Foundation Open Society Macedonia: "Civil Society Under Unprecedented Attack"

As previously reported in updates on the CIVICUS Monitor, the situation for foreign-funded CSOs in Macedonia has rapidly deteriorated in recent months. Unwarranted financial inspections of civil society groups, slurs against CSOs, and heightened ethnic tensions have contributed to an environment wherein civil society affiliated with the Open Society Foundation (OSF) and American-Hungarian billionaire George Soros have faced backlash from the Macedonian authorities. The CIVICUS Monitor recently spoke to Ms. Fani Karanfilova-Panovska, the Executive Director of Foundation Open Society Macedonia (FOSM), to learn more about the closing space for Macedonian civil society. 

*The audio interview below has been edited for length.*  

Association

The Macedonian authorities' harassment of CSOs affiliated with OSF has intensified in recent months. The Public Revenue Office's financial inspections of CSOs have continued in an increasingly hostile environment for foreign-funded CSOs. A number of other worrying developments also illustrate the decline in respect for civic freedoms:

  • On 18th January 2017, a new initiative Stop Operation Soros (SOS) was launched to counter the influence of George Soros in Macedonia. On 4th February 2017, SOS held a press conference on the alleged amount of funds that some CSOs have received from Open Society Foundation Macedonia. The allegations also include CSOs’ funds from financial operations in 2016. Many doubt the accuracy of these figures, as CSOs have yet to submit financial reports from 2016 to the relevant authorities.
  • Movement Tvrdokorni (Hard liners) and Ilinden 4: Civic Initiative for Common Macedonia were organised to promote pro-government sentiments through protests. Many view these new initiative groups as evidence of the authorities' attempts to use civic movements to intimidate independent civil society groups that are critical of the government.    
  • In addition to protest movements, two new pro-government CSOs have been registered: the Association National Front – Prilep Municipality and Foundation Macedonian Heritage Todor Aleksandrov. These new groups come at a time when independent groups, particularly those in receipt of foreign funding are facing continued harassment from Macedonian authorities. 
  • In an interview for a pro-governmental web portal, former Macedonian Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, warned CSOs to be prepared for a "final showdown". Gruevski's comments come after several members of the political party VMRO-DPMNE repeatedly accused CSOs affiliated with Open Society Foundations of attempting to destabilise Macedonia.  

Expression

The CIVICUS Monitor has also previously reported on the closing space for independent journalism in Macedonia. A number of recent attacks against journalists illustrate the deteriorating situation for freedom of expression. 

On 28th February 2017, two reporters from the news agency A1on.mk were attacked while covering a protest in Skopje. Camera operator, Vladimir Zelcevski, and journalist, Aleksandar Todevski, were beaten while attempting to report on a demonstration coordinated by the pro-government civic initiative For United Macedonia. In a protest that demonstrates the heightened ethnic tensions in Macedonia, protesters chanted anti-Albanian slogans and marched in support of a united Macedonia. While several people were later arrested in connection with the attack against Zelcevski and Todevski, many worry that the attack is indicative of a growing threat against journalists in Macedonia. In an interview, Naser Selmani, head of the Journalists' Association of Macedonia, contextualised the attack, stating

“This is a culmination of events over the past four years. The government of [VMRO-DPMNE leader and former PM] Nikola Gruevski is coordinating attacks on journalists in order to prevent objective reporting about events in Macedonia".

In a separate incident on 2nd March 2017, journalist Borjan Jovanovski was attacked by unknown assailants while having lunch in a restaurant. After confronting Jovanovski and calling him a "traitor", one of the perpetrators spat in his face. As a testament to the increasing brazenness of attacks against journalists in Macedonia, the attack was filmed and later uploaded on social media by one of the assailants. In an interview, Jovanovski claimed he was threatened due to his criticism of the government. He attributed the attack to the government's carefully orchestrated campaign of animosity towards investigative journalists. Jovanovski also believes it was condoned by a high-ranking VMRO-DPMNE party official. 

In another example of the threats faced by journalists in Macedonia, two hooded and unidentified persons recently harassed a journalist at his home. On 1st March 2017, journalist Branko Trichkovski was verbally attacked by two young persons who shouted at him after he opened his door, "Trichkovski, you should be ashamed. Traitor!” The journalist reacted by simply shutting his door. 

On 10th March 2017, a journalist from 24 Vesti was attacked at a pro-government protest. The reporter was hit on the head with a flag pole, and though the violence did not escalate, some fear that aggression against journalists is growing in Macedonia. 

While allegations of wiretapping in Macedonia are still being investigated, the Special Prosecutor’s Office recently revealed the existence of an additional 66,909 wiretapped conversations that had been deleted. Many civil society leaders are among those who were targeted and put under surveillance by the authorities.  

Peaceful Assembly

Numerous protests have taken place in Macedonia over the last few months. While several protests led to attacks on journalists, others have been peaceful. Below are some examples of recent protests in Macedonia: 

  • Tetovo residents protested against ceiling-high electricity bills
  • Citizens protested against the Energy Regulatory Commission’s attempts to charge citizens who do not use its heating; 
  • Employees of Yugohrom Factory, which was recently shut down due to air-pollution issues, protested over what they believe to be an unjustified closure of the factory; 
  • Employees in the largest media publishing company, Media Print Macedonia (MPM), started a strike over unpaid wages; 
  • Kumanovo residents protested to demand justice for Almir – a boy who was intentionally hit by a car, while a court proceeding was taking place; 
  • VMRO-DPMNE political party members protested outside the Ohrid municipal police station, as they had been summoned for questioning by the Special Prosecutor's Office; 
  • High school students in Ohrid protested to demand unity in Macedonia; 
  • Parents of Prilep high school students protested when the school's director gave a speech encouraging students to participate in pro-government protests;
  • The pro-government movement Ilinden 4: Civic Initiative for Common Macedonia held numerous protests to reject the platform offered by the four Albanian political parties as a condition for forming the government after the parliamentary elections in December 2016. Those protests took place in Skopje and later spread to 33 other cities and 8 villages.