Spasovski immediately to identify and to raise charges against the attackers".
While there are no reports of any injuries during the incident, the attack was later reported to police.
ZNM has been particularly vocal about the continued threats against critics of former ruling party VMRO-DPMNE. In another example of threats faced by journalists, on 16th June 2017 prominent journalist and critic of VMRO-DPMNE, Branko Trichkovski, received a death threat online from actor Toni Mihajlovski. The actor used Facebook to tell followers that he would kill Trichkovski "without blinking an eye". Trichkovski has previously suffered harassment and intimidation at the hands of activists affiliated with the former ruling party, and as previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, he was accosted at his home in March. ZNM swiftly condemned the attack and urged authorities to investigate the incident immediately.
Finally, in a positive development, the government announced that there have been ongoing public hearings on changes to the Law on Media, which have been broadly welcomed by journalists and media outlets.
From May to July 2017, a number of peaceful protests have taken place in Macedonia without any reports of violence or distuption. Here some examples of recent peaceful assemblies:
- Vizbegovo residents and Gorno Orizari residents protested a non-functional water supply system that has caused issues for their communities during the hot summer;
- Teachers and employees of local educational institutions protested in Bogovinje after 500 people received no salaries for two months;
- Karposh municipality residents protested against plans to urbanise green spaces in Taftalidze;
- Residents in Butel protested against the extension of a boulevard that will take up parking spaces;
- Aerodrom municipality residents protested against the mayor’s decisions on developing the local area;
- After successfully protesting against a landfill site, Struga residents mobilised to determine a long-term solution to the area's waste management problem;
- VMRO-DPMNE supporters protested outside the Criminal Court while there was a hearing on the prosecution of former VMRO-DPMNE officials;
- Factory workers in Kolska protested to demand the payment of their salaries for the past six months;
- 11 Oktomvri Evrokompozit workers protested over the payment of ten unpaid salaries as well as coverage of the pension and health insurance that has not been paid since 2012;
- Farmers in Prilep blocked a road by throwing peaches on the floor in protest against low peach prices;
- The initiative 5 to 12 protested by putting tents up opposite the parliament building to demand institutional reforms for improving the lives of children with special needs;
- Activists of the bicycle initiative "NaTochak" protested against cars using bike lanes; and
- Bosniak Cultural Community of Macedonia marched on the occasion of the 22nd anniversary of the genocide against Bosniaks in Srebrenica.