Macedonia's civic space roundup

Association

OCTOBER - NOVEMBER

CSOs raised the alarm over proposed changes to the Law on Personal Income which will negatively affect the work of civil society, especially youth NGOs, with the re-introduction of taxes on accommodation, food and travel costs for each participant at events longer than 5 days. This controversial article was removed from the Law with the change of government only a year and a half ago, prompting concern from civil society over the u-turn. 

Despite the change in Macedonia's government, there are still cases of the opposition and pro-opposition media slandering CSOs. 16 CSOs from the Sustainability Platform for HIV Prevention and Support Services strongly reacted to an article published by the portal lider.com.mk, titled “Bizarre: The Government is financing procurement of lubricants” by claiming it is filled with misinformation, as well as party-politically motivated and stigmatising language. Namely, in an effort to stigmatise both the LGBT community and civil society in Macedonia, the article accuses the platform on a baseless allegation of financial misappropriation of funds. In particular it states that:  

“The procurement is done by an NGO that is unknown to the wider public, and with the money it has received from the government it will 'lubricate' homosexuals and lesbians from Skopje.” 

The platform claims this is a mischaracterisation of their work. The group has been implementing HIV programmes since 2008.

CSOs continued to cooperate with the government through policy-drafting, consultations and sharing of expertise, specifically in the process of European negotiation and  monitoring of the implementation of the reform Plan 18. Positively, officials also regularly emphasised the importance of this cooperation and the need for continuous civil dialogue at the local level. 

DECEMBER - JANUARY

After the reaction of over 80 CSOs on the changes in to the Law on Personal Income, the Government Assembly adopted several important amendments proposed by civil society, exempting civic associations from paying tax on costs related to the organisation of CSOs’ events. In addition, the amount paid to interns that is exempt from tax has increased, with the intention to stimulate internships, and tax exemptions were introduced for travel costs to promote educational activities abroad. The Law on Profit Tax was also amended to clarify tax exemption provisions supportive of work of civil society.

FEBRUARY – MARCH

A decision of the Ministry of Culture for funding projects of national interest in the field of culture prompted strong reactions by the public. In particular, they criticised the “ scandalous decision” that the Ministry did not support renowned artists, organisations and projects with longstanding history, but instead granted large amounts of money to anonymous, newly formed associations. After widespread negative criticism, the Ministry revised its decision, but many organisations and artists still note bias in the distribution of finances based on political affiliation.

MARCH - MAY

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Radmila Sekerinska reported that the attack on civil society organisations by the former government led by Nikola Gruevski was unjustified. As reported by the  CIVICUS Monitor at the time, the previous ruling party organised a campaign of "desorosization" against critical CSOs through repeated financial inspections. The financial police closed the ongoing investigations and reported to the public that no legal provision was breached and investigation found no evidence of wrong-doing. This was considered a victory by the groups targeted by the previous regime, whose functioning has been under threat with the interference of the "desorosoization" campaign by Gruevski.

Expression

OCTOBER - NOVEMBER

As previously covered by the  CIVICUS Monitor, proposed controversial amendments to the Electoral Code around the referendum, raised concerns among media associations in Macedonia. The amendments enable political propaganda and state interference in media freedom. After a statement by the Council of Europe, the Government responded in writing and pledged to consider the concerns of the journalistic community. Despite this pledge to heed the calls of journalists in Macedonia, two months later, the disputed article regarding financing the political propaganda of parties during the election campaign had yet to be removed.

There were also several recorded cases of threats and harassment against journalists. On 19th October 2019, the European Federation of Journalists raised the alarm over the opposition party VMRO-DPMNE using measures to intimidate the media. The issue was raised after a journalist was put under unacceptable pressure to reveal her sources. The maintenance of anonymity for sources is essential for investigative reporting and the intimidating tactics were broadly condemned by the journalistic community. 

The legal framework for hate speech in Macedonia was also placed under the spotlight. In particular, a campaign by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights highlighted the inadequate protections for minority communities. In the past decade, in reported cases, for which there have been no court rulings or fines related to ethnicity, political affiliation or sexual orientation and gender identity. In a statement, the group said: 

"The legal framework for recognising and sanctioning hate speech is not precise and does not provide a clear framework for defining and encompassing hate speech, thereby creating no conditions for the development of case law. There is also a lack of public awareness for recognising hate speech and preventing it in public spaces.”

The group called on authorities in Macedonia to institute stronger regulations and engage in public awareness campaigns to educate the public to recognise hate speech. 

DECEMBER - JANUARY

On 20th January 2019, the  Journalist Association of Macedonia (ZNM) strongly condemned the verbal death threats made by the construction businessman Zoran Azmanov against 1TV editor, Aco Kabranov. The incident started after Kabranov was involved in the TV programme Macedonian Insider, which conducted an exposé into corruption between powerful construction tycoons and Macedonian public officials. The programme implicated Kabranov in shady dealings with Macedonian authorities. In response, Azmanov first attempted to block the programme's airing and then threatened 1TV staff. Azmanov is reported to have sent a text message to Kabranov saying: 

“I’m going to kill you all, and then kill myself.”

In a separate incident, a Kanal5 TV journalist, Mirjana Mirchevska-Jovanovic, suffered injuries after she was attacked during a religious celebration in Skopje. The journalist was insulted, pushed and dragged by employees of the private security agency, NIKOB, who were hired by the Macedonian Orthodox Church. Both incidents were condemned by the journalists, media associations and bodies, as well as by the ruling and the opposition political parties, who called for urgent investigation and appropriate sanctions. Police later opened an investigation into the incident. 

According to the Reporters Without Borders latest report, published in December 2018, the fall of the Gruevski government in 2017 led to a decrease in the government control over the media. While this is positive, it is still too soon to be sure whether the current government intends to make broader changes which create an environment where independent outlets can flourish. Another report by the Journalist Association of Macedonia (ZNM) confirmed the lack of progress regarding the legal framework governing freedom of expression. These include amendments to the Law on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services, the Law on Defamation and the Law on Free Access to Public Information, which have not been adopted by the assembly. Amendments to these laws where viewed as essential to promote and protect plurality of media opinion. 

In another positive development, related to access to public information, the Government promoted the new Open Data Portal of the state and local institutions, to be used by citizens, CSOs and the business sector. The portal aims to increase the transparency of the institutions, improve their services and the efficiency of the public sector by including citizens and CSOs in policy-making.

FEBRUARY – MARCH

The Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services condemned the conduct of the son of the owner of 1TV, Bojan Jovanovski, who verbally threatened a journalist of the Makfax agency Meri Jordanovska for her public criticism of Macedonian Insider aired by the network. Using his Facebook account, Jovanovski wrote “one day he might be her boss, so she should quieten down a bit”. The statement was met with outrage from the journalistic community in Macedonia. According to the Agency, any kind of pressure or threat on journalists by persons in managerial positions or close to them is a threat to and violation of the freedom of expression and information, which could lead to self-censorship.

MARCH - MAY 

On 17th April 2019, local government officials in the town of Aracinovo near the capital Skopje harassed a reporter and camera operator from the TV21 television station. The journalists were in Aracinovo to report on complaints about local infrastructure. During their visit  they met with four local officials to request an interview with the mayor. The situation quickly took a turn for the worse. The staffers demanded that the journalists erase the footage of the interviews, and on their refusal, the journalists were locked in a room in the municipal building and then forced into a vehicle and driven to the television’s headquarters in Skopje. The mayor, later condemned the attack by the staffers as did the Association of Journalists of North Macedonia.

On 9th May 2019, a government report concluded that the national television had  failed to fulfil professional and ethical journalistic standards for editorial independence, impartiality and objectivity as underlined by the article 111 of the Law for audio and audiovisual media services. The report has backed suspicions over the public service's partiality, a perception reinforced by Reporters Without Borders, who remained concerned over the lack of reforms to the public broadcaster. While improving North Macedonia’s ranking from 109 to 95th on the list, the report by the international organisation also noted that a culture of impunity for attacks against journalists remains a problem in the country. In fact, just two out of 59 documented attacks on journalists were brought to justice over the last year. 

Peaceful Assembly

OCTOBER - NOVEMBER

During October and November, anti-government protests were held after the Government announced changes to the Constitution and the country’s constitutional name. The proposals would change Macedonia's name to the Republic of North Macedonia. The leftist party Levica protested “to return the kidnapped sovereignty of the people”; the association “Revolution” (Prerodba) held protests and blockages in front of the Assembly against “pressure, threats, blackmail, repression and destruction of the Macedonian people and the Macedonian state” and the organisation “Tvrdokorni” organised a civic resistance movement dubbed “Movement for getting Macedonia back to the Macedonians”. Under the slogan “Macedonia Blocks”, 84 organisations (political parties, NGOs, civil initiatives from the country and the diaspora) signed aStrategic Cooperation Charter that envisions the establishment of the Crisis Headquarters against the change to the Constitution, demanding dissolution of the Assembly and early parliamentary elections.

The conviction and sentence of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski to two years in prison, and later his escape to Budapest, triggered conflicting reactions from the public. On 7th November 2018, citizens gathered in front of the Court to support the former Prime Minister. A week later, on 14th November 2018, another group of citizens gathered in front of the Government building to demand political responsibility for the escape of Gruevski to Budapest, where he applied for political asylum. 14 major also NGOs strongly condemned the mistakes and ineffectiveness of the institutions that resulted in his escape, and insisted that urgent and thorough investigations are needed to establish the authorities’ liability for failing to act accordingly.

Several other protests took place on various social and political issues, facilitated by the police with no unwarranted restrictions or major incidents, such as:

  • Several protests were organised via social media due to the lack of concrete results in the fight against air pollution in Skopje, Kumanovo and other cities;
  • Residents of the Aerodrom municipality in Skopje protested against the construction of another high-rise building in the municipality. People gathered to express concern over the environmental impact of building works in the municipality;
  • Citizens in Skopje held a peaceful protest rally to demand better treatment for street animals;
  • Several NGOs organised the 10th March for Tolerance in Skopje, calling on citizens to recognise hate speech and hate crimes.

DECEMBER - JANUARY

Protests against the amendments of the Constitution and the change of the country’s name continued during December and January, led by the initiative Macedonia Blocks (Makedonija Blokira) and Tvrdokorni movement. Protesters set up tents near the Assembly, while the police erected barricades around the building. The ‘protest camp’ remained in front of the Assembly for several weeks. The protests became more intense as the Assembly entered the final phase of the process for adopting the constitutional changes. At the same time, while boycotting the Assembly sessions, the opposition party VMRO DPMNE and their supporters organised several anti-government protests in different cities to “defend the Macedonian people from the economic destruction and national genocide caused by the ruling party.”

On the 11th of January 2019, despite the absence of the major opposition party VMRDO DPMNE, with a two-thirds majority of 81 votes for and none against, the Macedonia’s Parliament passed all constitutional amendments to allow the country's name to be changed to be changed to the Republic of North Macedonia. With the amendments passed, Greece agreed to lift its veto on Macedonia’s hopes of EU membership and joining NATO. On 25th January 2019, Greece also ratified the Prespa Agreement which had negotiated the name change with Macedonia. As the result of the historic agreement, both the Macedonian and Greek PMs were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Several other protests took place on various social issues, facilitated by the police with no unwarranted restrictions or major incidents, such as:

  • Bitola citizens and CSOs protested against the city’s air pollution and decried the lack of Government action on the issue;
  • Tetovo citizens and the organisers “Movement against Casinos”, supported also by religious communities, protested against the many gambling venues in the city. The protests urged authorities to relocate these buildings outside of the city;
  • Sex workers organised the 11th March of the red umbrella, joining the global celebration of the International Day for the End of Violence against Sex Workers.

FEBRUARY – MARCH

For several weeks during January and February, concerned citizens have peacefully protested in the capital due to the alarming levels of air-pollution in Skopje, after the city was ranked the most polluted city in the world. The citizens’ initiative “Cancinogenic Society” gathered citizens, eco-activists and experts in front of the Assembly, asking the Government for urgent and long-tern measures to counter the pollution. Protesters carried banners urging the government to "put a stop to heavy industry." Protesters carried signs saying, "We bought an inhaler instead of a bicycle," "Four people a day die waiting for clean air," etc. Shortly after, 4 CSOs – “The first children's embassy in the world – Megjashi”, “Radar”, “Green Institute” and “Human Rights Reporters” announced a lawsuit against the state and the City of Skopje before domestic and international courts due to the air pollution. The organisations argued that the excessive pollution was a violation of the elementary right to life of children in the country. In March 2019, youth from Skopje joined the global protest against climate-change led by the initiative Fridays For Future.

As months-long advocacy efforts on the Draft Law on Prevention and Protection against Discrimination showed little result, more than 100 CSOs gathered in front of the Parliament and appealed for an urgent session on the Draft Law against discrimination. After being stuck in the legislative process for more than eight months, CSO representatives and activists began protesting outside the building. Finally, on 11th March 2019, the Assembly finally adopted the draft Law.

MARCH - MAY 

The visit of Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras on 2nd April 2019, in the context of the improvement of neighbourly relations after the Prespa Agreement, caused a small protest in front of the government building, staged by patriotic organisations Makedonium and Prerodba. A few dozen protesters demanded a reversal of the name change agreed between Tsipras and Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev in Prespa, claiming the latter “did not have the legitimacy to negotiate on behalf of the Macedonian people”.

A few smaller peaceful protests, most of them in front of the government building in Skopje, occurred in the following period. None of the protests below were reported to have turned violent. 

  • An exception was a demonstration organised by the Confederation of free trade unions in Kumanovo on the 6th April 2019, seeking higher salaries and job security for the workers in the public sector;
  • On 17th April 2019, a hundred workers from the company Eurokompozit demanded that the government to compensate them for 18 months of unpaid salaries after they lost their jobs; 
  • Citizens gathered to claim financial damages from heating companies who charged non-existent expenses continued their four-year struggle at the Triumph Arc on 27th April 2019. 
  • The traditional Labour Day protest that took place in Skopje emphasising workers’ rights saw a few hundred participants mobilise. The protest took place in a peaceful and orderly atmosphere. 
  • Finally, the only notable demonstration taking place in May happened in Ohrid, where a few dozens of local citizens came out in front of the municipality to express concern over the construction of a mosque which would further endanger the city’s status as a UNESCO protected cultural heritage site.